Critique: 4 Ways to Write Sequel Scenes That Grip Readers
Scene structure asks for a one-two punch pairing of action and reaction—or as Dwight V. Swain named them in what has come to be considered “classic” scene structure, scene and sequel. The need to write sequel scenes, the reaction half of the equation, is sometimes overlooked and misunderstood. This is unfortunate, since the reaction phase is both what controls a story’s pacing and where much of a story’s meaning may be found or explored.
Some writers fear that lengthy reaction scenes, in which characters process and respond to the consequences of just-concluded conflict-oriented scenes, will slow their pacing too much. And sometimes these fears are well-founded. But without solid sequel scenes, a story will struggle, both because the entirely conflict-oriented pacing will founder in ironic monotony and because characters will feel unemotional and undeveloped. Somewhat non-intuitively, the sequel scenes are often some of a story’s best and richest scenes. (Indeed, many literary and character-driven novels spend proportionately more of their word count on reaction scenes than action scenes.)
The shorthand of all this is that learning how to write sequel scenes is a specialized technique all its own. Mastering the sequel scene will allow you to grip readers’ attention on every page. So let’s take a look at a lovely example of a sequel scene, as well as some pointers on pitfalls and ways to strengthen possible weaknesses.
Learning From Each Other: WIP Excerpt Analysis
Today’s post is the ninth in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you have shared with me. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.
Today, my thanks to Robert Plowman for sharing an excellent excerpt from his light fantasy Wings. He noted:
This scene sequel is from the end of the mid-point. The MC, Tzeria Aetos, lives in an alternate reality evolved from the ancient classical world. She has just been crowned empress by popular acclaim, after having repelled an enemy attack on the capital city. She alone knows that it was her own scheming that indirectly led to the attack, and this fills her with guilt.
Negotiations successfully concluded, I returned to the palace. Someone brought a stool to help me dismount at the formal main entrance. A captain of the guard saluted, an honor guard flanking the main doors snapped to attention, and the heavy bronze doors swung inward, groaning on their hinges.
I returned the captain’s salute. “I would be alone now.”
I entered and the doors creaked shut, closing with a dull boom. This was the grand audience chamber, seldom used except on formal occasions. The official enthronement of a new emperor was normally an occasion of great pomp and circumstance. This time, it would only be me.
Multi-hued light from stained glass windows illuminated the vast space. At the opposite end stood the throne. It could have been my father’s or my brother’s… now it was mine. I limped across the patterned marble floor and took three steps up to a dais of blue stone, the color of cold ocean. A pair of dragon skeletons flanked the throne. Discovered centuries ago, these were twice the height of a man, with open jaws and outstretched claws. The skulls of two smaller, long dead dragons formed the ends of the throne’s arms. Their jagged fangs were covered with gold leaf and iridescent fire opals filled their eye sockets. I climbed four broad steps and sat down, tapping my fingers on the rock-like skulls. The throne was surprisingly comfy. My throne now, mine. How strange that sounded.
I tried to grasp all that had happened in the past three days. It was heady stuff; a mind-altering blend of intoxicating triumph and heartbreaking loss. It was easy to be cynical about the imperial crown. Easy, given the politicking, the deal-making, the outright bribery that went into the election by the Senate. Still, the act of coronation held great symbolic meaning. The chief priestess was the earthly representative of Tzerotos Nikee. In essence, I received my crown directly from the divine hands of our Goddess of Winged Victory. Doubly true in my case, having bypassed the Senate.
Being Axiom, I never was quite human. Now I was even less so. I had transformed into something new and unique, I was… Empress. Dust motes hung in the motionless air of the hall, yet a vortex of air from another world seemed to whirl around me. The slow beat of wings? I glanced at the dragon skeletons. I could almost believe I could summon them to life with a word. Had my predecessors felt this on their ascension? Was this part of Barates’ madness? I wiped my shaking hand down my face, unnerved by the strange sensations.
I put my knuckle in my mouth and bit down, trying to focus on reality. A fourth of the city had been destroyed. Tens of thousands of citizens of Polis had answered my call and paid the ultimate price. I had survived. My soldiers gave me the Grass Crown and the people of Polis cheered my crowning. I, the one who was at least partially responsible for all those deaths, all that destruction. The irony was almost laughable were it not so appalling. I should have died at Jade Bridge. I expected to pay a terrible price for what I had done and I had, though not the one I expected. I owed my subjects a debt that would be impossible to repay no matter how long I lived. The ferocious blood lust that consumed me on the tenth had cooled and curdled, and I was feeling the after effects. Chloe’s words from years ago came to mind. Combat had unleashed my inner beast. Unlike Chloe, I did not consider that a good thing. Would I be haunted by the shades of all those I had killed? So many, scores certainly.
I took my finger out of my mouth, studying the dents my teeth had made. My hand… so drenched in blood that I had to soak it to remove my gauntlet. Never had I imagined that I could be capable of such violence. I had kept my vow to the goddess and slain the enemies of Polis without hesitation. I wasn’t so sure about the remorse part.
Thargelon had been correct—I had seen and done things that I would never forget, things that I wished I could talk to him about. I had not appreciated until now how much his presence had meant for me these last few years. If only… now Thar was dead and gone, like my loyal horse, like Alissa, like my father. I saved my city and my people, but I lost so much. I was more alone than at any time in my life, and I had been given the most important job in my world. My breathing became ragged, my chest seizing. For a moment I didn’t know what was happening. I leaned my crowned head on my hand and sobbed as the heartache took over.
4 Tips to Write Sequel Scenes That Sparkle
I found this excerpt extremely well-written, to the point that I would not have been surprised to find it in a bestselling fantasy novel. The use of detail and the flow of the sentences is tight and focused, full of both professionalism and personality. Even though this is a scene from the middle of the book, I got a good sense of the protagonist and her rich setting.
As always, it’s difficult to fully judge an excerpt out of its context, but despite the beautiful and gripping writing, I do wonder if it’s not perhaps too lengthy a sequel to keep readers’ interest from wandering. This will depend in part on the overall pacing of the story up to this point. However, for the sake of this post as an instructive piece, I’m going to assume this true and that the following pointers might be used to prevent any possibility of losing readers’ attention.
1. Make Full Use of Your Characters’ Reactions
Classic scene structurelooks like this:
1. Scene (Action)
c. Outcome (Disaster)
2. Sequel (Reaction)
As such, the sequel is first of all the sections that allows you to show your characters’ emotional, mental, and physical reactions to their most recent goal, whether it was achieved, defeated, or something in between. The sequel is also the bridge to the next scene goal, in which characters figure out how to respond and what to do next.
This is why the sequel is such a powerful part of the story. It is what creates the ebb and flow of cause and effect. Although you can sometimes summarize or merely infer the sequel part of the structure (or the scene part, come to that), sequels must be given their proper due especially after deeply important scenes such as in Robert’s excerpt.
For example, if we did not get to witness the new Empress’s responses to the tremendous events that have just happened, we would at best misread her and at worst find her a non-reactive robot. More than that, we may fail to understand what motivates her to move forward into the next scene’s actions. Robert’s excerpt does an excellent job of preventing this from happening.
2. Don’t Rehash What Readers Already Know
In real life when something big happens, our reaction phase is usually filled with lots of rehashing. We review events in our minds over and over. Writers sometimes attempt to mimic this reality, both because that’s what happens and as a way of reminding readers exactly what the character is reacting to. Sometimes this works, but often it is unnecessary since it adds no new information. After all, the readers just experienced everything the character is reacting to.
For example, if I’m correct in guessing that the scenes prior to Robert’s contemplative sequel with the Empress showed everything she’s thinking about—the citizens rallying, the violent coup, her battle rage—then the lengthy summary of these events may feel repetitive to readers.
This is not always true (and certainly not if the events were not shown for whatever reason), but usually it is sufficient to simply dramatize a character’s reaction and trust readers will remember what she is reacting to. The exception is if the remembering brings in new information and/or new perspectives on the information which may advance the plot of their own accord.
3. Let Characters React Together
Because reaction necessarily originates in our heads, it can seem logical to write sequel scenes as internal narrative or introspection. Sometimes this is exactly right, but often we can find a more lively and entertaining sequel by allowing characters to react together.
Depending on how big the previous scene’s conflict was and what the outcome produced, emotions will often be running pretty high. This is the perfect time to hint at or even unleash interpersonal conflicts between characters.
For example, Robert’s scene might have featured a subordinate character—an advisor perhaps—whose reactions to the Empress’s coronation are at odds with her own. He might be ecstatic over her show of power via violence, or he might be unhappy that she allowed herself to be crowned. Either way, dialogue often offers the opportunity for more dynamic dimensions, even in slower scenes. It also allows you to dramatize your POV character’s internal conflict or polarized emotions.
4. Focus on the Dilemma and Decision—What Comes Next?
Because we often refer to the sequel as the “reaction” part of the scene, it can be easy to think the reaction piece of the structure (i.e., reaction > dilemma > decision) is the most important. This is not necessarily true. The reaction phase builds verisimilitude and deepens character development, but it is the character’s decision that moves the plot forward into the next scene.
As such, the true focus of the sequel is the dilemma. The outcome of the previous scene has left the character in a pickle. At the least, it has prompted the need for new solutions to new problems. How the character reacts to this dilemma and what he decides to do about it will provide the bridge between this scene and the next scene. The decision does not necessarily need to be explicitly outlined, since it will be more fully dramatized as the goal in the next section, but you should at least lead right up to it.
Although Robert’s excerpt may indeed go on to do just this, what we see here focuses entirely on the Empress’s reaction. There are hints of her future dilemmas, but no clear sense where the next scene may lead—and therefore little momentum pulling readers forward. If I were to randomly pick this book up at this scene, I might keep reading thanks solely to the excellent writing, but were it not for that, the lack of a proper hook into the next scene would probably cause me to stop here.
Strong sequel scenes can make or break a book. Learning to include them is a foundational step. Learning to write them into deeply interesting and integral pieces of your plot will ensure readers never look away.
My thanks to Robert for sharing his excerpt, and my best wishes for his story’s success. Stay tuned for more analysis posts in the future!