Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Writing Scenes and Sequels

by Jill Williamson

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.

Hunger Games

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.


  1. Nice post, Jill! This is quite interesting. To be honest, I've never thought of such a structure (typical me) and it kind of overwhelmed me to see that I've been writing pieces with absolutely no hint of something crucial like a character's goal! Lol. :) Haha.

    Thanks for teaching me something new!

    1. You're welcome, Writer! Don't forget those goals!

  2. Thanks for this post! I've never heard of this method. I mean, I always try to follow a plot structure overall in a story, but this has shown me I need to look more closely at the smaller pieces.
    I have a feeling I'll be mentally running through my story's scenes from now until I have a chance to sit down and work on it ;)

  3. Wow! I'd never thought of scenes like this before. "Scenes" to me were always just every small section of a story. Move on to something else happening? New scene. This makes so much more sense and I love how there's a layout. I'm highly tempted to look through my WIP now. . .

  4. This is a great post, Jill! When I first started to read the structure I thought, "How can each scene be crammed with so many plot points?" But then I read the examples(which were genius, by the way) and I felt myself going, "Ohhhh..." Definite light bulb moment.

    If I can craft my story with definite goals/reaction etc. I know it'll make my story a lot stronger. :)

    1. Same here! The examples made it a lot more clear. They were great examples and a great post!

    2. Thanks, guys. I love examples. I'm a visual learner, and I need them to get the "Ah ha!"

  5. :) Love this! I never thought about scene structure this way, but surprisingly this is kind of how my scenes already are. Phew, no rewriting! :P

  6. Awesome post :) I was reading some blogs about goal, conflict, & motivation of a book this weekend. it's great to see it broken down into scenes.

    I've been having trouble getting into a new WIP, I think stepahnie said something she thinks she has an idea but really only has a premise. That may be my problem so I'm trying to study some things like conflicts and how to develop an idea better! JSB talks about the LOCK concept & I've been trying to break down movies & books I like into it, I'm doing good except I tend to be confused over what the real knockout is. I'm working on it!

    1. There are so many clever ways to put together a story. I just spent time with Susie May Warren this past week and found her approach brilliant. I might have to try and share some of it over here. :-)

  7. This makes so much sense, and is very useful. Thanks for posting this!

  8. Hmm. I'm rather confused, but this is very helpful. At least, I'm sure it will be when I use it more. Now I know I've been doing it wrong, and can fix my stories and WIP that seemed to go on meaningless tangents . . . Thanks!

    1. Katia,
      Just because you weren't writing scenes this way doesn't mean you were doing it wrong. The scene sequel thing doesn't work perfectly for everyone. But do try and make sure that each scene has a clear goal that moves the story forward.

  9. LOL! Is Anne of Green Gables that hilarious?! Such a mean thing to call a girl carrot but MAN that was funny. x)

  10. This scene-sequel thing sounds really interesting. I'll have to give it a try some time, but it does sound a little like you could get bogged down in the formula forever.

  11. The great thing about scene/sequel thinking is that it keeps the story moving along without all the boring parts. :) I'd highly recommend reading the original text for even more info. Dwight Swain was a genius.

  12. I'm interested in how this plays out on short stories. Does anyone know of any good short stories that can be read online for free that serve as good examples for the scene-sequel model?