Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 8: Options for Reactions in a Sequel
At the heart of every sequel* is the narrating character’s reaction to the preceding scene’s disaster. This is where the author gets the opportunity to dig around inside his character’s emotional and mental processes and find out what he’s really made of. The scene is about external action; the sequel is about internal reaction. The sequel will sometimes be entirely confined to the POV character’s mind; other times, it will be dramatized through action or dialogue.
Although the sequel possesses three basic and unavoidable parts, just like the scene, it is much more flexible in execution. The three parts may take place within a single sentence—or be stretched out over many chapters. Sometimes one or the other of the parts may be implied; sometimes they may appear to be intermixed with the pieces of the scene.
Because the scene’s goal/conflict/disaster are an external expression, they are almost always easy to pick out once you know what you’re looking for. But the sequel, as an internal processing of events, can sometimes get buried within all the flashier goings-on. Its occasional invisibility, however, in no way lessens its importance. If anything, that subtlety brings a greater power to the sequel.
Don’t Be Afraid of Boring Readers
Authors who lack a complete understanding of the scene/sequelstructure can sometimes worry their sequelswon’t contain enough action or conflict to keep readers’ attention. But this is far from the case. Readers le action (whatever its manifestation), and authors can’t create a story without it. But without character reactions, all that juicy action will lack context and, as a result, meaning.
A soldier fighting in a war may be interesting from an intellectual perspective. But if there is no emotional context, readers will ultimately grow weary. I once read a science fiction novel that offered a fantastic premise and some great action scenes. It hooked me from the first paragraph, but by the time I was a quarter of the way in, I was bored. I put the book down and never came back to it, something I almost never do. Why? Because the whole thing was action, action, action, with no insight into how the main characters were internally reacting to all that gunplay.
Some stories will emphasize the action; some will emphasize the reaction. This will depend upon your genre as a whole and the specific needs of your story. All stories must contain both if they’re to successfully entrance readers. Don’t be afraid of boring readers by elaborating on character reactions. What you really need to fear is boring them by leaving the reactions out! Use these opportunities to dig down deep inside your characters, figure out how they tick, what they’re really after, and how the action is transforming them.
Options for Sequel Reactions
The three parts of your sequel will manifest in three different ways: the reaction is emotional, the dilemma is intellectual, and the decision will lead to physical action (by way of the next scene’s goal). As soon as your previous scene’s disaster hits, your character is going to experience an immediate and instinctive emotional reaction. The possibilities are as vast as the gamut of human emotion, which includes all of the following and loads more:
Once you’ve nailed down an emotional reaction that makes sense within both the context of the previous disaster and your character’s established personality, you have to decide how best to relay that emotion to readers. You have four choices:
You can simply tell readers how your character feels. This isn’t always going to be a good choice, since you’ll usually get more bang for your buck by showing readers what’s happening. But sometimes a simple summary will allow you to return to the action quicker.
2. Internal narrative/monologue.
Most reactions will contain at least some aspect of this option, since your character’s inner landscape is most important at this point.
You can effectively show a character’s reaction via his external actions. This can sometimes be used by itself if the dramatization is strong enough on its own to convey the character’s inner reaction. But it is often especially effective when used in conjunction with description or internal narrative. For example, your character’s fearful reaction might be dramatized through his chewing his fingernails or shivering uncontrollably.
You can also use the general tone of your story, as you describe other elements (such as setting, weather, other characters’ actions, etc.) to convey your character’s inner landscape. Your choice of words will influence your readers’ perception of events and help them make assumptions about your character’s internal reactions.
Questions to Ask About Your Sequel Reactions
Double check your sequel’s reactions by analyzing them with the following questions:
1. Does the character’s reaction directly correlate to the preceding disaster?
2. Does the character’s reaction make sense in context with the preceding disaster?
3. Is the character’s reaction logical for his personality?
4. Have you taken the appropriate amount of time to portray the reaction (whether it’s a sentence or several chapters)?
5. Have you illustrated the reaction as powerfully as possible, through narrative, description, action, and/or dialogue?
6. Have you made the situation clear without unnecessarily rehashing information the reader is already familiar with?
Sequel Reactions in Action
Because sequels can often be comparatively difficult to extract from the story, let’s take advantage of our classic books and movies to help us figure out what a sequel reaction looks like:
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen: In the second chapter, after Mr. Bennet has visited Netherfield Park, Mrs. Bennet and her daughters react with excitement and curiosity. Because Austen’s narrative is an omniscient third-person that never offers internal narrative, she conveys her characters’ reactions almost entirely through dialogue. Readers are effectively shown what the characters are thinking and feeling about the latest development in the pursuit of the eligible Mr. Bingley.
It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra: After Clarence saves George from committing suicide by jumping into the river himself, the characters sit around in the toll booth, drying off. Due to the visual nature of film, movies almost always convey their characters’ reactions through dramatization. Clarence’s cheerfulness over his success and George’s deflation are clear both through their physical attitudes (Clarence is standing up, busily tending his wet clothes, while George slouches by the fire, nursing his bleeding lip) and through the ensuing dialogue, during which Clarence reveals his identity as an angel and his mission to save George.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: Ender’s immediate emotional reaction to killing Stilson is to retreat down the hall and weep. His crying offers such a powerful demonstration of what’s going on inside his head that Card needs only a single line of internal narrative to complete the initial reaction. The whole of the next chapter, during which Ender’s brother Peter mocks him for losing the monitor and his sister Valentine tries to calm them both, extends the reaction period using a variety of techniques, including a conflict with Peter, to round out Ender’s reactions to all of the important events in the first chapter.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir: After escaping the Acheron’s surprise attack, the film enters a sequel sequence that begins with Captain Aubrey going below deck to discuss the “butcher’s bill” with the Dr. Stephen Maturin. The film skillfully allows for a reaction to the dead and wounded, the attack as a whole, and the technical details of the battle, most of which is conveyed through dialogue.
The reaction phase of the sequel can be one of the most rewarding parts of any story, for both reader and writer. Don’t skimp on this section. Always scratch around under the surface to discover how events have affected your characters and, most importantly, what their reactions can tell you about their personalities.
*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.