Fixing the Most Common Intermediate Mistake:

How Scene/Sequel structure forces your protagonist to become active

A common mistake among writers, many of them well past the beginner stage, is to assume that if your main character is in the middle of really dramatic events then the story is dramatic—even if all she does is witness and report what she sees. Just as they assume that if their protagonist runs around swinging a sword at everything that moves their character is active—even if he never makes a plan, or launches any of those swordfights in order to achieve his goals. And writers of all genres seem to be downright allergic to having their character sit down and think about what they want to accomplish, and make a plan to accomplish it!

This makes their characters the fictional equivalent of the people whose plan to get out of debt is to win the lottery—and they usually do win their fictional lottery, being rescued by chance, or having some other character solve their problems for them. But people whose problems are solved by a lottery win—whether it takes the form of the cool boy liking you, or being crowned king—will never be respected by the reader. In fact, that reader will probably have given up and put down the book in disgust, because the protagonist is just running around in circles witnessing things (and usually being given lots of help by other characters) instead of doing something themselves to solve their problems.

Scene/sequel is a basic, and well known technique of dramatic structure. The way it works is: Main Character acquires a overarching story goal in the beginning. After that, she goes into every scene with a short term goal that she tries to accomplish in that scene. This short term goal is usually in aid of accomplishing her overarching story goal, but not always. Books are usually richer if the MC wants more than one thing in life—hence sub-plots. And it’s fine for the MC to set out for goal A, reach that goal, and then decide that what they wanted all along was B—and now that they have A, goal B will be even harder to reach. But whether it’s a lesser, sub-plot goal, or a short term goal in aid of the overarching goal, she has something attempts to accomplish in that scene, and both she and the reader know what that goal is and how she plans to do it.

Then in the course of the scene, obstacles arise that prevent the MC from reaching her goal—she fails. Watching the MC struggle to reach that short term goal in each scene is the main source of dramatic tension in any story. And her failure is what ratchets up the tension and the stakes.

There will also be times when MC succeeds in reaching her scene goal—but when she does, success doesn’t complete her story goal, and she now has a bunch more stuff she needs to accomplish in order to get what she wants.

After every scene there will be a short sequel. The sequels are generally much shorter than the scenes, but they are absolutely essential because they’re what holds the story together, maintains dramatic tension, and makes your character work—because the sequel is where they decide what to do next.

Sequels can be done in summary instead of the story “now,” or they can be done with laid out action and dialog, just like a scene. The four steps in as a sequel are: Emotion, where the MC reacts to the failure in the proceeding scene. Thought, where she evaluates what the failure meant to her ability to reach her goal. Decision, where she figures out what she needs to do next, since the last attempt failed. And the beginning of Action, which is actually the beginning of the next scene in which she does whatever she decided to do…and that fails in turn, leading to another sequel, leading to another scene, etc.

Sequels, particularly in action novels, are sometimes so short as to be almost invisible. “Bob didn’t make it through! We’ve got to…” is as long as some sequels need to be. Some sequels, where the main character reflects on the nature and value of their goals and doubts their ability to ever reach them, can be far longer. Frequently (though not always) the sequel is where character growth takes place, because that’s where characters generally make their decisions. And that’s where they show off the determination to proceed in the face of all obstacles that makes them, not just the main character, but ultimately the hero.

And it’s also both how and why your character goes from passive to active, because the sequels are where they think, and establish short and long term goals—instead of running around aimlessly while the story happens to them.

For an example of how this works, let me break down part of the story I set up in my previous tip:

Scene: Main Character learns that her parents are planning to move to a dog-free building, so Muffy will have to go. She complains furiously, but parents are adamant—this house is too expensive and they need to be closer to their jobs. She bursts into tears and flees the room, Muffy clasped in her arms.

Sequel: MC resolves to keep Muffy, whatever the cost. But parents are determined to move, so what can she do? Maybe she could find an apartment where they could be near their jobs that would allow a dog. If she can find one, she could talk them into moving there instead!

Scene: She goes to apartment buildings in the area, but all of them have a no-dogs sign on their doors. She finally goes into one and tracks down the super to ask why everyone hates dogs, and he tells her that the mayor had passed a new city ordinance that all buildings in the city must be dog free.

Sequel: With this new law, there’s no way she can find a building that will take Muffy! How hateful and unfair this is. Surely other people who want to keep their dogs must be as angry about this as she is. And mayors are elected—the have to bow to political pressure…but how to raise some? Everyone in town reads the Booyaboo Gazette!

Scene: She writes a letter to the paper arguing against the ordinance, and it gets a big response…from readers, but not from the mayor, who responds with a public statement that dogs are as bad for people who have allergies as cigarette smoke—and how many people want smoking back in public buildings?

Sequel: Dogs aren’t cigarettes! They do good, not harm, for everyone who isn’t allergic. Clearly more pressure is needed. If protestors in Egypt could bring down a dictator, surely protests can convince an ordinary mayor to change his mind.

Scene: She starts a Twitter account, publicizes it through the paper, and organizes a demonstration in front of the city hall…

These are just a few story beats, but you see how the MC’s decisions lead right into action? And how those chains of decision/action/decision/action move the plot forward. And how tension is generated by both her failures and her successes, as the positive response to her letter in the paper forces the mayor to push back?

In any book there will be some exceptions to straight scene/sequel structure, where the MC is in pursuit of her main story goal. You may have sub-plot/lesser goals that she also tries to attain, and that end with success either shortly before or shortly after the climax.

In most novels there will also be a few “character building” scenes where the MC isn’t pursuing a goal but just living and dealing with the people around her—and how many of those scenes there are depends on what kind of story you’re writing. Character-based problem novels can get by with more of them. Action novels—mystery, fantasy, SF—use fewer. But whatever genre you’re writing, you should be aware that in scenes where your MC isn’t pursuing a defined goal story tension will slacken. In scenes where she is pursing a goal it will pick up. So even in character based stories, you probably want to limit those scenes—because another term for story tension is suspense.

Another exception to standard scene sequel/structure is the beginning of the story, where the character is in the process of acquiring a main story goal, and the climax, where they finally achieve that main story goal. And it’s their previous failures, watching them struggle, revise their plan and struggle again, that makes their final victory matter to the reader.

But even if your plot demands a number of exceptions to strict scene/sequel structure—and it will! —scenes are the bones of the story, and sequels are the ligaments that not only hold those bones together, but let them move the body of the story forward…and sometimes even make it dance.

Summer 2011

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