Monday, January 23, 2023

How a Sequel Works with a Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Sequels are the emotional glue holding scenes together.

Before I dive it, I’m over at The Insecure Writer’s Support Group today, chatting about the dangers of empty dialogue. Come on over and check it out!

Now, on to today’s regularly scheduled post…

The sequel trips up a lot of writers, even when they know what it is. The most common problem is thinking it has the same nature (and structure) as a scene, so they try to write it as one.

And it fails.

The pacing flatlines, there’s no goal, and often, writers twist themselves into knots trying to add a goal, motivation, and conflict to a sequel, trying to “make it work.”

You can’t plot with sequels.

Plot is about the old GMC (goal, motivation, conflict), and is designed to move the story forward through this series of actions—that’s a scene.

The sequel is the time and reflection after a scene has occurred. It's not an actual scene, which is why treating it as such doesn't work. A sequel doesn’t have a goal to drive the story. It’s the moment when your character reacts to what's just happened, and makes the decision that does move the story to the next scene.

It also doesn't need to be very long to work, which is another area that trips up writers. For example, the scene might only need a line or two of a sequel, but the writer thinks it has to be the same size as a scene, so they cram a lot of unnecessary information in there.

Sometimes a sequel is one line. Other times it’s several paragraphs or more. It all depends on how much reflection and decision making is needed at that time.

(Here’s more with How to Write Scenes (and What Qualifies as a Scene))

A Closer Look at How Scenes and Sequels Work

I'm going to take a step back and look at the big structure picture here, since it's easier to understand sequels when you see how they work with scenes and story arcs.

Basic scene structure goes something like this:

Protagonist has a goal, is motivated to get that goal, and is facing a conflict to getting that goal. They'll act in way to achieve that goal throughout the scene. They'll either:
  • Get the goal
  • They won't get the goal
  • They'll get the goal but there's a catch
  • They won't get the goal and they make things worse
Scene ends, because the goal has been resolved in some way, good or bad.
Then the protagonist reacts, which is the sequel.
  • They'll have an emotional reaction
  • Think about what they just went through
  • Then try to figure out what to do next
What the protagonist decides to do next is the goal for the next scene, and it starts all over again.

(Here's more with The Difference Between a Sequel and a Scene)

Sequels are important in directing your story, because this is where the protagonist does the decision making.

It shows how the protagonist came to make their decision, and usually shows the conflict they’ll have to face, and the stakes or consequences if they fail.

The emotional state they're in when they make it also determines how readers will feel moving forward. If the protagonist is scared, readers will be too. If the protagonist doesn't much care, readers won't either.

Throughout the novel, you’ll have smaller scene goals that drive a particular scene, and larger goals that drive the entire story.

Larger story arc goals are the big problems your protagonist needs to resolve to achieve a win from a plot standpoint (defeat the big bad guy).

Smaller scene goals are the steps that lead up to the big-goal victories. The protagonist has to resolve X number of problems in order to reach that final Big Problem.

Sequels are the glue that holds those scenes together and reminds readers why this is important in the first place. They tap into the emotional side of the characters and how these problems affect them, those they care about, and the world at large (if applicable).

(Here's more on Oh, Woe Is Me: Strengthening Character Goals)

For funsies, let's see how Bob is doing with those zombies and put this into context.

Let’s say Bob is being chased by a few zombies. The scene starts with him running for his life, and you could say the scene goal is "Bob wants to escape the zombies."

But "escaping" is more of an overall story goal for Bob, as he's been doing this all novel. To resolve the story and win, he needs to find a safe place with no zombie threat. That’s not going to happen now, so we need a smaller-step-goal for the scene.

What does he have to do right now to avoid getting eaten by the zombies currently chasing him?

That specific goal will drive this particular scene. "Bob is trying to get to the motel where his extra shotgun is, so he can escape the zombies by killing them." Bob can't achieve the bigger goal resolution (find a safe zombie-free place) until he achieves this smaller goal (kill these zombies).

This scene will end when Bob gets to his shotgun and one of four things will happen:

1. Bob gets the shotgun and kills the zombies. (He gets his goal)

2. Bob doesn't get the shotgun and the zombies eat him. (He doesn't get his goal)

3. Bob gets the shotgun, but he has no shells and has to find some. (He gets his goal, but there's a catch—which raises the stakes and increases tension)

4. Bob gets the shotgun, but shoots himself in the foot as he aims for the zombies. (He gets his goal, but makes things worse—which again, raises the stakes and increases tension)

Options one and two stop the story cold. There's nothing driving it forward anymore, because no new goal is set. Sure, Bob can think of something else to do, but then why was this scene necessary in the first place if it didn’t change anything for Bob or lead to him doing something because of it?

Option three gives Bob something solid to do that puts him in more danger and moves the story forward with more risk.

Option four makes things worse, raises the stakes, and gives Bob something to do to move the story forward. Bob's had it too easy lately, so let's give him option four. He shoots himself in the foot, but he does take out one zombie in the process.

So what's Bob going to do next? Have a sequel.

This lets him react to what just happened and sets him up to figure out what to do next, which will lead to the next goal.

And remember—sequels don't have to be long. In fact, they're better when they're shorter since there's nothing driving a sequel from a goal or plot perspective.

Bob's sequel could be as short as: "Ow! I'm such a moron. Where's the dang first aid kit? I need to treat this before it attracts more zombies."

He has a reaction (Ow!). He reflects and thinks about his situation (I'm such a moron) and then he makes a decision (it can be implied) that leads to the next goal. (Where's the dang first aid kit? I need to treat this before it attracts more zombies.)

The new scene (or next step in the existing scene) starts with Bob trying to make it to the first aid kit before he gets eaten by more zombies.

Now, if Bob had shot himself at the same time he shot the last zombie, he might have a longer sequel. He might take a few paragraphs or pages and reflect on his situation. How he got into this mess, what he needs to do to get out of it, what is still in his way.

The more important the moment, the longer the sequel tends to be.

Simple steps in the plot usually have shorter sequels, because there’s no need to reflect for a long time.

But major turning points in the plot or character arc tend to have longer sequels, because the emotional impact of what just happened is more profound. The decision made is driving the entire plot to the moment.

Don’t ease up on the tension in a sequel.

With longer sequels, it helps the pacing to add a sense of apprehension or impending doom to keep the story moving while your protagonist figures things out. It’s also a great way to remind or tell readers what’s at stake.

For Bob, the zombie is still actively trying to eat him as he searches for the first aid kit (and likely still tries to kill the zombie), so it keeps the story tense while he reacts to his situation.

(Here's more on The One-Two Punch: Creating Conflict and Raising the Stakes)

Sequels help readers understand why the character is acting as they need to act in the story.

They show what’s going on in the character’s head, how their decision-making process works, and how they solve their problems. Not only do they help connect plot points, they help readers better understand the protagonist and their motivations.

So don’t worry next time you have a sequel that’s only one line. You don’t have to figure out how to turn that into a “scene” to make the story work.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and study one of your problem scenes. Is it really a scene, or is it a sequel? Have you been trying to plot with sequels, and that’s been causing you problems?

Have you ever written a sequel thinking it was a scene? Is this something you struggle with?

*Originally published May 2009. Last updated January 2023.

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Btw, I've been meaning to say. First of all, I love your article titles. They're always so unique. And secondly, I want to thank shorty411 for asking these questions. Your responses are always so informative.

  2. Thanks! I try to make them fun, so I'm glad they're appreciated :)

  3. Thanks ColinF! And of course thank you Janice! You know I'm getting really attached to Bob and our zombie story :) and thank you for the great explanation of sequel. I had read about it in a scene and structure book but didn't know it was a standard term and be also didn't explain it well. This was way clearer and the examples were better and clearer :) so much emphasis is onscrnes but I find these much harder to write so thank you so much Janice! I'm going to head over and check out your website now!

  4. "This scene will end when Bob gets to his shotgun and one of the above four things will happen...."

    Story questions! I teach 'em to my creative writing kids:

    There are four basic answers to 'does the character get what he/she wants?'

    1. Yes
    2. No
    3. Yes, but...
    4. No, and furthermore...

    I also add in the occasional #5 (no, but...)

    Generalization: I'd also offer that scene/sequel ratio tends to be influenced by genre. In a thriller, sequel may well be a few abbreviated sentences most often. In a gothic romance, sequels might go on for pages more than the scene...

  5. Michael: That's a great point. So much of writing is guidelines, and you really do need to study your genre and know the "rules" of them.

  6. Thanks for the post. It really clarified the idea of a "sequel" for me, as I hadn't really understood the scenes/sequels idea until now.

  7. Sbibb, I'm so glad it helped! I had trouble with it for a long time, too. I kept thinking it had to be a long scene with more emotion, hehe.

  8. Great post Janice. This really helped me think about character goals per scene in a different way.

  9. Great post Janice. This really helped me think about character goals per scene in a different way.

  10. Great post Janice. This really helped me think about character goals per scene in a different way.

  11. Janice, this is the best explanation of Scene and Sequel yet. Thank you! I knew I could see it in the clouds, but this article parted them and brought out the sun. Thank you!

    1. Thanks so much! I'm happy it clicked for you and cleared away those clouds :)

  12. Great article, Sensible and thorough. Lol but in some cases I like the aimless middle, but I think that is just me rather than readers in general.

    1. Thanks! LOL, if you like it, enjoy it. We all have our own processes, so whatever works for you, embrace it.