Grasping Scene and Sequel

I had a grand epiphany about writing on this morning’s walk, and it should make writing so much easier for me.

I’ve always understood and yet still struggled with the “scene and sequel” structure. I think maybe I’ve been doing it unconsciously, but the moment I start thinking about it, it doesn’t work for me, and yet it’s a great way of testing a plot. When a story isn’t working, it’s usually because it fails on scene and sequel.

The idea is that in the scene, the action part of a story sequence, the character has a scene goal related to the story goal (usually a subset of the story goal). She encounters obstacles and conflict in trying to achieve the goal, ending in a “disaster” in which she can’t achieve the scene goal. In the sequel part of the sequence, she reacts to that disaster and then regroups and comes up with a new goal, which drives the action into the next scene.

That always makes sense to me when I read books on writing or go to workshops, and then when I try to apply it, it falls apart, mostly because I feel like it ends up with the character spinning her wheels. At some point, she has to achieve something in order to ever accomplish her story goal. In a mystery, for example, scene goals would be things like getting information from a witness or finding clues at the crime scene. The “disaster” in which she doesn’t achieve her scene goal would be not getting the information or not finding clues. While you don’t have much of a story if the detective gets all the info from the first interview or finds the critical clue early in the book, you also don’t have much of a story if the detective fails in every scene and never gets information or finds clues. She’s going to have to get answers somewhere along the way if she’s going to solve the case at the end, and you don’t have a very good detective if she’s wrong every step of the way.

My realization this morning is that I’ve probably been taking it all too literally. “Disaster” might be too strong a word for the kind of outcome you need. It just needs to be something that requires further work. You don’t want the character to be right all the time, but she can still get useful information. So, that witness may not have the information she expected or wanted to get, but the information she does get sends the investigation off in a new direction. She does find a clue when searching, but that clue is going to require her to track something else down. Or it may implicate someone she doesn’t want to think could be guilty. Not every scene has to end in a “no” for the goal. It’s possible to have a “yes, but” or even a “yes, and.” The main thing is that the end of the scene needs to lead the character to a decision about what to do next, and that should involve escalating levels of difficulty until she achieves the story goal.

That’s probably obvious to a lot of people, but it finally clicked for me this morning when I was thinking about it while walking. And then while writing this post, I realized what’s wrong with the book I’m revising and how to fix it. It’s like the heavens have opened and the angels are singing to me.

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