Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 7: The Three Building Blocks of the Sequel
The sequel*—the second half of the Scene—sometimes gets shortchanged. But it is every bit as important as the scene, since it allows characters to process the events of the scene and figure out their next move. The sequel is the reaction half of the action/reaction pairing. This is where introspective moments, quiet conversations, and character development occurs.
Even though we all recognize the importance of these things, authors still sometimes end up hacking sequels out of their stories in the mistaken belief that they’re bad Scenes simply because they contain no outright conflict. No doubt, you’re familiar with the common wisdom that every Scene (nay, every page!) must offer conflict. But this is misleading at best.
Sequels may well contain conflict in some form, but they’re more likely to offer tension (i.e., the threat of conflict). This is an important distinction. Outright conflict on every single page can create a relentless pace that ends up exhausting readers and leaves no time for important character development. Even the highest of high-speed stories must take a break from the conflict and slow down, even if microscopically, for the sequel.
Sequels can be full-blown set pieces that take place over dozens of pages or even multiple chapters. They can also be limited to a paragraph or two of summary. We’ll get into that more when we discuss Variations on the Sequel. For now, suffice it that the sequel is every whit as important as the flashier scene and deserves just as much of our attention.
Like the scene, it can be broken down into three segments that work together to create a rise and fall of drama. Every sequel should include the following:
Building Block #1: Reaction
Ultimately, reaction is what the sequel is all about. This is a time for introspection on the part of the narrating character, a time for him to process what he’s just experienced in the scene, and a time for the author to share those reactions with the reader. Without a focus on reactions, the character becomes an emotionless automaton, moving through the story’s conflict without ever responding in a relatable human way.
Let’s say your character is that POW who tried to bribe a guard to leave his post, only to have the guard throw him into solitary confinement. This is a relatively big disaster with which to end a scene, and you can bet your character is going to be reacting in some pretty definite ways. Whether he’s kicking and screaming as he’s dragged to the cooler, putting on a calm façade while mentally beating himself up for his stupidity, or threatening the guard right back—his reactions are going to be important not just in knocking over the story’s next domino, but also in revealing integral factors of his personality.
Too often, inexperienced writers unconsciously skip this part of the sequel without even realizing they’re neglecting it. Because they are so in tune with their characters, they often expect readers to understand the characters’ emotions and reactions just as easily. Context will usually help the author out, but don’t skimp on showing readers what your characters are feeling.
Reactions can be processed one by one throughout the scene, summarized briefly, or discussed at length in internal narrative or dialogue. The choice of how to impart the reaction will depend on the needs of your story. What’s important is remembering its significance as a powerful counterweight to the action in every scene.
Building Block #2: Dilemma
Once your character has finished his initial—and often completely involuntary—reaction to the previous scene’s disaster, he’s going to be faced with a dilemma. Sometimes this dilemma will be as general as, “What do I do now?” Usually, it will be more specific: “How do I undo the disaster?” “How do I keep my best friend from finding out the truth?” “How do I avoid the truant officer when he comes after me?” “How do I apologize to my son before he leaves?”
In the case of our POW, his dilemma might be twofold: “How do I get out of the cooler and/or keep from going insane while in the cooler?” and “Once I get out, how can I proceed with my escape plan now that I know the guard can’t be bribed?”
The dilemma is the setup for the next scene. The disaster at the end of the previous scene created a new round of problems for the character. During the sequel, he’s going to analyze them so he can appropriately tackle them in the next scene.
Often, the dilemma will be obvious from the context. If the POW is moldering in solitary, his problem is pretty obvious. But don’t be afraid to state the dilemma outright, particularly for your own benefit in early drafts. You can always cut it later if it’s going to bonk your reader over the head with its obviousness. But you want to keep your sequels just as focused and deliberate as your scenes.
Building Block #3: Decision
The dilemma is going to lead right into the sequel’s final part—the decision. In order to formulate a goal for the next scene, the character has to figure out a solution (whether it’s right or wrong) to the dilemma. In essence, the dilemma is a question, and the decision is the answer.
This is the planning stage of your story. The characters return from their massive defeat on the battlefield and head back to the drawing board. They pore over maps, discuss the mistakes of the former battle, and figure out what to do next. Compared to the battle, this is going to be a very quiet Scene, but because of its importance and its high what’s-gonna-happen-next quotient, readers find sequels like this every bit as intriguing (sometimes more so) than the race-’em-chase-’em scenes.
Our captured POW is going to enter his concrete cell, sit down, and start thinking furiously. His sequel is probably going to last days, or even weeks, since he can’t take action until he gets out of the cooler. He might make and remake his decision a dozen times over, if doing so serves the purpose of the story. But by the time the sequel ends and he is set free, he needs to have decided upon his next move—whether it’s punching that nasty guard in the face, trying to bribe a different guard, or even giving up on the escape attempts altogether. Whatever his decision, it will bridge the sequel with the next scene and set up his new goal.
Can you see how integral your scenes and sequels must be? They are connected in such a way that to pull even just one will destroy the seamless evolution of the plot. The disaster creates a dilemma, the dilemma forces the character to decide what he will do next, and that decision informs the next scene’s goal.
The Sequel in Action
Let’s take a look at the sequel, as a whole, in action in the fourth and fifth chapters of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. These chapters take place right after the dance at the Meryton Assembly, where Darcy rejected Elizabeth as a desirable dancing partner.
Reaction: General discussion of the dance by all the involved characters.
Dilemma: How should Elizabeth react to Darcy’s prideful rejection of her?
Decision: To avoid Darcy.
Sequels can often be more difficult to spot and break down, since they occur much more quickly than scenes, and also because their parts are often mashed together or implied instead of stated outright. But once you understand the components of a successful sequel and its importance in balancing and driving your story, you’re well on your way to writing a smashing second half to all your Scenes.
*For the purposes of this series, “Scene” with a capital S will refer to the scene in general (which can include in its definition the sequel). I’ll use a small s and italicize scene and sequel to refer to the two different types of Scenes.