One of the writing concepts I struggle with is the principle of Scene and Sequel. Jack Bickham has a whole book about it in the Writer’s Digest series of how-to books, and it also shows up in Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, and in any number of other writing books and workshops.
The basic idea is that a novel is made up of a series of scenes and sequels. The scenes are the action part. A character has a goal and does something to try to achieve that goal but runs into conflict or opposition so that he has to try multiple approaches. The scene ends in some kind of disaster in which the character either definitively fails to reach the goal so that trying another approach won’t work, or he achieves it, but in a way that makes things worse for him. Either way, it throws the character off-balance so he has to regroup. Then there’s the sequel, which is the reaction part of the sequence. The character responds to the disaster, has a dilemma about what to do next, then makes a decision about his next step, which becomes the goal for the next scene.
When I read about this or hear someone speak about it in a workshop, it makes so much sense. Following this kind of structure ensures that there’s conflict and that the action drives from one scene to another. And then when I try to apply it to what I’m working on, that’s the part my editor or agent says needs to be cut. All that trying multiple approaches and ending in failure results in a bunch of extraneous scenes that keep the story from progressing.
At some point, the characters have to get what they want in order for the story to go anywhere. You wouldn’t want the detective in a mystery story to find the definitive clue to solve the case in the first scene of his investigation, but the story won’t go anywhere if his goal in a scene is to find a clue and he doesn’t find anything.
In my favorite story structure example, the original Star Wars, we’ve got a similar situation. Luke and Obi-Wan go into the cantina with the goal of finding a starship captain who’ll take them to Alderaan. There’s a bit of conflict — a bar fight and some negotiation with Han Solo — but the first pilot they talk to agrees to take them. If this had followed the “rules,” they would have failed to achieve their goal, and it would have ruined the movie because they’d have never left Tatooine. It would have been a movie about them trying and failing to find transportation while the Death Star was out there blowing up planets.
So, are all these writing gurus wrong about this, or was I misinterpreting it? Dwight Swain does refer to incidents and happenings, which are story fragments that aren’t technically scenes because they don’t have goals or conflicts. But in this cases, the characters do have a goal, and this scene is critical to the plot. The cantina scene isn’t just a filler moment to flesh out characters and relationships.
I finally figured out that maybe the problem is the terminology. I was thinking of a “scene” in theater terms. In a play, a scene is the part of the play that takes place in a particular location and time, and at the end of a scene, the stage goes dark and people wearing black run out and rearrange things to create a new setting or show that time has passed before the lights come on and the next scene begins. In a movie, it’s similar, but there may be a quick blink to black as a transition or, in Star Wars, a wipe transition. In a book, you get a blank line or a graphic item between scenes.
But I think in story structure terms, what they’re calling a scene isn’t the same thing. You could have multiple theater-type scenes in a story scene, or you could have multiple story scenes in a theater-type scene. Maybe there needs to be a different term for this to reduce the confusion, but I haven’t been able to think of anything.
So, looking at Star Wars again, I think I need to broaden the scope and back up a bit. The scene goal comes after Luke’s previous goal to just drop Obi-Wan off and go back home ends in the disaster of his uncle and aunt being killed. He tells Obi-Wan he’ll go with him to bring the droids to Alderaan, and that’s his new goal. Finding transportation is just one of the things they have to deal with along the way, along with avoiding Imperial entanglements. The disaster comes when they reach where Alderaan should be and it’s not there—which would certainly count as a definitive failure to reach their goal. Then they find themselves taken on board the space station whose plans they were taking to Alderaan, so it’s a big disaster. In response to that, they have to come up with a plan to escape. This “scene” has encompassed multiple theater-type scenes: the arrival in Mos Eisley, the scene in the cantina, the arrival at the docking bay, the escape from Tatooine, the lightsaber training and game on the ship, and the arrival at the ruins of Alderaan, and all this is braided around scenes taking place on the Death Star.
We still don’t have our heroes trying multiple approaches before they fail. They fly to Alderaan and it’s not there, period. That may only apply to certain kinds of stories. Going back to my hypothetical detective story, the scene goal might be to find evidence that Suspect A is the killer, so the detective might look at clue 1, then clue 2, then interview a possible witness, all without getting anything definitive, but then the last approach they try leaves them with proof that Suspect A couldn’t have been the killer — a disaster— so now he needs a new line of investigation to pursue.
Realizing that I was taking things far too literally and narrowly helped me finally make sense of this concept. I can take a bigger-picture view of my scene goals, and then I can have proper disasters without bringing my story to a screeching halt and without a lot of extraneous filler in the attempt to give my characters disasters. I’ve also seen a story structure that has this approach built in. Instead of looking at in terms of scenes and sequels, there’s a part of the outline for goal A, then the drive to achieve goal A, then failure of goal A, and regrouping, followed by a new goal.
In those smaller theater-style scenes, you don’t have to keep the characters from getting what they want. I like to think of that in terms of what’s going to get them closer to having to deal with the main story problem. You want them to fail at anything that would make life easier, but succeed at things that are going to get them in deeper trouble. So, Luke and Obi-Wan succeed in getting transportation because that will take them closer to bigger trouble. If they fail, they’re stuck on Tatooine, away from all the problems. But they fail to reach Alderaan because it would be too easy to just bring the droids straight to where they were told to take them.
A good test would be whether or not achieving the goal would end the story. If achieving the goal ends the story, then they have to fail. If failing ends the story, they have to succeed. Luke not getting passage to Alderaan would have ended the story. Luke successfully delivering the droids to Alderaan would have ended the story (or sent it in a different direction). In a mystery story, the detective finding evidence that tells him exactly who the killer is would end the story, so that has to happen late in the story. But the detective searching for evidence and finding nothing at all might also end the story.
Ultimately, I think it’s a mistake to get too tied to any one bit of writing theory. The scene and sequel format is a good tool to use when you’re trying to figure out what should happen in a scene or when you’re trying to analyze a scene that isn’t working, but if you’re too rigid about it, it will stifle your story. At some point, you just have to write and let your story play out.
Here’s the video version of this post (I had to fight my inner perfectionist to post this because I made a few flubs and I was losing my voice, so I may end up reshooting, but it’ll have to do for now):