Friday, September 25

Taking the Scenic Route: Scenes and Sequels

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A reader asked..
I was wondering if you could go into those scenes that aren't so definitive. For example, sometimes I have scenes I can really visualize because something physical and tangible is happening, but then there's always that time of reflection afterward I have a harder time "seeing" these in my mind's eye which can sometimes make them harder to plan out in scene form, meaning, figuring out the beginning, middle and end, etc. Because, in reality, they're discussing or contemplating whatever disaster has just befallen them. So, I have trouble constructing this into a viable "scene".

That time and reflection afterward is traditionally called a sequel. It's not an actual scene, which is why treating it as such doesn't work. Sequels have no goals to move the story forward. This is the time when your character reacts to what's just happened, and makes a decision that moves the story to the next scene. But they also don't need to be very long to work.

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

Basic scene structure goes something like this:

Protagonist has a 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, or they won't get the goal and they make things worse. Scene ends, because the goal has been resolved in some way.

Then the protagonist reacts. They'll have an emotional reaction, think about what they just went through, and then try to figure out what to do next. This is the sequel.

(Here's more on writing a scene)

What the protagonist decides to do next is the goal for the next scene, and it starts all over again. Sequels are important in directing your story because this is where the protagonist does a lot of decision making. The emotional state they're in when they make it 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.

There are smaller scene goals that drive a particular scene, and there are also larger goals that drive an entire story. Larger story arc goals are usually the big things your protagonist needs to achieve a win from a story standpoint (defeat the big bad guy). Smaller scene goals are the steps that lead up to the big goal victories. Sequels are the glue that holds it all together and remind you why this is all important in the first place.

(Here's more on giving your characters a goal)

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

Bob is being chased by a few zombies. The scene starts with him running, 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 along. To resolve the story and win, he needs to find a safe place with no zombie threat. Right now, he's has something specific in mind to defeat these particular zombies, and that 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)
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)

Options one and two stop the story cold. There's nothing driving it forward anymore, because no new goal is set. 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.

Sequels don't have to be long. In fact, they're better when they're shorter since there's nothing driving a sequel. They will also stop the story cold if left alone too long.

Bob's sequel could be as short as: "Ow! I'm such a moron. Where's the dang first aid kit?"

He has a reaction (ow). He reflects and thinks about his situation (I'm such a moron) and then he makes a decision. (where's the dang first aid kit?) New 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. I've found that with longer sequels, it helps to add a sense of tension or impending doom to keep the story moving while your protagonist has a reflective moment.

But if the zombie is actively trying to eat him, it keeps the story tense and moving while he thinks about his situation. These are also good moments to remind the reader what's at stake or any overall story goals. If Bob fails here, he fails the whole book.

(Here's more on raising the tension and stakes)

It's also good to remember that scenes can span chapters, so just because a chapter ends, that doesn't mean a scene has to end. You can have multiple scenes in one chapter, one scene per chapter, or mix it up. Revelations are good for scenes that span chapters. You can end a chapter with a bit of shocking news to keep the reader turning the pages, and continue with the scene the next chapter.

Mix and match is a great way to keep readers guessing, because there's no set formula. If terrible things can happen anywhere in the chapter, they won't think "gee, this chapter is almost over, I bet something shocking is about to happen." They'll just keep reading to find out what comes next.

(Here's more on adding surprises and reveals)

And the sequels are often where they realize those shocking truths or discover how bad something truly is.

Do you plan your sequels or do they just happen?

Looking for tips on planning or revising your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  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 :)