I’ve been thinking about Dwight Swain’s Scene–Sequel construct for some time now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that its definition and interpretation by today’s writers is causing some serious problems, especially for inexperienced writers.
What is a Scene and a Sequel? These are two types of elements in a fictional story as defined by Dwight Swain in his “Techniques for the Selling Writer.”
The Scene consists of:
- A character goal
- Opposition to this goal resulting in conflict
- An outcome, preferably a negative one… even a disaster….
The main function of the Scene is to create drama by showing us the point of view character trying to achieve the goal in spite of the opposition.
The Sequel on the other hand consists of:
- An emotional reaction to the previous outcome
- A dilemma and deliberation on how to go on
- A decision that will in turn give rise to a new goal for the next Scene
The main function of the Sequel is to propel us from one scene to the next. To telescope between scenes as Swain calls it.
One way to use these would of course be to mix them in a Scene-Sequel-Scene-pattern on and on. But usually, you’d have more Scenes than Sequels.
Problem 1: What is a Sequel?
Why did Dwight Swain call the Sequel a “Sequel”? Why didn’t he use some other terms suggested by interpreters of his theory, like “reaction scene” (as opposed to the “action scene”) or “reactive scene” (as opposed to the “proactive scene”)?
He didn’t do that. He called it a Sequel.
My interpretation is that he did this because the Sequel was never supposed to be a scene on its own or even worse a scene in its own chapter. The Sequel was always intended to be a follow-up on a scene. Something that follows a scene like a tail follows a dog.
It can also be used to introduce a scene. A “how we get from the previous scene to what’s going to happen now.”
This way of turning the Sequel into a “prequel” is common when you want to use the outcome or setback to create a page turner. You want to end the scene with a catastrophe and do the transportation in the beginning of the next scene instead.
Problem 2: So, you’re only allowed to react in the tail end of the scene?
The definition of a Sequel as something that (may) begin with a reaction is very problematic and it risks luring the inexperienced writer into thinking you should save all your reactions for the Sequel and have none in the Scene.
Obviously, every single one of your scenes should be an intricate web of actions and reactions, stimuli and responses. This is not something that should only happen in one section of the text, it should permeate the text from the first to the last page.
Other things that have been suggested that only the sequel should contain (which I contend should also be present at selected locations or throughout your Scenes):
- Showing theme
- Showing setting
- Revealing backstory
I’m even going so far as saying a flashback is a scene—you’d better make it at least as dramatic as one of your scenes or we’ll start skimming. And a backflash (when you do a micro flashback in one, or at most two, sentences) belongs in a scene as well.
As for deliberating on solutions for previous disasters and making decisions about how to go on? Yes, most of the time this is likely boring and should be part of the Sequel, but not always. There can be points, for instance, in suspense or comedy where a Scene should contain these elements.
Rethinking the Sequel
The definition of the Scene is pretty solid, with the exception that sometimes, especially when creating tension or tempo, scenes may not actually have all the elements of the scene as proposed by Swain. When Tom Clancy does 50-word scenes in his plot points the whole apparatus of goal-opposition-setback will be spread out over several such scenes, creating a “Swain-Scene” spread over several shorter scene-snippets.
But on the whole, presented as one solid section of text, or spread in several, a scene should definitely have a goal, opposition, and an outcome, and to make the text dramatic, that outcome should mostly be negative to the protagonist.
The telescoping/transporting quality of the Sequel is also a very solid proposition. It should definitely be something that propels us from one scene of showing to the other. However, some things need to be redefined with regards to the Sequel.
It is not the only place for reactions.
By placing the reaction to the setback in a separate “section” of the text Swain might have wanted to suggest the scene and it’s finalizing setback should be handled in one section of the text and then the reaction to that setback should be handled in another, later, part of the text, in order to create for instance a cliffhanger or otherwise create suspense.
Using cliffhangers and building suspense can be done with or without a specific scene structure, and with or without Sequels that contains reactions. The on-page text can be designed however works best. Placing the reaction in the sequel only adds problems rather than solving them.
The Sequel is also not the only place for things like flashbacks, theme, setting, and/or mood. These things should be employed both in a Sequel and a Scene.
Ask yourself, with for instance theme and tone, do you do these best as something you tell the reader or something you show them? Do you do them best mixed up with action or in some kind of pause/reaction/deliberation chamber separated from the ongoing events of the story? How will, by the way, such a parking-lot section of the text feel to the reader?
The Sequel can contain just the same content as a Scene can.
The difference between a Scene and a Sequel is in their respective sizes and if you only show them or also tell them.
In the Scene, you show (preferably with no telling at all) and it’s long.
In the Sequel, you mix showing and telling and it’s as short as it can be.
How short? Half a page? Great. One page… uh, ok… two pages… ooohkay… Three… getouttahere!
Remember, it’s purely a transportation between dramatic scenes! If you can get away with one sentence, or one paragraph, and you often can, you do it!
An “at the same time in Bob’s apartment,” might not win you a Nobel prize but it will get the job done and if you vary it enough it will be perfect. You don’t need a whole scene if it’s not important.
If you use a Scene or a Sequel is all about the dramatic potential of the event and the focus of the story.
If it is dramatic and if its drama is relevant to the story, make it into a Scene. Otherwise, use a Sequel.
Drama can come both from hot action scenes and tense low key suspenseful scenes. If, on the other hand, it’s just transportation, use a Sequel.
Design your story by listing the events you think should be in it (or find the events by analyzing the first draft). Weed out anything that isn’t vital to the story in all its aspects. Pick the 75% or so most important and dramatic events. These are your Scenes. The rest are your Sequels.
You can use fewer or more Sequels to tell more or less in the same amount of pages, but at above 1/4 to 1/3 Sequels, you might want to consider cutting some low priority events or your Sequels will be too long or too numerous.
The reaction to the setback
Finally, the Scene-Sequel construct instructs us to place strong emotional reactions after catastrophic setbacks, and that is sound writing.
While the scene is a weave of action and reaction a huge setback requires a stronger emotional response.
Depending on what type of story you’re writing, your characters might swallow the response down, showing no more than a tear in the corner of their eyes before they reload and pursue the antagonist with even stronger drive and purpose, or your whole story could center around an emotional response to a catastrophe that may not even be part of the story. Or anything in between.
The important point is, you don’t need some special type of scene to write that emotional response… you just write a scene, a part of a scene or several scenes showing it. Maybe it becomes an undertone in all the scenes following the catastrophe? Or, you may even tell it in a Sequel.
What works best depends on the genre, the focus of the story, what you need to build and motivate your characters, and most importantly what you want the reader’s takeaway to be.
Alice and Bob
Let’s take an example:
Alice and Bob meet on their first day in College. That moment gets a scene. However, after that, they fall in love, become boyfriend/girlfriend and nothing of much note happens for the rest of the year. That’s a Sequel. Their tear-filled goodbyes at the end of the school year get another Scene and then the story progresses to tell us about how they cheat on one another during the summer break.
Or maybe the story is about that first year and the drama of falling in love for the first time. Then the year will be full of Scenes and Sequels.
Or maybe the story is about coming back from summer break for year two and the drama of having been unfaithful during the break.
The fact that a Scene should end in a disaster tells us that we shouldn’t use scenes for events that progress with no drama.
If Bob and Alice don’t have drama in their love story, it gets a Sequel. If, on the other hand, there are tons of drama in that love story, then it gets tons of scenes.
If you want to see a great example of Sequels used to their fullest potential, check out the TV series Alias. They manage to get a staggering amount of things done in one 45 minute episode because of the very clever use of Sequels.
For all Sydney Bristow’s travel between countries and cities of the world, we rarely see the inside of an airport or an airplane. Instead, there’s the Alias theme music, a shot of some symbolic building and a text with the name of the country or city, and boom! We’re in Spain or Paris or anywhere else in the world and we go straight to the Scene with virtually no transportation at all.
One episode can have Sydney travel across the world and still have time for her personal life and work-life and school life…
That’s using Sequels like a pro, and not a single one of them contain any emotional reactions. It’s pure transportation and it makes it possible to have tons of action and have time for some interpersonal drama and character building as well. All in under 45 minutes.