A few weeks back I wrote a program. I reckon that’s not unusual, given that I program for a living. But this one I wrote for myself. There’s a outlining style called Scene and Sequel that I’ve wanted to try for some time. However, I thought it would be clunky copy and pasting template sections as I worked. So I made an application to walk me through the process. Today, I’m going to explain what it’s all about, and maybe you’ll see elements of this in stories you’ve seen or it’ll help with your own story telling.
S&S Meet In a Nutshell
The premise from Dwight Swain is that stories move from action to re-action. Scene to sequel. While most of us know what a Scene is, sequel was a special scene meant to show the emotional to rational response to the crazy stuff that just happened. A simple example I read from Jim Butcher is this:
You’re driving your car on a dark and stormy night. As you approach the green light, a car darts across. You swerve, pump the breaks, and end up hugging a pole.
Oh crap! You want to wring that jackhole’s neck. What are you going to tell your parents? Maybe tell them the truth? But then, what are you doing on this road when you were supposed to be dropping Daisy off? I know, Tell them you were asked to drop something off out here.
If it’s not obvious, the first paragraph is the Scene, the second is the sequel. Following that pattern will give you a story that realistically follows human responses that ebb and flow.
There’s a set of questions or parameters one should answer per scene and sequel. My program asks the question, the user types, and clicks a button to add start a new scene or sequel. No messing around with pasting templates, just type, press Tab and noodle through what happens next. It’s possible to stack scenes together, but eventually a sequel follows them, and after a sequel, the next thing will be a scene. That’s because that’s the point of a sequel, to choose what action to do next. Once the user finishes, they can save or export to Word. It’s not fancy.
Anatomy of a Scene
My tool asks a short set of questions, some are in common with sequels, others specific to scenes. I also found a few more I need to add, so I’ll detail that new bit of info as well.
POV: Who are we experiencing this as
Location: Where are we, which should affect the scene
When: obvious, but time of day, timing in the overall plot should be kept in mind
Weather: This can affect the scene, and is easy to forget about.
Goal: What is the POV char’s immediate goal when they start the scene
Stakes: What is at stake? Generally an specifically toward this goal
Opposition: Who (sometimes what) is opposing the POV
Opposition Goal: What do they want
Action: What is the POV trying to do to achieve the specified goal
Outcome: Did the POV succeed? Early on, the answer should be no.
Some additional questions I’m looking to add:
What is the initial situation at the start of the scene?
What is the purpose of this scene?
What changes at the end of the scene?
What texture and sensory detail is here?
Is this a static or mobile scene? If static, what could the chars be doing (ex. Chopping veggies)
These matter, because I’ll be writing scenes from these notes. And scenes need to change. A hero driving to the store at the start of the scene and still driving at the end of the scene isn’t a good scene (unless there’s been some other change like learning their mom has cancer).
Anatomy of a Sequel
You’ll see the same opening questions with some new ones that cover the reaction oriented dynamics of a sequel. When I say reaction, I don’t mean it in a fighting sense. He swung, I ducked. That kind of thing is still part of the scene. What I mean here is after the fight, you’ve won or lost. What’s going on in your head as you catch your breath. What are you going to do next? How do you come to that conclusion. It turns out there’s a natural pattern to that. Working through the emotional part first, then rationalizing a plan, followed by making a decision. The sequel template prompts that.
POV: This should be the same character as the preceding scene
Location: Might be the same location, or they moved/are on the run
When: This happens when the action has lulled and the here can actually think
Weather: obvious, but again here because things change and time may have passed
Emotional Reaction: Along with the actual emotion, what is the character doing that expresses this emotion
Rational Reaction: Once they’re passed passionate responses, what are they doing/thinking as they cool down and consider their options
Decision: What option did they pick?
Action (short term): this is a limited action to lead into the next scene. Starting the car (to start heading to the next location) for example.
Those additional question ideas I found to add also apply here. A Sequel is a scene, it’s just a special type of scene for working through the character’s emotions and revealing their decision process. I think that’s critical. If you ever see a story with the MC doing something stupid, did we skip a sequel? The sequel should fill in missing information so we the reader are in line with why the character is about to do something stupid. If it makes sense, it won’t feel stupid.
Putting it Together
I have used my program to plan out all 64 scenes (counting sequels). It takes 50-60 scenes to make a novel. Much of my plot is the same as the prior draft, but I’m more assured things flow and I cut out things that didn’t make sense based on answering those questions. I also looked up plot points and where they appear, which by knowing my approximate scene count meant that I could nudge my scenes toward their targeted high points on schedule. Will that be formulaic? Only on the planning files. Once I start typing, things will become organic, as all plans do.
Scenes Into Prose
Another problem I had in the prior draft is short chapters. My story is largely the same number of events or scenes as before, but I need to beef up my word count. That’s not a common problem, but I’m certain I’ve been too scant with details and rushing. So I looked into how to write a scene. Just to check what I think I knew. Of course, I found some useful approaches.
Check out the References section for full explanations but here’s some tips:
Every scene should change. The hero should learn or feel something different or be in a new place or condition. Three scenes in a row of the hero being dumb and imprisoned is a failure to change.
Scenes are themselves, three act plays. They have a hook by starting mid action or conversation, ramp up and lead to a twisty ending
Here’s five ways to start a scene with:
Action: explosions or some kind of movement, even chopping wood
Summary: Telling can be okay here if it’s brief and gets me to action or dialogue
POV’s thoughts: get me in the mind of how we got here, then action or dialogue as we are here
Setting: set the scene and intrigue me with its ambiance
Dialogue: almost all scenes should lead to action or dialogue
Helped with planning what scenes were building toward plot points
How to write a scene by various credible folk:
Here is my free web-based scene and sequel builder