Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 10: Options for Decisions in a Sequel
Perhaps the most instinctive of all the Scene’s* building blocks is the decision. This third and final piece of the sequel grows out of the character’s dilemma and leads right into the next scene’s goal. The decision is the little cattle prod on your story’s backside that keeps it moving. Conceivably, your character could sit around contemplating his dilemmas for the
rest of his life. But good stories require forward motion, and the only way out of a dilemma is to make a decision—whether it’s right or wrong.
As always, the key to a good decision is making sure it is a direct result of the previous dilemma. A random, unrelated decision may well keep the plot moving, but not in the straight line your readers want. If your character’s dilemma is about what to make for dinner, his decision needs to be filet mignon and lyonnaise potatoes—not to run down to the hospital and donate blood.
Options for Sequel Decisions
You’re not going to find a story technique that’s much more straightforward than the sequel decision. Basically, the options boil down to just two:
1. To take action.
2. To not take action.
Both are acceptable choices, but usually, you’re going to want your character to make decisions that will force to him to act. You want a character who causes thing to happen, not one who sits around and allows them to happen tohim. That said, there will be moments when a character’s decision to refrain from action will be just as important to the plot and just as revealing of his inner conflict as would be the most exciting of actions.
Your character’s specific decision will, of course, depend entirely on the nature of his dilemma. His decision may be anything from I’m going to wear blue socks today to I’m going to sacrifice my life to save everybody in that burning building. Whatever the case, it will translate into a goal that will fit into one of the five categories we discussed in our post on goals.
Long-Term Goal, Short-Term Decision
Often, your character’s dilemma won’t be one that can be solved with a simple one-shot decision. In fact, you’ll want to actively avoid too many simple dilemmas/decisions in a row. If the character is faced with one easily solved problem after another, the story will take on a scattered, episodic feel, and readers will be begin to doubt the insurmountability of the odds.
This is where the “long-term goal, short-term decision” factor comes into play. If your character’s problem is how to marry that cute neighbor girl, he’s going to be faced with many mini” dilemmas along the way to reaching his ultimate goal. In figuring out your sequel’s decision, look for the first step the character must take. Maybe he does decide to marry the neighbor girl in that first sequel, but he also has to decide on a much smaller, more plausible course of action. In this case, he decides to apologize for yelling at the girl’s dog.
Obvious Decision or Long-Shot Decision?
Your character’s decisions will shape the plot. If all his decisions are obvious and easily accomplished, the story will quickly lose steam. You don’t want characters to consistently decide upon ridiculous or illogical courses of action. But you do want to keep the odds long and readers guessing.
Our lovelorn hero’s most sensible course of action in trying to marry the neighbor girl might be to simply ask her out. Nothing wrong with that, and it could certainly lead to all kinds of interesting story possibilities of its own. But we might be able to unearth some unexpected options by having him make a different decision. Maybe he decides to serenade her outside her window. Maybe he decides to make himself forget all about her. Or maybe, like Anabel Simms in the classic movie Every Girl Should Be Married, he investigates every aspect of the girl’s life in an attempt to casually infiltrate her routines.
To State the Decision or Not?
You’re always going to want to be able to put your character’s decision into words. Write it down so you have something concrete to build upon. But you may not want to actually state the decision outright in the story. Often, the decision will be clear from either the preceding dilemma or the goal in the next scene. Sometimes, the decision won’t even be made until seconds before the character acts upon it, in which case it will meld with the goal.
A few guidelines:
Don’t state the decision outright if it is in any way repetitious or condescending to readers. If the decision is clear from the context, it probably won’t require an outright explanation.
Do state the decision outright if the act of deciding is just as important as the goal (e.g., the decision is a turning point for the character).
Do state the decision outright if you need a strong link between your sequel and the next scene (e.g., several intervening Scenes separate the decision and the goal, and/or the decision provides a strong end to the chapter.)
Questions to Ask About Your Sequel Decisions
Before you tie the ribbon on your sequel and call it a wrap, take a minute to double-check yourself with the following questions:
1. Is your decision an organic result of your dilemma?
2. Does your decision lead into a strong goal?
3. If your dilemma is a long-term problem, have you narrowed the decision down to the first logical step in solving that problem?
4. Does your decision solve the dilemma tooeasily or does it lead to new complications, either because the character made the wrong decision or because solving the dilemma created a new dilemma?
5. If your character decides not to take action, is this a logical and important step within the plot?
6. Is your decision important enough to state outright in the sequel?
7. If you’ve stated the decision outright, is it repetitious in light of either the dilemma or the following goal?
Sequel Decisions in Action
What does this final building block of the sequellook like in action? Let’s take one last peek at our books and movies:
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen: The second chapter ends with the Bennet women’s dilemma about how to meet up with Mr. Bingley. This dilemma is, of course, the first step in the much larger story dilemma of how to get Bingley to marry one of the girls. The decision is never stated outright, but its implication (Mrs. Bennet will invite Bingley to dinner at the appropriate time) is clear both from the dilemma and from the actual dispatch of the invitation at the beginning of the next chapter.
It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra: Clarence’s dilemma is how to convince George he shouldn’t commit suicide in order to pay off the accounting discrepancy with his life insurance. George’s offhand comment about believing the people he cares about would be better off had he never been born leads Clarence to his decision: he gets Joseph to make George’s wish come true. The decision segues directly into the goal, which, easily accomplished thanks to Joseph, segues right into the next scene’s conflict.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: Ender’s dilemma about how to get out of going to school turns into something much bigger when Graff and his men show up at the house and give Ender the option of attending Battle School. Although Ender’s ultimate decision to go with Graff effectually solves his sequel’s dilemma, it also introduces an entirely new twist, which requires almost the entire chapter to explain and reason through.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir: After discussing the battle with his officers, Captain Aubrey flies in the face of their expectations and makes the surprising decision to remain in the Pacific, refit the ship at sea, and then pursue the Acheron. The outright statement of the decision is crucial since Aubrey’s taking
it upon himself to exceed his orders with this decision is more important at this point than the actual goal itself. This decision will drive the entirety of the plot, as well as Aubrey’s personal character arc.
You’ve now learned how to build an entire Scene, from scene (goal, conflict, disaster) to sequel (reaction, dilemma, decision). Put one solid Scene upon another, and before you know it, you’ll have a story that’s solid all the way through!