- If you’re a writer, you most likely use Scene and Sequel. We’ve talked about these important elements of story structure in Seekerville before. Since I need to review the basics of craft often, and I'm hoping I’m not the only one who does, today I’ll be talking about this important element of story using Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure.
First let's look at story. Story begins when the protagonist is jarred out of his comfort zone with a change that threatens the status quo. When a hero and heroine are slapped with trouble, they will not whine and fret as I’m prone to do. Instead they make a story-length goal they believe will make things “right” again. Our job as writers is to impose obstacles to these goals that add conflict and raise the stakes.
Okay, that's enough about the big picture. Let's go back to Scene and Sequel.
Scene is a segment of physical story action in the now, not in the character’s head.
Bickham suggests the following pattern for scenes that will move the story forward:
- Begin scenes with the statement of the point of view character’s immediate goal that’s relevant to his long-term goal. This is a small part of scene.
- Introduce and develop conflict and compromise. Keep the action in the moment. The character’s goal is opposed for the majority of the scene, usually by a villain or antagonist with strong motivation to thwart the protagonist’s goal.
- End the scene with disaster. Disaster should fit the goal, not just be some random act of violence. Disaster is not what we think of as a disaster such as an earthquake or injury, but disastrous for the goal. A “yes, but” or a “no, and furthermore” dilemma that’s unanticipated yet a logical development that sets the character back. Disaster is a small part of the scene. Failure to reach his goal raises the stakes for the character, giving the reader reason to worry and sympathize.
Sounds easy, but it isn’t, at least not for me.
Pitfalls with writing scenes:
- Pitfall #1--Writing a scene with the purpose of showing something about the character. That means the goal for the scene is the writers, not the characters. Instead show the character’s attributes while the character is working to obtain a goal. If the character doesn’t have a goal, the scene is pointless and should be scrapped.
- Pitfall #2--Giving the POV character a goal that doesn’t relate to the book-length goal. When writers do this scenes will feel episodic. Ever had that problem? If the immediate goal relates to the book-length goal our story will flow.
- Pitfall #3--Forgetting to have the character state his goal, either to himself or to another character. Bickham says put it in black and white so the reader will worry whether or not the character will get his goal.
- Pitfall #4--Focusing on giving a great hook, which is good, but at the expense of showing whether the character got his goal or not and how this is a disaster for him.
Moving on to Sequel.
Bickham says sequel begins for the POV character the moment the scene ends. After the disaster the POV character is flooded with emotion. Emotion leads to thought, then to a decision or goal that results in a step toward a new immediate goal and a new action. That pattern keeps the story flowing and ensures scenes won’t feel episodic. To write strong sequels, writers must dig deep into character’s thoughts and feelings. The length of sequel depends on the writer, the story and/or the POV character. Sequel can come at the end of the scene, as Bickham says, or at the beginning of the next scene or even as introspection during dialogue.
- Emotion: Show how the character is feeling by using his actions, dialogue or/and physical reaction. Put yourself in your character’s shoes. Have you experienced this emotion? What did you do?
- Thought/Review: The character gets rational enough to remember his story-length goal and think about his new problem.
- Analysis: Show the character as he plans, decides on his options.
- Decision: The character makes a new immediate goal that will help him obtain his story-length goal. He decides what he will do next, what action he will take that leads to the new active scene.
Pitfalls with writing sequels:
- Telling emotion instead of showing how the character is feeling.
- Finding the right amount of thought and analysis. Too much and it slows the pace. Too little and the reader doesn’t feel the impact of the disaster.
- Having things happen to my characters, making them victims, instead of my characters making new plans that drive the action.
Perhaps you know other pitfalls with writing Scene and Sequel. If so please share.
With thirty-one books under her belt, my critique partner Shirley Jump is a master of Scene and Sequel. She’s a seat of the pants writer who uses this technique to find her story.
The following passage is from Vegas Pregnancy Surprise, a secret baby story.
The dry Vegas air slammed into Molly as soon as she got out of the taxicab. The August heat seemed to weigh on her, like a thick, suffocating blanket. Dry or not—it was hot.
The older man at the wheel of the car gestured toward the towering glass buildings, two twin mirrors of each other, connected by an all-glass skybridge. The building was impressive, with neat linear lines and a clean silver and glass exterior, a stark contrast to the colorful noise of the Vegas strip a little ways behind them. “Curtis Systems, yes, ma’am. Can’t miss it.”
Molly thanked and paid the driver. She stepped into the shadow of the Curtis Systems building, dwarfed by the twenty-plus stories above her. Now that she was finally here, trepidation held her rooted to the spot.
She should go home. Forget the whole idea. Come up with another plan.
Except, there wasn’t really another plan, at least not one that could solve both the job and getting to know the father of her baby dilemmas all at once.
She just hadn’t expected the Linc she met in a bar two months ago was this Linc.
When she’d Googled Linc, with what little information she had, she’d come back with two different possibilities for software companies in Las Vegas. There’d been many software companies, of course, but only two that returned results with an employee named Linc. The first was no longer in business—all she’d found had been a weedy lot with a For Sale sign. That left Curtis Systems.
The company name had returned hundreds of Google hits, link after link showing the meteoric rise of the company’s success. Google hadn’t lied. She peered up at the monolith of a building. A success story on a mega level. And according to the information she’d read on the Internet, Linc didn’t just work here—he was the owner and CEO.
The man she’d met, the one who seemed so…normal, so guy-next-door, was the same one at the helm of this massive, multi-national, multi-million dollar corporation?
Again, she considered turning around, heading back to San Diego. Then her hand drifted to her stomach, to the new life growing inside her, and she knew she had to go inside that building.
Not just for the job she needed, but for her baby.
The heroine, Molly, has just lost her teaching job and discovered she's pregnant. Her book-length goal is stated at the opening of this scene. She wants to hook up again with Linc, the father of her baby and to get a job while she’s there. Her motivation: She wants to get to know Linc so she can tell her child about his father one day. Without a job, she needs to make money for the baby.
Here's the end of that scene:
Stick to the plan, Molly. Be smart. Not foolish again.
Molly returned to the booth, perching on the edge of the seat. “When you told me about that software, I saw a man who was alive, excited. That passion extended into your idea. I wanted to be on board with something like that. Not to mention be a part of developing a program that encourages kids to get outdoors and interact with nature, rather than stay inside, being couch potatoes and playing yet another video game.”
His gaze connected with hers across the table. “You saw passion in me, for this? A different person than you see today?”
He looked away for a moment, not at anything in particular, but out into the restaurant. She couldn’t read whatever parade of thoughts was running through his mind. But when he turned back to her, the twinkle that had been in his blue eyes the night she’d met him had returned, and a funny quiver stirred in Molly’s gut. “If we did this, and this is a big if…it would require a team of people to implement. Particularly people who know a lot about children.”
She bit her lip. Dared to hope. “Like former kindergarten teachers?”
He smiled. “Exactly like former kindergarten teachers.”
Molly took a deep breath and voiced the idea she’d had when she’d boarded the plane to Vegas and taken the biggest risk of her life—no, the second biggest risk of her life. “That’s exactly why I came here, Linc. To offer you my services.”
During the scene, Molly realizes the only way she’ll get to know her baby’s father is to work for him, which gives her the goal of having a job, but at the expense of possibly falling for him again. So things are worse, especially since she found out during this scene that he has no interest in settling down with anyone.
Leave a comment and your e-mail address for a chance to win a copy of Vegas Pregnancy Surprise. Better yet, if you’re a writer, share pitfalls you've experienced with writing scene and sequel.
I brought eggs benedict for breakfast with fresh fruit, tea and coffee. Dive in and let’s play.