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Plot: Scene, Sequel and Summary

Have you ever heard the phrase ‘scene and sequel’, and wondered what it meant?

Scene

A scene is a unit of action. Something happens. A scene isn’t a person thinking about other characters, it isn’t a group of people sitting around talking about what did happen (or what might happen), and it isn’t a long passage of description following a character through a range of actions.

KM Weiland says each scene will have three parts:

  • Goal: what your viewpoint character wants
  • Conflict: why he or she can’t achieve their goal
  • Outcome: the build-up to the next scene

Sol Stein gives a useful list of questions to review for each scene:

  • Is the scene described in terms of the action that takes place? If there is no action, there is no scene.
  • Is each scene visible throughout so that the reader can see what is happening before his eyes? If the action is not visible, you are probably sliding into narrative summary of past events or offstage events.
  • Which character in the scene do you have the most affection for? How can you make the reader feel affection or compassion for that character in this scene?
  • Is there a character in this scene who threatens the protagonist subtly or openly, psychologically or physically?

Each scene should be from the point of view of a single character, the character who has the most at risk in the scene.

Sequel

Sequel follows scene, and also has three components:

  • Reaction: to the disaster in the preceding scene
  • Dilemma: what to do?
  • Decision: Determine a solution to the dilemma. This will formulate a goal for the next scene (or the next scene where this is the POV character)

There is some controversy over sequel. Some say:

The sequel—the second half of the Scene—sometimes gets shortchanged. But it is every bit as important as the scene, since it allows characters to process the events of the scene and figure out their next move. (KM Weiland)

Others say:

If you’ve used the ‘Scene & Sequel’ method of structuring, shrink the sequels. Most sequels need to be no longer than a paragraph. Often, a single sentence is enough. (Rayne Hall)

I’ve read novels with too much introspection, to the point that it brings the plot to a grinding halt. I’ve also read novels where it’s all go-go-go! action scenes, and no one ever stops to think about anything (acting without thinking is as stupid in fiction as in real life). So here is my entirely unsubstantiated view as a prolific fiction reader:

  • If it feels like there is too much sequel, cut some.
  • If it doesn’t feel like there is enough, add some.

The first quarter of the novel is introducing the reader to the characters. Deep point of view is a good way of helping the reader get to know and empathise with the character, and a way of providing us with necessary backstory. However, introspection should not be at the expense of getting the plot moving. The second quarter of the novel is the main character reacting to the first major plot point. Reacting. It therefore makes sense that they have a level of introspection, probably more than in the first quarter.

The third quarter of the novel, is when the main character starts to act rather than react, so there is probably less introspection. The final quarter of the novel is building up to the climax. The pace of the novel should be increasing: shorter sentences, more action—and less introspection. We want the heroine to defuse the bomb, catch the villain and get her man. We don’t want to bring the tension to a grinding halt a with a detailed and descriptive interior monologue about whether she should have chosen Plum Seduction nail polish rather than Cherry Crush and what might that symbolise. We. Just. Don’t. Care.

Summary

Narrative summary is telling, not showing, and telling should be kept to a minimum. We don’t need to know every detail, for example, of leaving the house, locking the front door, walking to the car, unlocking the driver’s side door, climbing in, then starting the car—unless the villain has hooked a bomb to the ignition, in which case giving this level of detail would ramp up the tension. But if it’s just a part of the everyday routine, we don’t need to know the details. Summarise, then move on to the next action sequence.

The key is to show the intense scenes and tell the less important transitions (the narrative summary) between important scenes. As a guide, if what you are writing has the possibility of present-moment dialogue, it is a scene and should be written as such. If not, you’re in summary. (James Scott Bell)

However, there are times when summary is useful. A short passage of narrative summary will slow the plot down, which can provide a welcome break for the reader if there have been a number of high-action sequences. Summary can also be useful when you have a lot of repetitive action (e.g. household chores, or routine actions at work). Show the action the first time, then use summary. 

 

This brings me to the end of this series on plot and structure. Next week we will start a series on publishing options. Sign up to follow by email to ensure you don’t miss any posts.

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