Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Difference Between a Sequel and a Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Last week I wrote about scenes and plotting, and a commentor asked about sequels. While answering the question, I realized I’d never written specifically about sequels, so let’s fix that today.

Sequels are one of the more misunderstood and confusing aspects of fiction. They’re just as important to a story as a scene, but they don’t get nearly the same amount of attention or analysis from a How-To standpoint.

In the most basic terms:

A scene is where the action is and something happens to the character.

A sequel is how the character processes what just happened to them and decides what to do next.

This decision becomes the goal for the new scene.

Action followed by reaction followed by action. Wash—rinse—repeat.

The Core Elements of a Scene

A scene is built from the following elements:


The character has a goal, they try to achieve that goal and the conflict prevents them from doing it, they struggle to overcome that conflict, and the goal is resolved in some fashion. This structure is most commonly referred to as Goal—Conflict—Disaster, but I dislike that because “disaster” makes you think it has to be an actual disaster, and that’s not true. A scene ends with the resolution of the goal, in one of four ways:
  • The protagonist gets the goal
  • The protagonist doesn’t get the goal
  • The protagonist gets the goal, but there’s a catch
  • The protagonist doesn’t get the goal and it makes things worse

At the result stage, the goal has been dealt with (win or lose) and the character will react to it.

That reaction is the sequel.

(Here’s more on the parts of a scene)

The Core Elements of a Sequel

A sequel is built from the following elements:


The character reacts emotionally to what just happened, they reflect on/think about/debate it and what it means, then they decide what to do next.

The importance of the event often determines the size of the sequel, so key moments usually have longer sequels, and smaller moments have shorter ones.

The reaction: At the end of a scene, the character has just faced either a victory, a loss, a partial victory, or a devastating loss (the four results of a scene). This will cause an emotional reaction in them, which is the beginning of the sequel. It’s the gut punch, the shock, or the squeal of joy.

Some reactions will be simple, while others will be complex. A reaction might be one word, “Yikes!” or it might be two paragraphs of emotion turmoil.

Reactions are typically short, because the character is reacting. When someone jumps out at you and shouts “Boo!” you scream and it’s over. You don’t stand there screaming for three minutes.

However, you might spend three minutes furious at that person, but that’s the next stage—reflection.

The reflection: After the reaction, the character reflects on what just happened and what it means. This is also called the dilemma or the debate, but it’s where the character does all the thinking. On some level, this is a continuation of the reaction, but instead of the involuntary emotional burst, it’s the conscious thought about what just happened.

The size and scope of the reflection depends on how impactful the result of the goal is, and how much time is available to think about it. No matter how impactful a situation, you’re not going to stop and think about your options for ten minutes while a serial killer is chasing you.

The reflection can be as short as a few words, or it can be pages of internal debate. Typically, this is what the bulk of the sequel covers.

At the end of this reflection, a decision will be made.

The decision: The decision is what the character decides to do next, based on their reaction, reflection, and what information and options are currently available to them at that moment.

This decision is what creates the next goal, which triggers the next scene.

(Here’s more on stimulus and response)

Putting Scenes and Sequels Together

Sequels are confusing, and how they fit into scenes is probably the most confusing part. I think this is because “scene” has multiple definitions. We talk about a scene from the goal—conflict—result aspect, and from the ‘this block of text is all one scene’ aspect.

We break chapters into scenes, but within a scene we might have several small goals leading up to the big goal. Technically, all those small steps are scenes if they follow the GCR structure. But the “goal of the chapter” might be the bigger goal that includes all those smaller steps (still with me?).

For example, let’s return to my babysitting story from last week. The setup:
A woman has a critical job interview. Her babysitter cancels at the last minute, forcing the woman to ask her estranged mother for help so she can go. The mother says no, they fight, and the woman is forced to take the children with her on the interview. They cause trouble and she doesn’t get the job.
This could easily be one chapter with multiple scenes, but the overall goal is “to get the job.” The conflict to getting the job is family issues (kids and Mom). The individual problems are:
  • A babysitter who cancels at the last minute
  • An non-supportive mother
  • Children at the interview
  • Emotional stress of dealing with all of this

The individual scenes might be:
  • Woman getting ready to go when the babysitter calls and cancels—>goal is to get someone to watch the kids
  • Woman calling Mom to ask for help and getting into a fight—>goal is to swallow resentment long enough to convince Mom to watch the kids
  • Woman taking kids to the interview—>goal is to make it through the interview without letting the company know she brought her kids along
  • Woman in the interview—>goal is to hold it together and land the job

All of these scenes make up the chapter, and the goal of this chapter is to get the job. The result of this chapter goal is that she fails.

The individual sequels here might be:
  • Woman freaking out over the canceling babysitter, sifting through her options on who to call, then realizing she has to call Mom and dreading that.
  • Woman angry and upset over Mom and her refusal to ever be supportive, and now theres no one and what is she going to do? She has to take the kids with her.
  • Woman worrying about the kids as she rides up the elevator and tries to compose herself for the interview
  • Woman struggling to maintain her calm after a bad interview and figure out what she’s going to do now that she lost this job opportunity.

Sequels one and three are probably short, because there’s not a lot there to hash out. Three is probably pretty minor and might be just one line, such as, “Please don’t let them do anything crazy in the next hour so I can get through this.”

Sequels two and four are likely longer, because they deal with bigger emotional issues and the results of those scenes are more impactful. Sequel four is probably the largest of them all, because everything in this chapter has been building to this moment, and we’d want to show the full emotional impact that this will have on her.

Sequels follow scenes from the technical standpoint, even though some of them might be so small they’re one or two lines in the middle of two smaller actions. Most writers write them instinctively, because it’s the natural progression of the action.

(Here’s more on emotional reactions)

Why Writers Struggle with Sequels

I think writers have problems with sequels when they think of them as scenes. They try to add the elements of a scene (GCR) and end up forcing a scene that isn’t needed and doesn’t work into a story.

Sequels are just reactions and how the character processes what just happened. They’re a lot like transitions—they link two scenes and two goals. It helps to think of them as the way to hand off one scene to the other. Action—reaction—decision—action.

Any questions about scenes or sequels? 

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

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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. YES! Thanks Janice. This has been very helpful for me. You said, "I think writers have problems with sequels when they think of them as scenes" That’s no doubt true in my case.
    So it seems like, as you read a book, you are either in a scene or you are not. And if you're not in scene, you might be in internal monologue, or summary, or exposition, perhaps flashback.
    Does this sound about right? And as relates to our discussion here, can we say that sequel part of the “you are not in a scene” category?
    Somehow I think my confusion about scene and sequel is part of this larger question of the different forms of narrative technique.
    In a way it seems like a writer approaches the page with a hand of cards. And a big part of writing is deciding which card to play. I’m not talking about character, plot, theme, etc. I’m thinking more about the cards of narrative technique, or narrative choices.
    One of the cards would be scene, I imagine. Another card might be summary. The sort of cards you might use when you’re actually banging out the story.
    I almost wish (I do wish) someone would deal me a hand of cards and say, okay, write your first draft with these. But something manageable – five cards, say. No more than that. Okay, six, or whatever. : )

    1. You're always in a scene. Internal monologue and exposition and even a sequel are all part of the scene. Scenes are the building blocks that make up a book.

      Think of the scene as the framework of a particular part of the story. Everything that happens in that scene all work together to pursue the goal, deal with the conflict, and decide what to do next.

      The sequel is the end of the scene, and the transition to get to the next scene or the next goal in that scene.

      Structurally, a book breaks down like this:

      Book -- chapter -- scene -- paragraph -- sentence -- words.

      Words make up the sentences, sentences make up paragraphs, paragraphs make up scene, scenes make up chapters, chapters make up the book.

      All the "writing stuff" and techniques go into that to create those words and write the story. Exposition is part of the scene, same as dialogue or foreshadowing. A flashback may or may not be it's own scene. Some flashbacks are snippets within a scene, others have their own goal-conflict-stakes to show.

      All the tools of writing are used to craft the scene, and the scenes make the book as a whole.

      Does that make sense?

  2. Good explanation. I’ve been trying to apply this in the past, but I was unclear on some of the details. Thx.

  3. Thank you for an excellent post.

    Should a sequel always follow its scene immediately? Can I write, for example, a second scene set in another location in another POV, before writing the sequel to the first scene?