Welcome to part 2 of a 5-part series about Plot Structures. Check out the intro. Don’t worry book-lovers, reviews will find their way between these articles.
Our first plot structure is the simplest, but is no less important for being so straightforward. Scene/Sequel format may not be a foundation to support an entire novel, but it is an important principle to internalize, and a necessary complement to the more foundational plot structures.
Credit Where It’s Due: Scene/Sequel format was formalized by Dwight V. Swain in his 1965 book Techniques of the Selling Writer.
In this system, a scene is a single “unit of conflict.” Conflict requires opposing desires, so every scene starts with a clear goal, and a force opposing that goal. The characters proactively overcome an obstacle or challenge caused by the opposing force. There is movement and action – they do something. Easy enough, right?
A sequel is reactive. It is reflective. It is built of dialogue, setting, and thought. The character processes the most recent scene, assigns meaning to it, and plans their next action… Leading to a new scene, which kicks off another scene/sequel cycle.
As scenes and sequels dance together, the story feels like breathing – scene in, sequel out. Action. Reflection. Proactive. Reactive. Scene. Sequel.
The Nebulous Importance of Pacing
We’ve all read a book that felt either too fast or too slow. Books that feel too fast suffer from an overabundance of scenes – events just keep happening, with no time to breathe or reflect on their meaning for the characters or the central conflict. The reader feels lost and rushed. Likewise, slower books are filled with sequels, with multiple movements reflecting on each event. If not handled properly, this can get boring.
If the idealized, average book should follow a pattern of scene – sequel – scene – sequel, imbalances – deviations from the default – can be a feature, not a bug, so long as you understand your genre expectations and play with them intentionally.
Thrillers are action-oriented. A good thriller might follow this pattern:
Scene – Scene – Sequel – Scene – Scene – Scene – Sequel – Scene – Scene – Sequel
The pacing above would not suit a mystery, or a character-driven literary piece. Readers of these genres expect more room to breathe:
Scene – Sequel – Sequel – Scene – Sequel – Sequel – Sequel – Scene – Sequel – Sequel
Whichever choice you go with, make sure you do so consciously, keeping in mind the sort of story you want to tell and your readers’ expectations.
Breathing Room Builds Connections
You want your story to be one, unified tale, not a series of mildly related events. You want to aim for a series of “therefore…” statements, as in “The characters experienced this, therefore they…” This is the path of consistency. This is the path of a sensible plot readers will not question. Intentional “sequel” sections leaves space for you to connect events for your readers. Without clear relationships on the page, your novel risks sounding like a child’s story – a series of “…and then…” statements with no through-line. This is the path of plot holes and unclear motives.
Scene/sequel format is all about pacing. Even if you never formally outline this pattern, holding the concept in the back of your mind as you write subsequent drafts can help make intentional pacing decisions.