scene-structure bickhamA writing student of mine has asked more than once in class, “I am looking for a guideline on scene, to sequel, to narrative for my writing.” Whether it’s creative non-fiction (like a memoir), or a short story or even a novel, there are no magic formulas as in screenwriting. Writing movies can be as rigid as you’d like to follow, with expected major plot points coming at 30 pages, and again at 60. The whole thing needs to be written between 90 and 120 pages.

But if you’re working outside the realm of writing movies — and screenplays can be a powerful experience to teach story structure — you’ve got to decide for yourself what’s effective for these ratios. You have a key reader look at your mix for a chapter, or a workshop group. You read it aloud to yourself.

The mix? You can single-space it printed, then color-code with a highlighter. Blue for narrative — the telling or prelude or exposition. Yellow for dialogue and scene — where two or more people try to solve a problem, or a person struggles to accomplish a goal.

Then green for what Jack Bickham calls sequel. In his fine textbook Scene & Structure, Bickham describes sequel as the writing

…that begins for your viewpoint character the moment a scene ends. Just struck by a new, unanticipated but logical disaster, he is plunged into a period of sheer emotion, followed sooner or later by a period of thought — which sooner or later results in the formation of a new, goal-oriented decision, which in turn results in some action toward the new goal just selected.

Emotion to thought, then onward to new action. Bickham goes on to point out that once you have the action selected, you add a character or a force to oppose it. You get conflict. We crave conflict as readers. And so you’re now into the next scene. (It’s Chapter 7, Linking Your Scenes, in Bickham’s essential book.)

Blue. Yellow. Green. Highlight and spread out your pages on the floor or a table. Look at your balance. It could be one third each, over the length of the book. But in some places you need heavy narrative. Be aware it doesn’t engage our emotions. In other spots, like key turning points, you’ll want beefy sequel. We go inside the character’s head in real-time, not earlier, so this gives us meaning of what we’ve been shown in scene.

Uh oh. As an artist (all writers are artists) you get to decide. Art is nothing but choices, but you get to experiment. As in revisions, based on the colors you see and the response you get from readers.

In a session at a Writer’s Workshop group, we responded to writing that first promised and then delivered. A scene’s setting suggested the details that the story returned to later. The writing was not a long passage, but it managed to return to a subject so smoothly as to remind me of Scene and Sequel. They’re a pair used (often exclusively) in modern novels to give structure and pace to stories.

Every reader or moviegoer understands scenes. But a story needs more than just scenes; they’re good enough for movies, but writing demands some deeper thought in the characters, emotional revelations, internal monologue. These things make books so rich that movies struggle to deliver the same impact. As good as Lonesome Dove was as a miniseries, it’s hard to find a Larry McMurtry fan who loved the film as much as the novel which sparked it.

Sequel is the engine to deliver that emotional wallop, the glue “that holds scenes together and helps you get from one to the next,” says Jack Bickham in Scene & Structure:

“Sequel is a flexible structural component, and it provides you with all the tools you need for in-depth characterization, analysis of motivation, explanation of character planning, etc.”

After the trouble (the scene of conflict) that is essential to any interesting story, there are four compartments in the sequel that will lead to the next bit of trouble:

1. Emotion
2. Thought
3. Decision
4. Action

A scene is characterized by conflict. A sequel is characterized by feeling and logic. Bickham notes:

“Little about the sequel structure is hard-and-fast, except that the sequence of the parts must always be imagined by the writer in the order which human behavior dictates – emotion first, then later thought, then the reaching of a decision, then a new, goal-oriented action.

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