Must you follow the Scene-and-Sequel pattern of Dwight Swain without ever breaking it up? Or can you break the pattern and still do well in your fiction writing?
Philomena posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
In the scenes and sequels pattern in a book would it work to have the sequel done passively eg. if the hero’s reaction-dilemma-decision results in his deciding to make a phone call to someone, will it work if you show that person receiving the call from your hero and then to resume your hero’s story with a new scene.
Randy sez: First let me bring everyone up to speed on the context of this question. The Scene-and-Sequel pattern is described in chapter 4 of Dwight Swain’s outstanding book Techniques of the Selling Writer. I summarize this in the first half of my article on this site, Writing the Perfect Scene. And I spend parts of Chapter 9 and Chapter 14 explaining them in my book Writing Fiction for Dummies (where I call them “proactive scenes” and “reactive scenes.)”
A Scene (what I call a “proactive scene”) begins with a goal, continues for most of the scene with conflict, and ends with a setback.
A Sequel (what I call a “reactive scene”) begins with a reaction, continues for most of the scene with a dilemma, and ends with a decision.
Scenes lead naturally to Sequels and Sequels lead naturally to Scenes. It’s a neat, clean theory, and it’s tempting to follow this pattern slavishly forever. Don’t do that.
Patterns are there to guide you, to suggest ideas, and to adapt. Unlike formulas, which are imposed on you by somebody and which you do have to follow slavishly. That’s probably my best definition of the difference between a pattern and a formula.
It’s important that you know what the Scene and Sequel structure of your storyline is. HOWEVER, just because you know it, you don’t have to show it to your reader.
Your goal as a novelist is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. If you can do that best by skipping Sequels, summarizing them, showing them as Scenes in the point of view of some other character, or whatever else you need to do to make the story move your reader, then do so. Of course, if you can best achieve a Powerful Emotional Experience by following the wise guidance of the pattern, then do so.
So there’s a simple answer to Philomena’s question: Yes.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Melissa Prado says
Very prolific lately, Randy – love it! Thanks for all your helpful advice & guidance.
Kim Miller says
If I was to take Philomena’s question a little further along Randy’s theme of emotional experience for the reader, I’d say to write the scene from the person who is most emotionally involved. It might be the receiver of the phone call, or it might be another person who is there when the call comes. Who is most likely to be effected or angered or challenged or distressed or pleased (add some more here) by the phone call? Choose that person for the POV.
James Thayer says
Dwight Swain’s analysis of scene and sequel is well thought out and worth considering. But in my teaching and editing, I’ve found that the main thing that needs to be stressed in scene construction is the difference between a scene and a summary. Jack Bickham offers this definition of a scene: “It’s a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story ‘now.’ It is not something that goes on inside a character’s head; it is physical. It could be put on the theater state and acted out.” The story should be told chiefly in scenes, rather than in summary. By summary, I mean things like this: “My mother and father lived on Elm Street, and were happy for many years, until the truck ran over father’s leg. He was in the hospital two months, but never fully recovered. I had to get a job at the factory.” A scene is told in real-time, moment by moment, and would be told this way: “Joe Smith buttoned his coat and made his way down the sidewalk. He glanced over his shoulder into the wind, and pulled the coat’s belt tighter. His foot missed the curb, and he tumbled forward. The pickup’s fender clipped his shoulder, and his leg fell under the wheel snapping his leg.” A lot of writers–ostensibly to speed up the story and give a lot of information–write far too much summary, forgetting that scenes–moment by moment action in the story “now”–are the heart of fiction.
Randy sez: Yes, I agree that this distinction is critical. I usually call these qualitatively different ways of writing “immediate scene” and “narrative summary”. When people say, “show, don’t tell,” they are urging you to write more immediate scene and less narrative summary. Note that you can write Swain’s Scenes and Sequels using either immediate scene or narrative summary. The words “Scene” and “Sequel” are denumerable nouns (you can count them using integers 1, 2, 3 . . . ). The phrases “immediate scene” and “narrative summary” are non-denumerable nouns (you can’t really count them — you would measure them in terms of how long they go on the page.) Cars and bicycles are denumerable; water and time are non-denumerable.
Be careful switching POV too much. If you switch from paragraph to paragraph, you will confuse the reader. In general, having more than one POV per chapter is difficult to do well, but if you must, be sure to use a visual break.