Monday, July 22, 2013

Scene and Sequel

Two authors talk about the “scene and sequel” method of writing—Elizabeth Lyons in A Writer’s Guide to Fiction and Jack Bickham in Scene and Structure.

These techniques are a bit different from what we normally think of. A simple definition for scene is “ACTION” or “CONFLICT.” A scene is a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story “now.” It is not something that goes on inside a character’s head. It is physical. It could be put on the stage and acted out. Another word for it might be a “happening” and it advances the plot.

The pattern of a scene (happening) is: 
• Statement of goal
• Introduction and development of conflict
• Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster.

The Goal. A scene begins with the character walking into a situation with a clear-cut, specific goal, which appears immediately attainable. This is will move him one big step closer to attaining his major story goal.
 • Remember that stories and books often begin with a character jarred out of his sense of ease by some kind of disturbing development, a threaten to change the status quo.
• The character then forms an intention or long-term goal to “make things right” again. For example: (Story goal) “I must be first to climb XXX mountain,” our hero Fred tells us. (Reader’s story question) Will Fred succeed in being first to climb the mountain?

Omitting the goal or leaving it unclear is among the common scene-writing mistakes, per Lyon and Bickham. If you ask your reader to follow you into a setting for no clear reason at a particular time and then “stuff just happens,” the reader can’t gauge whether the responses fit the character’s intentions. Your scene needs to have a purpose.

Using Fred and his goal to be the first to climb the mountain, perhaps his first step is to try to borrow money to equip his expedition. So he walks into the local bank and boldly states his goal: “Mr. Greenback, I want to be first to climb XXX Mountain. I need capital to fund my expedition. Therefore I’m here to convince you to lend me $75,000.”

You can see his short-term goal clearly and that it relates to the long-term story goal and the story question. Now the reader forms a scene question: Will Fred get the loan? The scene question can’t be some vague, philosophical one such as “Are bankers nice?” or “What motivates people like Fred?” The question is specific, relates to a definite, immediate goal, and can be answered with a simple yes or no. We have a character, a story goal and a short-term goal.

Next—conflict. Suppose Mr. Greenback says, “I love mountain climbing, and you seem like a nice young man. Sure, you can have $75,000.” There’s nothing standing in the way, the scene tension has collapsed before it even gets underway. Fred is relaxed and happy, the reader is relaxed—and loses interest in the story.

Because readers love sweating bullets along with the character as he struggles for the upper hand, because they like living adventure vicariously, we want to build our scenes as big and believable as possible.

The way to do this is to present each scene moment by moment, with no summary (because there is no summary in real life). Some scenes will be in dialogue, others will be in physical action, others a bit of both.

Back to Fred at the bank. The reader forms a scene question and then is enthralled as he watches Fred and the banker argue, counterpunch, voice objections, answer the objections, etc. But all scenes must come to an end—we don’t want this argument in the bank to run 350 pages.

So how should it end? With a tactical disaster—a setback in the quest for the story goal. The answer has to be No. Or it could be a “Yes, but”. As in, “OK, you can have your loan, but you must agree to pay 60 percent interest, you must deed your car to us and you must sell your mother’s house and put her in a nursing home so we can be assured you won‘t be messing around trying to help her when you’re supposed to be climbing that mountain.” Or it could be “No, you’re nuts, and furthermore, we are calling in the note you already owe us. Pay up or go to jail.”

This kind of tension tightens reader tension, increases reader worry and builds reader sympathy for the character. So, the tactical disaster doesn’t have to be what we normally think of as “disaster”, like an earthquake, flood, or plane crash. This kind of disaster is an unanticipated but logical development that answers the scene question, relates to the conflict presented and sets the character back.

Have you read a book recently that applied this technique?

Next post on Aug. 5, I will address the Sequel portion of this equation.

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.


  1. Excellent points, and the "Yes, but" option is one I think creates the most tension because it leads to the next goal/conflict. Deb Dixon, of Goal, Motivation & Conflict fame also pointed out that we should give our characters choices--but they should be between "it sucks" and "it's suckier."

    Terry's Place

  2. This is great, Heidi! Lest "tactical disaster" be interpreted by our readers as permission to feed out a string of botched attempts by the protagonist to achieve his goal, which can get old:

    Keep in mind that the characters in a well-orchestrated set will have inherently conflicting goals. Your protagonist has one goal, but another character (and not always the "antagonist"—could also be a friend) might have a conflicting goal that causes our protagonist not to succeed.

    This scenario is perhaps better imagined in the example of a competition, as in the bank can bestow one last loan in a limited time offer and two friends need it for different reasons.

  3. A great reminder, Heidi, and I like your comment Terry. The choices should not be easy, then the story would be over.

  4. Love this, Heidi! This is actually one of the only book son writing I recommend, and you did a great job of disseminating the information! Thank you.

  5. That should be 'books on' rather than book son! LOL

  6. This is a great reminder, Heidi! We need to remember that we know the backstory, but our readers do not. Our transitions and scenes must always be clear to those who don't possess our knowledge.

  7. I agree, Terry. We have to learn to be "mean" to our protagonists--or at least I had to learn that. It wasn't easy!

    And Kathryn, good conflict point on one loan with two competitors--even better!

  8. Okay ... no more 'stuff' just happens ... the protagonist of my WIP is going learn to be goal oriented ... or ... or ... I'll have to kill him!

  9. Bickham learned the idea from his writing instructor, Dwight Swain. Swain has a couple of books on writing out; excellent advice on writing, but he peppers them with racist and sexist examples. Still, if you want the panoramic view on scene and sequel, it helps to read a few of Bickham's books and a few of Swain's.

  10. Swain is a good "how-to" guru too, I agree.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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