A loyal blog reader has asked me how Scenes and Sequels relate to chapters. For those who need a refresher course in what Scenes and Sequels are (or for those who have never heard of them) you can find a nice summary in my article on Writing the Perfect Scene. So far as I know, the terms Scenes and Sequels were invented by Dwight Swain in his book Techniques of the Selling Writer.
So let’s say you have your story all broken out into Scenes and Sequels. Is each of these its own chapter? If not, then how do you fit them together into chapters?
The answer is quite simple. Scenes and Sequels are typically anywhere from 1 to 12 pages long. Mine average about 4 pages each. It’s rare to be less than 2 pages or more than 10. So I just string them together in chapters of roughly 10 to 12 pages long. That is, I just keep throwing in Scenes and Sequels until a chapter is “full.” Then I make a new chapter and start filling that. There’s no reason to sweat too much about the structure of chapters. Chapters really aren’t that important. The basic unit of fiction is the scene, and there are two flavors of scene: the Scene and the Sequel.
Incidentally, is anyone else tired of this ambiguity which we inherited from Dwight Swain? Scenes and Sequels are BOTH scenes (in the ordinary sense of the word). Swain chose to create the technical terms “Scene” and “Sequel” but I personally have always found it hard to explain that they are technical terms.
I’ve just finished writing up the chapter in my new book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES on this topic, and here’s the solution I’ve tentatively come up with:
Dwight Swain’s “Scene” has three parts, a Goal, a Conflict, and a Setback. So I’ve taken to calling this a “Goal-Conflict-Setback Scene” and I abbreviate this a “GCS Scene.”
Dwight Swain’s “Sequel” has three parts, a Reaction, a Dilemma, and a Decision. I’ve started calling this a “Reaction-Dilemma-Decision Scene” and the abbreviation is “RDD Scene.”
In my view, this makes it a little simpler. Both of these are scenes. So why not make the names clear?
What do my loyal blog readers think? I have plenty of time to change this. I’d like to hear your opinion.
Dale Emery says
It seems to me that Swain’s terms are confusing because though people everywhere use those names, he gives them a different meaning than does everyone else. So there’s a disconnect between the common use of the terms and the meaning Swain trying to convey. Using Swain’s terms gives both you and your readers an unnecessary hurdle to stumble over.
Also, the term “sequel” tells me only that it comes after something else, which isn’t the essence of the idea he’s naming.
If you’re writing for people who are unfamiliar with the terms, I don’t see a strong need to use Swain’s names for the terms. I see great benefit in using terms that are more evocative of the concepts you’re naming, and perhaps more in line with common usage.
When I talk about these things, I use the terms Action Scene and Reaction Scene. Then if people want more, I send them to your site, or to Swain’s book or Bickham’s book, with the note that you, Swain, and Bickham use different names for the concepts.
So I recommend that you use terms that will be immediately meaningful to your readers. I believe that if you attribute the ideas to him, that honors his brilliant contribution sufficiently, even if you don’t use his terms. In fact, I think it honors him more deeply to write in a way that leads more people to use his ideas, even if not his words.
C. B. Hampton says
In my book Writing Great Stories, I created the acronym GOD PAPA, which stands for a completed sequence in a story. Goal, Obstacle/Opposition, Denouement/disaster = GOD. Passion (reaction), Analysis (after calming down), Planning (what to do next), Action (decision to carry out the plan) = PAPA. I have always been somewhat simple in that I believe that if something happens, it’s a scene. If a character thinks about what happened or what might happen, its a scene. Another bugaboo of mine is saying “there must be conflict.” I toss that thought out the window and say, “there must be suspense.” Conflict is only one of many ways to create suspense in a story, which really is what keeps a reader on their of their seats. Just a thought about an interesting problem for writers. I tire of writers having characters pettily bicker in the name of “conflict.”
Richard Mabry says
You were the first to teach me about motivation reaction units (although I initially kept referring to MRU’s as MRE’s, which stands for meals ready to eat).
Scenes and sequels seem to me to be confusing terms. How about simplifying the terms a bit more and calling them Action Scenes and Reaction Scenes?
Daniel Smith says
Anything is an improvement. Swain’s language always sounded confusing to me. I ask that you also include some rules of thumb regarding the length of the six component parts in your upcoming book. As a beginning writer I know I would want that information as a place to start.
And I fully agree with Dale’s words above. He’s right on the money and so are you.
One last thing, I don’t care for the acronyms you chose in renaming Swain’s Scene and Sequel. Dale’s Action Scene and Reaction Scene sound better, but I wondered if there were even better terms. How about Struggle and Reorganization which suggest both the component parts in each as well as their antagonistic, cyclical nature?
I look forward to the book!
Adam Heine says
Randy wrote: “Chapters really aren’t that important. The basic unit of fiction is the scene.”
I see chapters differently. If you’re going to have them, I think they should be their own cohesive unit as well.
There are lots of different ways to do chapters. Each scene/sequel pair could be a chapter. Or each chapter could be based on a POV character from the last dilemma to the cliffhanger of the next one (e.g. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books). Or they could each cover an amount of time (e.g. a day or an hour), or the amount of the plot that takes place in a certain location.
Chapters can do lots of things, but if they don’t mean anything to you – if you’re just arbitrarily starting and ending them at different scene breaks – then I would suggest not having them at all. Terry Pratchett doesn’t use chapters (only scenes) in his Discworld novels, for example.
I see it this way: Scenes make up chapters. Chapters make up acts. Acts make up books. Books make up series. Each unit – the scene, the chapter, the act, the book, and the series – should have a story arc: conflict, rising action, climax, and an optional resolution (except for the ends of books and series, where the resolution is mandatory).
Steve Lewis says
This is going to be a bit long here so bear with me everyone.
First off, I agree with everyone else that Action Scene and Reaction Scene work better.
Second, Scene and Sequel were actually first presented in the thirties by John Gallishaw, in a book called ‘The Only Two Ways to Tell a Story’. There were five parts instead of three. You can see these parts in most scenes so they weren’t actually extraneous. Sometimes I think that Swain may have over simplified here. Swain’s way wasn’t the only way to use the concept.
He also introduced MRU’s, but simply called them stimulus-response transactions like Bickham. He’s probably the most influential writing instructor that no one’s ever heard of. He even helped create Star Wars, but I’ll get back to that in a minute.
William Foster-Harris and Walter S. Campbell (western writer Stanley Vestal) taught Gallishaw’s techniques in the University of Oklahoma’s Professional Writing Program, which still continues today under Deborah Chester. Swain was one of the instructors in the program and eventually headed it. I’m sure he knew of Scene and Sequel before joining starting there because most professionals did. And there were dozens of books written about Gallishaw’s methods.
A lot of famous authors were trained through the program including: L’ouis L’amour, Mary Higgins Clark, Jim Butcher of Dresden Files fame, and Tony Hillerman. The list goes on.
Oh, and how did he help create Star Wars you ask? He was Joseph Campbell’s writing teacher. Campbell’s first ambition was to be a writer. When he figured that wouldn’t work, he became focused on his studies of mythology . Gallishaw helped with pattern analysis of world myths. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Camille Cannon Eide says
Action. Reaction. For simplicity sake. Then go to the acronyms for the 3-part break down for each one.
I’ve been stumped a few times with a scene doesn’t quite fit either. You say axe the sucker. I say okay, but first let me check a few books to see if they have any scenes that follow this odd “Set up, Build up, Pay-off” pattern. I think I read that in a Jim Bell book??? Sometimes instead of a goal and conflict that I can define (which could easily be my 70s damamged brain at fault) there is something happening outside the pov character, something that builds up to a dramatic payoff, that doesn’t involve a goal or conflict. Just a real nice surprise, as cousin Eddie would say.
An example is in a book by W. Dale Cramer called The Summer of Light. If you have the book, check out the chapter called Toad’s Backpack. The conflict is outside Mick (the pov character), am I right? This set up, build up and payoff occur outside the pov guy, followed by a reaction, dilemma, and decision within the pov guy, all in one short chapter. The only thing that explodes in this action/reaction scene is the pov guy’s notion about what it means to give.
At a crit group meeting recently I offered my novel’s opening scene in which the GCS and RDD are happening to someone other than the pov main character. I didn’t recognize those elements were all in place until some guy in the group kindly pointed it out for us. What do you think of this?
Go with something simple, like Action and Reaction or Crisis and Recovery, Conflict and Reflection, something like that.
As an alternative to action/reaction scenes you could call them movement/introspection scenes.
I like the idea of using different names for Scenes and Sequels, but I think calling them Goal Scenes and Reaction Scenes or something to that effect would be the best solution.
I like the sound of Action Scene and Reaction Scene. Then get into their three parts.
As to secnes, sequels and chapters, I think there is one important part missing. How do you stitch the scene/sequel to the next scene/sequel fliudly when they don’t flow from one to the next? Do you simply use narrative or is there a third Interlude Scene?
Finally, as to the importance of chapters, I think that is different for every writer. There are so many different ways to use them that I dont see where there can be a general rule regarding them.
How about Action Scene and Response Scene?
Or Outside Action Scene and Inside Response Scene?
I also like the terms Action and Reaction Scenes/Beats. James Scott Bell uses those terms in his books on writing.
M.L. Eqatin says
Definitely action scene and reaction scene. I go over each part of my writing with hubby on our daily walks, and the scene/sequel terminology made him crazy. He substituted action/reaction scenes for the other two terms years ago.
It’s such an obvious thing to call them, I see almost everybody else has come up with the same.
Besides, since I use multiple POVs on average, the sequel doesn’t fit. The reaction scene I may feel is needed after an action scene my be a reaction to something that came a few scenes before the last one. The only way the other works without confusion is if there is only one main plot to your novel.
Randy and all:
By the way this Analysis of Scene writing has revolutionized how I write Randy. Keep up the exceptional work.
As a trained Philosopher, a Gospel Preacher and a Trained and working engineer I have spent my working life trying to mediate arguments about terminology and symbology.
Whenever I had to translate triple cursed documents laden with Arcane jargon into shirt sleeved English, I always tried to use common language that even the most hands-on of my target audience would understand. (No I didn’t always succeed, but I tried and a lot of people thanked me. Of course some wanted to lynch me as a heretic but that is another story. . .)
Since everyone handles money they all think that they understand economic theory (emphasis on think).
The most commonly taught economic theory that nearly everyone in the world “understands” is Marxist Communism. Marx stole some terms from Hegel’s dialectic that most people recognize. I think they describe what you are trying to say with variations on “Scene” more succinctly.
Thesis, Antitheses, Synthesis.
1.)Thesis: What the POV wants, and how he thinks he’ll get it (GC);
2.)Antithesis: POV meets Mister Murphy and the plan/goal breaks into a million pieces with all the devils in hell kicking them into the most remote corners and crevasses. (SRD);
3.)Synthesis: POV defines the problem (the “Aha” moment) and decides how to deal with it (DD).
4. Voila – A new Thesis! (I love to write french. No I have no idea what it means.)
[By the way for those of you who paid attention in highschool science class substitute Theory for Thesis and this is how the Scientific Method is supposed to work to give us the Scientific Facts that the Learned Community like to throw around. . . ‘Nother topic.]
It seems to me that maintaining the element model is only important if you’re preaching to an itchy congregation on a hot sunday morning with the AC busted. (Oh, yeah right I put in three points didn’t I. But make em think you’ve got six elements and they might listen better. Old preachers trick. . . Me not the trick.)
If all six elements are there in the correct order then it should work. IMHO this model might be easier to explain and remember.
Lynnette Bonner says
I like the terms Action Scene / Reaction Scene.
I’m actually popping in here to day to say that I gave you a Lovely Blog Award on my blog today. I get so much from your blog! Thanks so much.
Oh, and just try to imagine the award with an exploding helicopter in the center, okay?
Er. . Typo I meant the “three element Model” in the next to last paragraph.
DC Spencer says
When I first read Randy’s question/explanation of scenes, I wanted to simplify it all down to Cause and Effect. I see that same desire in the suggestions to clarify the scene types into Action/Reaction. That works for me. Too many acronyms cloud the already cloudy sky. I know we need some explanation, but I’m thinking less is more on this label thing. As in the Snowflake, we can dig deeper for more info when we want to.
Felicia K. Fredlund says
I’d definately go as most of the others. Action Scene and Reaction Scene gives you an idea already from the beginning what they are about.
And as Daniel Smith said I’d love to have the rule of thumb for the length of the different parts, or even for the Action Scene and Reaction Scene in whole.
Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) says
I’m another vote for Action/Reaction labels for scenes. It’s the mental group I’ve always had and it’s simpler in my mind than any collection of letters (for simple identification).
Oops there’s a problem with Action/Reaction. Richard mentioned MRUs. They have a reaction, may cause more confusion. I like DC’s cause and effect as an alternative.
Or, what might be better is just use MRU. You have a Motivation/Reaction at the Scene scale and then again at a smaller scale. That may be the simplest of all.
And in a sense the 3 main crisis structure of the novel is really just a large MRU.
I like that. I’d go with Motivation/Reaction throughout. That way you are reinforcing that relationship multiple times, on the grand 3 act scale, on the scene scale and finally on the MRU scale. Sounds rather snowflakey to me.
I personally would never keep GCS and RDD straight. I think the acronyms are a bit confusing. I don’t find Scene and Sequel to be very confusing terms. It seems rather clear to me: a Scene is where the action is, and a Sequel is what happens after, more or less. Whatever you call them (Scene/Sequel, Action/Reaction, Goal/Response, etc.), they still need some explaining before they can be understood. But if they must be changed, I like some of the suggestions here. The idea of changing terms makes me a little nervous, just because I’m used to seeing the terms Scene and Sequel and I think they’re pretty commonly used – for this meaning – in the writing community. I’d feel a bit awkward to use another term among professional writers. But that is me, and I am not a professional writer (yet 🙂 ), so of course I don’t have the kind of clot that Randy has to start coining new terms. Good luck whatever you decide.
Just read JD’s suggestion of using MRU’s throughout and I think it’s a very good idea. It would definitely unify things. Maybe mention Swaine’s terms so that readers won’t be confused if they hear those terms elsewhere and then go with the MRU idea.
Sheila Deeth says
Aghgh. I thought I’d finally understood scene and sequel and now… But there again, the more different ways you describe something, the more likely it is that the reader (aspiring writer?) will make a part of it his or her own. After all, we’re not taking a test in “what is scene and sequel,” but we’re applying what you teach to what we write.
Well, here’s my two pennies 😛 I think Action and Reaction are good terms (short, simple, to the point). Action is what happened, Reaction is how the character is now handling what happened. Then you do a bit more action, then the character reacts some more. There ya go!
I think you are making mistake in abbreviating sensible phrases into GCS Scene and RDD Scene.
What’s wrong with using the full phrases? They make sense inthemselves and there is, then, no good reason to use a meaningless code word or phrase.
I hope your Dummies book sticks to plain English – there is a lot to be said for simple communication without unnecessary complications.
Dwight Swain always struck me as boring and ill-mannered. I don’t think writing fiction can be successfully reduced to dogmatic assertions – such as those he uses.
I often wondered whether he actually wrote any good fiction.
I’m with everyone else. This is the “…for Dummies” book, which only implies it should provide the easiest to understand explanations/instructions.
A scene is a story unit. It can either be action or reaction (or both) in purpose. (Because “reaction” or sequel doesn’t necessarily require a whole new scene, according to Bickham anyway.) Multiple scenes make up a chapter, another story unit, and so on.
Try to stay away from introducing new acronyms to the lexicon. There are too many now, and they are confusing to new and experienced writers alike.
I agree with Adam. Chapters are important. Depending on which type of novel you’re writing may determine how you begin and end a chapter. And from other sources I’ve heard that you should leave a chapter at a pivotal or time sensitive moment. If you were just stringing together scenes and sequels, this wouldn’t necessarily happen. And I’ve also taken courses where the MRUs (Motivation reaction units) are broadened to be: Action, reaction, decision units Where there should be a decision before the new action (motivation). What do you think of this? Take care, Barbara
Heidi Main says
I think your explanation is perfect. You might want to add your thoughts on whether you always need to have a sequel for every scene. Heidi
The biggest problem I have with renaming sequels to “reaction scenes” or whatever is that, at least in the Swain definition, a sequel *isn’t* a single time unified scene, necessarily. A Scene is generally played out real time, start to finish, goal to disaster. A Sequel is often a cluster of mini scenes, some internalization, some compression, focusing on the reaction/decision/interior stuff. I often consider closer to a montage and it’s certainly a place where you can skip time, location, and in and out of telling as well as showing.
A scene, however, there’s a moment the mental camera flips on, you are there, there is a goal, etc. To call a sequel a “reaction scene” or any other type of scene confuses the point because it’s often a chain of scenes, none of which necessarily need to conform to the goal-conflict-disaster formula that makes Scene scenes work so well.
Andrew Winters says
I have a hard time conceptualizing the Swain/Bickham scene, particularly where each action scene must end in a setback/disaster. In a lot of the published, commercial fiction that I read, I don’t see this. I see a lot of scenes with understated conflict and no particular setback to the lead character. If there is a setback it is very subtle. And these are books that I really enjoy. So, am I missing something? Can someone give me an example of a popular fiction book written in the Swain/Bickham mode where every action scene ends in a setback? Thanks.