By Jami Gold
We use the terms scene and sequel for so many definitions when it comes to writing that it can be difficult (not to mention confusing) to discuss Dwight Swain’s ideas of “scenes and sequels” (from his Techniques of the Selling Writer). But if we understand his insights, we can take a deeper look at our storytelling:
- Does our story have a good sense of cause and effect?
- Does it feel more proactive than reactive?
- Have we evoked enough emotions in our readers to make our story compelling?
Analyzing our story’s balance of scenes versus sequels can help us answer those questions and fix any issues we find, but first, we must understand Dwight’s ideas well enough to be able to apply them to our writing. Once we understand the differences and purposes of his scenes and sequels, we’ll be able to tell if our story has the “right” balance.
What Are Dwight Swain’s Definitions for “Scenes and Sequels”?
Step One in understanding Dwight’s ideas is to know how he defines scenes and sequels…
His definition of “scene” has nothing to do with the school-type description of an event happening in a specific place or time, or the storytelling definition of a mini-arc that ends with a line break. Instead, Dwight Swain’s idea of a scene focuses on goals, actions, and obstacles:
- Goal: What the protagonist wants at the beginning of the scene.
- Conflict: The obstacles standing in the way.
- Disaster: The outcome, what happens that prevents the protagonist from reaching their Goal.
Likewise, his definition of “sequel” has nothing to do with the next book in a series. Instead, Dwight Swain’s idea of a sequel focuses on character reactions and choices:
- Reaction: How the character reacts to the Disaster.
- Dilemma: The choice the character faces because of the Disaster.
- Decision: What the character decides to do next (new Goal or new attempt to reach old Goal).
In other words, scenes tend to be more plot or action-oriented (proactive), as characters take action to move the story forward. Sequels tend to be more character or reaction-oriented (reactive), as characters absorb and apply the lessons learned and decide “now what?”
What Do They Look Like in Our Story?
When we put those ideas together, our story grows into a cause-and effect chain of a scene (with the Goal, Conflict, Disaster elements) followed by a sequel (with its Reaction, Dilemma, Decision elements). That sequel is then followed by another scene with its Goal prompted by the sequel’s Decision.
In simplistic terms, all that could something like:
She headed into her meeting with her boss, armed with notes for how she planned to get a raise. Or a promotion. Either way, she wanted to come out ahead. (Goal)
“Have a seat, Nancy. I know you wanted to talk with me, but I’m afraid I have some bad news to share first.” (Conflict)
Her boss took a deep breath. “We have to let you go.” (Disaster)
What? No. Her head shook with her unspoken denial. (Reaction)
She couldn’t lose this job. It was her path to everything she wanted. (Dilemma)
No, there had to be another option. She’d make her boss see that. (Decision)
“Is this because of the new direction from corporate? If so, I have a different suggestion…” (new Scene with an adjusted Goal)
Obviously, this example is sparse and lacking in narrative description and transitions. In our story, those steps would usually play out over much longer passages than just the two lines listed for each here, but this example gives us a look at how the progression through the steps works in our writing.
By using scenes and sequels in sequence, we create a cause-and-effect chain that creates narrative drive in our story. Using both also ensures a mix of proactive action and reactive emotion to keep readers engaged.
We Need a Balance of Scenes and Sequels
If we’ve heard the advice to ensure our character is proactive rather than reactive, we might assume that sequels are bad for our story. However, from a reader perspective, our stories are about far more than just “the things that happen.”
Our stories are about emotions, and how our characters react to events shapes how readers emotionally react to our story. If we don’t show our character reacting to setbacks, readers won’t care about those setbacks either.
So from both a character perspective and a reader perspective, sequels are how we tie the straightforward plot events to the emotions of both our character’s internal/emotional arc and to the overall story arc. They’re the heart of our story and absolutely essential.
Think of them this way: Sequels give our story depth, as they’re where we can express the “why” in our story:
- Why should readers care about story events?
- Why is the Goal important to the character?
- Why do their motivations matter to story?
- Why does the setback of the scene’s Disaster matter to the character/story?
- Why should readers root for the character or their Decisions?
The better we show why things matter (whether those “things” are events, goals, etc.) in our story, the more our story will matter to readers, drawing them into our storytelling.
What’s the “Right” Balance of Scenes & Sequels?
All that said, a “good” balance doesn’t mean 50% of our story should be made up of these sequels. In most genres, while the action and narrative of scene might run for several pages or most of a chapter, a sequel might be anywhere between:
- a single sentence or two of a character reacting to a Disaster setback and recommitting to the Goal
- several paragraphs (perhaps even a page or more) of a character debating their options for a new Goal
In other words, the “right” balance is not about the percentages. Instead, it’s about whether the sequels we include:
- create a sense of cause and effect by showing our characters’ reactions and decisions for the next step in the story narrative
- avoid a sense of “navel gazing” or redundancy, such as by ensuring introspection ends in a Decision
- result in the right pacing for our story (longer sequels tend to slow pacing down and vice versa)
- encourage readers to relate to characters through their motivations, emotions, and/or decision-making process
- create our character’s internal arc by exploring the lessons learned (with epiphanies, etc.)
For example, in the sparse example shared above, we could easily flesh out the scene—perhaps adding whole conversations with coworkers wishing our character luck along her way to the boss meeting, for instance—creating a much longer passage. At the same time, we’re more likely to leave the sequel a similar length as given above because that length does the job we need it to, as far as showing a reaction, providing insights into the character, and ending with a trigger for the next scene. However, a bigger turning point or plot event might need a longer sequel to explore all the fallout and changes.
Our story’s context and genre determine the “right” balance. But once we understand scenes and sequels, we’ll be able to fix most non-plot-related problems in our story by improving our use of sequels. Yes, really. *smile*
For more about how to use sequels with our scenes, check out this post on my blog. Do you have any questions or insights about Dwight Swain’s concept of sequels and how the right balance can help our story?
Resident Writing Coach
After muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.
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