Scene, Sequel, Scene

Newton’s third law of motion says, “To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.”

While that’s not exactly the law for fiction, it’s still true. Any time something happens, a person reacts and then acts based on what happened earlier. I think the following is safe to say:

For every action against your character, your character will have a proportionate reaction and call to action.

That doesn’t have the same nice rhythm like Newton’s law, but it does get the point across. Good ole Jim describes the action-reaction chain like this:

It breaks down into something really simple, though. Something happens to your character (stimulus). Your character reacts to it (response). Your character takes an action (stimulus). Something happens (response).

That extends over the whole of the novel, creating the scene-sequel-scene pattern this blog post takes its name from.

Let’s look at the waffle story again. Say you write a scene in which I go to my car and discover that the pirates have dismantled my engine so I can’t get to the grocery store. Then you realize I still need to get to the store, so you make me take the bus. Scene, scene.

But normal people don’t just say, “Oh, darn. My car is mysteriously and expertly broken. I guess I’ll take the bus.” No, normal, living, breathing people say, “Why is my car broken? What is going on? Who is conspiring against my desire for waffles?” They rant and cry and kick up a big fuss before they decide to get on the bus.

That moaning and wailing scene is called a sequel.

Sequels are what happens as an aftermath to a scene. They do several specific things:

1) Allow a character to react emotionally to a scene’s outcome.
2) Allow a character to review facts and work through the logical options of his situation.
3) They allow a character to ponder probable outcomes to various choices.
4) They allow a character to make a CHOICE–IE, to set themselves a new GOAL for the next SCENE.

You get the idea.

I followed this pattern meticulously for Shaken. You should really read Jim’s whole post, because it’s very good, helpful, etc. He will do an excellent job of convincing you why it’s a good thing to do.

I’m going to talk about the flaws in this approach.

First, if you think of every sequel as separate from its preceding scene, you’ll end up writing a lot of dull, junk scenes. Real people don’t spend hours ranting about the evil pirate-mechanics. Nope, a real person will probably just carry on an interior rant while simultaneously taking the bus. In fact, taking the bus, while it’s the obvious CHOICE made after the broken car scene, is not really the next action. It’s a reaction. While I’m on the bus, I’ll decide what I’m going to do about those evil pirates.

You can avoid those dull inner-monologuing sequels by turning them into action-packed scenes that are in fact cleverly disguised sequels. A character can discuss her reaction with a friend. She can react to the store’s lack of waffles by picking a fight with the manager. That’s much more interesting than an angsty walk down the aisles, bemoaning her waffle deficiency, although sometimes angst has a place.

You can also write a quick sequel that’s buried at the end of the scene. Sometimes it doesn’t take long to react, anticipate, and choose your next course of action. Don’t interrupt an action-heavy sequence with a lot of dull emoting: just react, think, choose, and move on to the next scene.

Second, writing a sequel after every scene can get repetitive. This is especially true if you’re writing a mystery. If, after every clue, you include a scene where your character thinks, “What? How mysterious! What does this mean? What should I do!” it gets old. Yes, your character still has to sift through the information she has received, but people are capable of analyzing information as they receive it. We don’t require thinking periods during the day, and even if we did, would we have new information to consider during each of those periods?

Think about it.

You’re probably reacting to this blog post as you read it. Do you sit down after reading a blog post, look at the blank comment box, and think, “Hmm. What occurred to me as I was reading that post?”

Nope. You’re reacting as you read.

Write the same way. Make sure your characters consider what’s happening to them and react in a reasonable fashion. But blend their reactions with their actions. People do occasionally decide to do things on the fly. Let your characters act like real people.

Logical people, sure. Readers need to understand why the characters do what they do. But don’t make your characters act like robots.

Unless you’re writing a Dalek. They’ll just exterminate without asking why.

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2 thoughts on “Scene, Sequel, Scene

  1. I think a lot of experienced writers would agree with you. The scene-sequel thing is a guide, not a rule. Sometimes the action is so intense that your characters don’t have time to rant or waffle, but it is something that you as a writer need to keep track of and that eventually your characters will have to have an emotional response. Good post.

  2. I have spent a lot of time pondering whether or not I am effective at doing this. The jury is still out, waffling. (I had to use that word, Nila. It’s such a lovely word, filled with that central “ff” sound like in kerfuffle and fluffy.)

    Mmm, waffles.

    What was I saying? Oh yeah. I think I’m decent at showing my characters reactions to things, but I have a hard time reflecting on the structure of “scene-sequel.”

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