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

19 thoughts on “Story Structure: Scene and Sequel

  1. […] story: & 1. How to group words into motivation-reaction units (MRUs) 2. How to group MRUs into scenes and sequels 3. How to group scenes and sequels into story patterns 4. How to create characters that give a […]

  2. Tara

    For me, I have to let the story unfold while I'm working on it. Otherwise I get bogged down and my creativity fizzles. Alexandra Sokoloff ( blogs about techniques used in books and breaks down popular novels like Harry Potter by act. It's an interesting look at published works.

  3. Jeannie Campbell, LMFT

    i'm going to have to check out those link by mike klassen…haven't read him before. but i'll have to do it some other night…EXHAUSTED from the long trip home!

    talk to you soon!

  4. Katie Ganshert

    Cindy – so true about making every scene count. I've really been trying to work on that one as well. And even on the micro level, making every word count. We could spend a hundred years perfecting a ms, couldn't we?

    Wendy, for sure! I totally know how that feels. 🙂

    Sherrinda – you bring up a good point. While it's good to read craft books, I do think there's a point where it's too much. I know when I'm done with Fire in Fiction, I'm going to take a little break from them for awhile and let everything I've learned just sort of settle. There's a lot floating around in my head that needs to take root yet. 🙂

    Hi Kate! I also like the goal-conflict-disaster sequence. It really hooks the reader and ups the tension.

    Erica, I feel ya girl. I growl when that happens. My fangs come out and everything. 🙂 I can imagine writing a story within the 50K mark is beyond challenging. I've read your work – you sure do know how to make EVERY word count.

    Galen, GASP! I can't believe it! 😉 I think it's excellent to keep that readers hat on. Sometimes that's hard for me to do, just for the fact that I'm so close to my story that it's hard to look at it objectively. So if you could give me some tips, I'd sure welcome them.

    Jill, I've heard of that book. I heard it's really good. Sort of the Dwight Swains stuff, but without all the rhetoric. Would you recommend it? Glad the crash course helped.

    Terri – this is very technical, isn't it? I think it's important to keep in mind that this isn't the only way to structure a story. It is definitely possible for scenes and sequels to blend together (at least IMO)

  5. Terri Tiffany

    OK– I admit to my naivety. I'm much like Galen where I write a scene and try to work it with conflict and all but not so technical–of course I have to really submit fiction so we'll see:)

  6. Jill Kemerer

    We obviously have read the same books! I found "Scene & Structure" to be so helpful. It helped me decide what scenes are necessary and when to move introspection during a scene into a sequel. Thanks for the crash course.

  7. Galen Kindley--Author

    Well, not to make everyone gasp, but my scenes are much less thought out and planned. Sounds sloppy, I know, and I’m embarrassed to admit it, but, it seems to work for me. Let me explain…briefly.

    I don’t look at scenes so much from a writer’s technical aspect, as I do a reader’s perspective. That is, as a reader, (and I ALWAYS write with my reader hat on.) have I received the relevant information needed to satisfy this phase of the story…this small packet of reader info. If yes, I move on to…ta da…the next scene. If not, I revise. I also tend to keep scenes…and chapters for that matter…pretty short. I’ve had more than one reader tell me they liked that.

    Best Regards, Galen
    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  8. Erica Vetsch

    Argh, I had a comment and the internet ate it! I hate it when that happens.

    Story structure really gelled for me when I started writing for Heartsong. The story, the romance, the spiritual journey…all in under 50K words. No superfluous scenes, no extraneous sequels.

    Good post today, Katie!

  9. Kate Karyus Quinn

    Ooh, I love reading about different ways to look at story structure. When I outline I usually try and do so by chapters or scenes, and I think keeping in mind the whole "goal, conflict, disaster" trio will definitely help make these scenes stronger.

  10. sherrinda

    Excellent post! I really need to read more craft books. I've read some, but had to quit reading them during the writing of my first WIP because I started to freeze up, thinking of all the things it needed. There is so much to learn.

  11. Wendy @ All in a Day's Thought

    I appreciate how much you *study* the craft. This is an area I will really have to dig through as I edit my current WIP. I'm pretty close to done and am amped up for story #3. I'm holding it off…I bet you've experienced that!
    ~ Wendy

  12. Cindy

    Good post! I found that I do better with structuring my novels now if I go by scenes and break them down with the conflict and the promise of the resolution to that conflict in upcoming scenes. I also try to make sure every scene counts–that it's propelling me toward an ultimate solution but also creating enough conflict in the meantime. All while revealing more about the characters, of course.

    I like that part about what a sequel is. Turning a disaster into a new goal. These are great points to keep in mind while writing. Thanks!

  13. Katie Ganshert

    Nice analogy Tabith. 🙂 I'm not sure if we'll ever reach that point on our own. I think the only way I will truly be able to say, "This book is done" is when it's out on the book shelf. Only for the fact that I won't be able to change anything anymore. I think there does come a time when we have to say, "This is my best work and anything I change now isn't going to improve my book, rather it will just change it." Did that make sense? Not sure. 🙂

    Glad to be of help Heather!

    Jody, I think you really touched on something. I agree, that books these days aren't so clear cut – scene/sequel/scene/sequel. But I do think the flow goes something like:
    goal-conflict-disaster-reaction-dilemma-decision and then the cycle starts over. I also tend to add bits and pieces of sequels into my scenes. I know for Beneath a Velvet Sky, I plotted it out in mainly scenes. 🙂

    I agree with you Eileen. 🙂 Although something to keep in mind – sequels are still "scenes" in the sense that things are happening. They aren't just large chunks of telling, or at least they shouldn't be. And if we're going to use flashbacks, according to Dwight Swain, the flashbooks should come in the sequel, never the scene.

    Jessica – for sure. How long you make your sequels depends on what type of book you want to write. Fast paced page turners have very short sequels. Slower, more introspective books have longer sequels. It all depends on the writer and what s/he wishes to convey.

    Glad it was interesting, Marybeth. I definitely find it interesting as I read that part.

  14. Marybeth Poppins

    Its hard not to think of sequel as a totally different book. Very interesting post.

  15. Jessica

    Great post. I'm not sure how well I use this, though technically I understand it. I think it's important to note that while a scene may be several pages, can't a sequel be a as small as a paragrah? I haven't read the book so I'm just wondering.
    Thanks for breaking it down!

  16. Eileen Astels Watson

    The sequels seem to blend more in with the scenes in the books I read. The characters react and think and plan as the scenes play out for the most part. If there are concrete sequels, they are very short and seem to act more like a transitional phase to get us into the next scene. That's my experience, anyway.

  17. Jody Hedlund

    Do you think the trend in books is more toward having mostly scenes now? The more I grow as a a writer, the more I tend to plot my books mostly in scenes. I think scenes help us to tell, and sequels are the showing which slows down the story. If we craft scenes of varying intensity, then perhaps we may not need too many sequels to help slow the pace. I think I mostly use sequels to show a transition of a large chunk of time. But I'm beginning to realize that most of it can usually be woven into the next scene in bits and pieces.

  18. Heather Sunseri

    Thanks for the great post, Katie. I'll definitely be checking out the links.

  19. Tabitha Bird

    Thanks for the links. I will have to check them out. You read some cool books. I must admit I think I am so haphazard about how my stories come together. They grow and then I go back and prune and re-grow and re-think and re-plot and re-write. I am usually writing at one end of the WIP and editing at the other. I really had to get my teeth into this while editing my first book. I am still wading through it with the pruning sheers. I wonder…. do you ever reach a point where you no longer want to change what you have written? Do you ever think, 'yep, that's it. That's the book I always wanted to write?' Thanks for the post! Great things to ponder… and go prune with! Do you think I might have done that metaphor to death?!


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