Ciao, SEers. Last time, we discussed Dwight Swain’s concepts of scenes. (If you missed that post, you can find it here. You can also find the earlier introductory post on both scenes and sequels here.) Remember, a chapter’s scenes can be one of two things, a scene or a sequel. Today, we’re going to go deeper into the concept of sequels.
What is a sequel?
Sequels are the “reactive” units of a story. They include reactions, dilemmas, and decisions. Sequels must contain all three items before advancing to the following scene. Why? Without each, there isn’t a proper resolution and the sequel doesn’t work. Also, this is the time to give your reader a breather. The scene is all about motion, energy, drive. It’s fast-paced. But readers can’t sustain a prolonged adrenaline rush. The slower downtime of a sequel is critical for pacing. That’s what they’re for.
Let’s look more closely at the three parts of a sequel.
A reaction is how your POV character emotionally responds to the disaster. Remember, disasters are devastating. There’s going to be sorrow, fear, frustration, anger. Your guy is in pain, and the reader needs to feel it with him. Flex your literary muscles a bit. We want this section to be palpable and powerful. This is where the reader bonds with the character, relates to his predicament. Becomes invested in the outcome.
- When your character is facing his demise, he’ll be terrified.
- When damaging photos of your character are leaked to the press, he’ll be angry and mortified.
- When he develops a blood clot, he’ll be frustrated and frightened.
- When his captor returns to the room, he’ll be panicked and desperate.
What do these reactions feel like? Racing heart, churning stomach. Sweaty palms, leaden feet. All the physical reactions are great, but they’re simply manifestations of the internal angst. Let the readers feel it with the character. The decreasing odds, the defeat, the things left unsaid… these eat at the character. And readers can empathize. That’s when you really get reader buy-in. But this isn’t enough. What the character does about this defines who he is. That takes us to the second aspect of the sequel.
A dilemma is when your character must act but has no good choices. The more dire your disaster in your scene, the worse your character’s options are now. If the options aren’t dire—worse, if there’s a good one—his decision is easy and there’s no tension. We want tension. We want our readers freaking out about what’s going to happen next. Of course the character is going to choose the least of all the evils, but he’ll have to consider all his options first, allowing the reader to make the choice right along with him (and thereby amplifying the stakes).
- He wants the Holy Grail, answered the riddle wrong, and is now going to die. He’s terrified. What are his options?
- Jump off the platform into an abyss.
- Fight the specter that’s about to kill him.
- Pose a counter offer and pray the specter likes to gamble.
- He wants to win the election, but he’s being blackmailed to drop out of the race. He ignored the threats and damaging pictures were released. Angry and embarrassed, he has few options. What might he do?
- Drop out of the race and hide from the public.
- Hire a shady PI (despite all the promised donations drying up) to dig up dirt on his competitor.
- Throw himself at the mercy of all wronged parties and hope his candor is a good first step to winning back voters. The backlash will be awful, but if he can weather the storm, he might garner some good will.
- He wants to heal, but the therapy is too difficult. Because he quit trying, he got a blood clot and is now facing surgery. What are his options?
- He can ignore the prognosis and let whatever happens happen.
- He can try a non-invasive procedure that might not work on time. Or at all.
- He can have the surgery even though he almost died from the anesthesia the last time, and going under again runs a serious risk of him never waking up again.
- He wants to escape, but he’s chained to the wall. His captor heard his escape efforts and is coming down to see what happened.
- He can shove the chain back into the wall, try to hide the damage, and hope his captor leaves without noticing what he did.
- He can try to bargain with the captor.
- He can try to overpower the captor even though he’s tired, weak from lack of food, and weighed down by the chain.
None of these options is ideal. But that’s what adds tension to the story.
A decision is the course of action your character settles on after weighing all his choices. You have to include this in your sequel because it is the transition out of the sequel (or reactive part of the unit) and into the next scene (or proactive section). Your reader is still with your character. If the decision he makes is illogical, you run the risk of frustrating the reader. At best, she’ll lose her bond with the character. At worse, she’ll put down the story and never pick it up again. You want the decision to be one the reader can relate to, one she’ll respect. One that is far from desirable but still has a chance of succeeding. One that results in your character having a new goal to achieve.
- The specter is going to kill him, but he offers a double-or-nothing deal for a second chance. New goal: answer the second question right or lose his life and his partner’s.
- He throws himself on the mercy of the public, but in admitting the truth, he’s going to lose his family. New goal: repair his relationship with his wife.
- He chooses the non-invasive treatment for his blood clot. New goal: live through the procedure then actually do the therapy so he can walk again.
- He decides to hide his escape efforts from his captor. New goal: distract the captor until he leaves, then build up his strength to give himself better odds when he has to fight his way out.
Now, remember—a sequel follows a scene. It’s a reaction to what happened earlier. And a scene follows a sequel. It’s the new goal once a course of action has been determined. To finish your story, you’re going to want to write a series of alternating scenes and sequels until the final resolution.
If this feels a little too ping-pongy, I’d like to suggest multiple POV characters. It will feel a lot less like action/reaction if there’s an element of suspense between each. And you get that suspense by changing the focus of the story. Maybe from one hero to another, maybe from hero to villain. It’s also worth noting that the tension can be multiplied if your two heroes are working at cross-purposes or if your hero and villain have the same goals but different motivations. Honestly, if you add enough variations, your readers will never notice you’re following the scene/sequel circle.
Do you consciously write sequels after your scenes? Do you have a different method when you write? Do you have other suggestions for adding variety to the cycle? Let’s discuss it below.