In Dwight Swain’s book, Techniques of the SellingWriter, he teaches about scenes and sequels. Try not to get confused. Really, a scene is a scene. But Mr. Swain is clever in explaining how types of scenes should rotate. So he calls one type of scene a scene, and he calls the other type of scene a sequel.
According to Mr. Swain, a scene is made up of three things that should happen in this, logical order:
1. Goal- This is what your character wants at the start of the scene
2. Conflict- But something starts to thwart that goal
3. Disaster- Until something kills the goal altogether
And a sequel encompasses the:
1. Reaction- Your character responds (shock, fear, tears, disbelief) then realizes he can’t stay like that forever.
2. Dilemma- So your character looks at the options before him
3. Decision- And makes a choice about what to do next
And then you’re ready to go back to the top with another Goal and move through the process again and again.
Let’s see how this might play out in a popular book most everyone is familiar with.
Goal: All are gathered in the town square for the reaping. Katniss just wants the reaping to be done for this year with her family and friends safe.
Conflict: Prim is now old enough to be included in the reaping, but surely Prim’s name won’t be drawn. Her name is only included once.
Disaster: But Prims name is drawn!
Reaction: Katniss is stunned
Dilemma: Until she sees Prim going forward!
Decision: Then Katniss runs up to the stage and volunteers to take Prim’s place.
Shall we do Another one?
How about Anne of Green Gables?
Goal: Anne is trying to listen to the teacher.
Conflict: But Gilbert is whispering to Anne, trying to get her attention despite her ignoring him.
Disaster: And then Gilbert calls her carrots.
Reaction: Anne jumps up, screams at Gilbert, and breaks her slate over his head.
Dilemma: Now Anne is in trouble for her outburst.
Decision: She will never speak to Gilbert Blithe again!
Now, I know this looks fun, but try not to get carried away and let this keep you from writing. When I first read Mr. Swain’s book, I tried to go through my entire manuscript and make sure I had perfect scenes and sequels one after another. It didn’t exactly work. But I did manage to make sure that every scene had a goal, every disaster had a reaction, and every dilemma had a decision.
This is a powerful structure for a reason. It follows to logic of human nature. Every scene needs a purpose. It needs these ingredients: goal, conflict, disaster, reaction, dilemma, and a decision. But they might not be so cut and dry. They may happen in several pages, or a few lines of dialogue. The point is for you to have a purpose for the scenes in your book and that each one does something to move the story forward.
So give this process a try and let me know how it works.