Scene and Sequel is a topic that isn’t addressed often enough during craft workshops—perhaps because it’s something that should occur naturally with good story telling. Scenes are units of ACTION, where characters interact and events happen that impact them. Whereas, sequels are units of REACTION which result in decisions that will drive the next scene.
The purpose of any scene is to engage and entertain the reader and push the plot forward. As we all know, the best way to do that is by making the reader care what happens to them. Therefore, all scenes should contain goals, motivation, and conflict—either specific to that scene, or ones working toward the overall story goal or resolution. Something in the status of those goals and conflicts should ALWAYS change during the course of the scene or you will have written a non-event where nothing really happens.
In judging contests, I frequently see this in entries from new writers, more often from newbies who are pantsers. They construct what they think are scenes, in which starry-eyed characters banter, make witty remarks, and pant over each other (in romances), and yet nothing is actually happening because the entire encounter lacks any character goals or conflict and therefore nothing changes.
At the same time, even a book filled with scenes containing change can feel episodic and disconnected if there are no sequels to join them and drive the plot forward. A sequel is a passage delivered in either introspective narrative or actual dialogue from the focal character who REACTS to whatever happened or changed in the scene and then makes a DECISION about how to proceed. That decision is what will incite the action in the next scene.
For example, in the prologue of my recent release, A Little Bit of Déjà Vu, my heroine, Margie, realizes her teenage daughter’s teacher is the NFL quarterback who broke her heart nineteen years ago, and her shy child is interested in the man’s hunky football-star son. (Action)
The reader learns Margie had a controlling shrew of a mother, and she’ll do anything to avoid emulating her mom when dealing with her own daughter. (Motivation) She desperately wants to avoid running into the man who broke her heart and to keep her daughter from attracting his son’s attention. (Goal). But how can she stop her daughter from pursuing the boy without acting just like her mother? (Conflict)
The sequel at the end of this scene begins when Margie’s daughter reminds her the next evening is back-to-school night. Margie feels sick as she realizes she can’t attend without seeing the man who broke her heart. (Reaction) Therefore, she (Decides) her nausea is a good thing because it means she won’t have to fake an upset stomach to get out of attending. This sets up the action for the opening scene in chapter one, when the reader learns Margie’s daughter has indeed been dating Margie’s worst nightmare for the last eight months, and although Margie has been successful in avoiding the boy’s father all that time, the clock has run out and she’s now being forced to meet him. (Action)
In summation, your entire book should be a series of Scenes (Action units) connected by Sequels (Reaction and Decision units) that drive the action in the next scene, thus propelling the plot forward.
Now, if you’re anything like me, a half dozen questions are buzzing in your head like:
How long does a sequel need to be?
Does a sequel have to follow a scene immediately?
Does a sequel have to follow every scene?
What if there is no clear-cut choice for the character to make on how to proceed?
I’m no expert, but I’ve found my favorite books contain sequels that are no shorter or longer than then they absolutely need to be. I know that’s a vague answer, but sometimes you need a long sequel filled with angst and emotion, and sometimes a single sentence is more powerful.
The sequel can also be interspersed between the action and dialogue in a scene. It’s an effective way of delivering the reaction and decision units without giving the reader long chunks of narrative and introspection, which can kill a story’s pacing. To illustrate how few words a sequel can be, here’s how I handled it in my prologue.
Throughout the scene, Margie, the heroine, has been REACTING like crazy (in between the lines of dialog) to the bombshell her daughter has dropped.
Margie snapped her gaze to Emma, creasing her forehead. “Tomorrow?”
“Uhh—yeahhh. Remember? Back-to-school night?”
The cookie dough she’d eaten settled like a lump of clay in her gut. (REACTION) On the bright side, at least she wouldn’t have to fake an upset stomach to get out of attending that little soiree.(DECISION, she’s simply not going to go.)
If you would like to read the entire prologue to see how I inserted her reactions, you can find it here. Amazon’s Look Inside A Little Bit of Déjà Vu
A sequel does NOT have to follow every single scene. I frequently insert subplot scenes from a secondary character’s POV and come back to the REACTION / DECISION to the original scene later in the story. Another technique I’ve found to be really effective is to write the scene in one character’s POV and then deliver the sequel at the opening of the next scene in another character’s POV from that previous scene, thereby presenting both of their perceptions and feelings about what happened. No two people ever view an event in the same way. It also creates a great ping-pong effect that really drives the story forward.
Sometimes there is no clear-cut choice for a character at the end of a scene and the decision must be to just do nothing and to wait and see what happens. Indecision can create great conflict and turmoil for a character.
So now if anyone tells you your story is episodic or the pacing is off, take a look at whether you’ve included the necessary sequels to connect your scenes and drive your plot forward.
Winner of the Romance Writers of America® Golden Heart® award
and the Pacific Northwest Writers Association® Zola award
Sometimes destiny has the last word (and laugh)
Fate thrust them together
Blackmail and deception tore them apart
Nineteen years later, their children’s love reunites them
Now, only truth and forgiveness can make them a family
Margie Bradford is picking up the pieces of her shattered life following her husband’s death. When her cousin encourages her to make a fresh start with her teenage daughter, unsuspecting Margie takes a reading specialist job in the small town of Redemption, PA. The last person she expects to encounter is Rocket Manion, the ex-NFL quarterback and Dr. Phil wannabe who broke her heart nineteen years ago. Strangling her meddling cousin is now at the top of Margie’s to-do list.
Divorced teacher and head football coach Jake Manion experiences an eerie sense of déjà vu when his son announces he’s gotten his girlfriend pregnant. The feeling simply grows stronger when Jake learns the girl’s mother is Maggie, the same woman on whom he’s wasted nearly two decades of bitterness.
While planning their kids’ wedding and helping them grow up too soon, Jake attempts to pick up right where he left off—in Margie’s bed. But no matter how irresistible his kisses are, she isn’t stupid enough to let him hurt her again. Or is she?
Laurie Kellogg is a two-time winner of the Romance Writers of America® Golden Heart® award, winner of the PNWA® Zola award, and a Romantic Times® American Title I finalist. She began writing to avoid housework and has since resorted to naming the dust-bunnies that multiply as fast as real rabbits while she plots love stories that are steamy, heartwarming, romantic fun!