Story Structure: Scene and Sequel

Let’s say we write words that elicit vivid imagery and dig deep into the heart and soul of humanity. Let’s say we string enough of them together that we end up with a beautifully rendered, novel-length creation. Is this creation a story? Not necessarily.

I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned this summer is the importance of studying story structure. In order to create a story, one that brings our readers through an experience from beginning to end, we must understand story structure.

Dwight Swain offers one way to structure a story: scenes and sequels. Have you heard of them?

What is a scene?
Dwight’s definition: A blow-by-blow account of a character’s time-infused effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition.

What is the function of a scene?
To propel the story forward, so it moves from beginning to end.

What element unifies a scene?

What is the structure of a scene?
Goal. Conflict. Disaster.

The focal character has a goal, something he wants to accomplish. Enter in conflict. Some opposing force that prevents character from reaching his goal. End with disaster. The character is worse off than before.

In a nutshell, that is a scene, according to Dwight Swain.

What is a sequel?
Dwight’s definition: the bridge from one scene to another, decision-making time.

What is the function of a sequel?
Turn the disaster into a new goal

Establish character’s motivation, which is a key component to suspending disbelief

Control pacing: scenes are units of conflict, and too many strung together can exhaust your reader and leave them feeling a little dizzy. A sequel gives your reader time to breathe.

What element unifies a sequel?

Let’s say we write a scene where Sally tries to run away from home. It ends with Sally’s abusive father catching her and locking her in the basement (disaster). A potential topic for the following sequel: How is Sally going to escape?

Since the unifying force of sequel is not time, as much or as little time can pass during the sequel. Maybe an entire summer slips by while Sally contemplates how she might escape. Time isn’t the issue. Topic is.

What is the structure of a sequel?
Reaction. Dilemma. Decision.

The focal character reacts to the disaster and thinks about the dilemma he is now facing. The sequel does not end until the character makes a decision as far as what he’s going to do now.

In a nutshell, that is a sequel.

Put enough of them together, all working toward your character’s story objective (see GMC: Looking at the G), then you’ve got a strongly structured, well-paced novel. Congrats!

Of course, there are some reasons for including things in a story that are neither scene nor sequel. I will discuss this on Wednesday.

Questions to Ponder: How well do you think you understand story structure? What methods or tools do you use to structure your stories?

Helpful links to learn more about scene and sequel:
Writing the Perfect Scene, by Randy Ingermanson
Scene and Sequel: The Ebb and Flow of Fiction, by Mike Klassan
Scene and Sequel: Scene, by Camy Tang (I highly recommend!)
Scene and Sequel: Sequel, by Camy Tang (I highly recommend!)removetweetmeme