English is a beautiful language full of enough special rules to choke a blue whale. Many of them pertain to vocabulary. As you might have figured out by now, more than half of the words commonly used in our language have more than one meaning. ‘Scene’ is no exception.
A scene is a chunk of a story with a specific beginning and ending. Each author has her own understanding of ‘scene.’ That said, most people agree that your average book appears to have roughly 64 scenes, give or take. I can’t speak to most books because I haven’t counted the scenes in ‘most books.’
So a scene is a unit of measurement used in a book.
A sequel is something that follows. For example, Bride of Frankenstein is the sequel to Frankenstein. Fast & Furious 2 is the sequel to Fast & Furious. The Two Towers is the sequel to Fellowship of the Ring.
Now we complicate things.
Scenes typically contain scenes and sequels.
It’s that thing where our words have more than one meaning.
I use both definitions of ‘scene’ pretty much constantly. A lot of writers do. This is important to learn.
So scenes are made up of scenes and sequels. A typical scene will contain the following:
- Result (sometimes called ‘disaster’)
- Reaction (can be broken into “Emotion” and “Reason,” but must occur in that order because we feel faster than we think)*
These are the basic building blocks of a story. A novel is a chain of scenes and sequels, one right after the other, that inexorably leads to the conclusion. And you can’t have scene-scene-sequel-sequel-sequel-scene-sequel-scene-etc. because that’s not the way human beings work. Even if your story is entirely about aliens or elves or whatever, you still need to write it this way because your readers are going to be human beings. You could do some experimental fiction, but it would probably be hard to read and not sell very well.
When I talk about scenes and sequels, I typically use the following example.
You wake up Sunday morning and you want to make chocolate chip pancakes for your son because they’re his favorite, it’s his birthday, and your recently deceased wife used to make them for him. (Motive, Setting, Goal.) However, when you go to the kitchen, you discover you have no chocolate chips (Conflict and Result). You’re upset by this (reaction) and you ponder what you should do: make them without the chocolate chips, or buy some (Dilemma). You decide to sneak off to Safeway before he wakes up (Decision).
You drive to Safeway to buy the chocolate chips (Goal). However, once you’re in the store, you discover there’s only one bag left and someone else is reaching for them at the same time you are. You get into a fight with them over the chips (Conflict). The fight ends when he calls you names and he’s escorted out of the store (Result). Shaken, you buy the chips (Reaction) and, as you’re heading out the store, he accosts you in the parking lot. You consider running, but your trick knee is acting up again (Dilemma) so you stand your ground (Decision).
And you can take this story in any direction. It could be a romance, a thriller, a spy story, a mystery. He could be your time-traveling son. Who knows? But there you have two scenes, each broken up into scene-and-sequence.
During the scene part, your character will have a goal and a conflict. The conflict will resolve in one of three ways.
- Your character won’t get what he wants. (‘No.’)
- Your character will get what he wants, but it sets in motion some other action or effect that will come to light later. (‘Yes, but …’)
- Your character will get what he wants. (‘Yes.’)
The only time you use #3 is when you’re writing the end of the climax, because, once there’s no more conflict, the story ends and you write the Resolution.
In the above example, the first scene ends with ‘no.’ The second scene ends with ‘yes, but.’ Does he ever make it home to make pancakes for his son? When the answer is yes, then the story is over.
These can be pretty complex. I still can’t readily identify them in the books I’m reading, though I’ve made a start. Happily, Jim Butcher, in his Livejournal, said he didn’t master it until he’d written many books, so I don’t feel so bad about myself. (He does one entry on scene and another on sequel; I posted to the first. The one following is the second.) Butcher’s advice is a little more complex than mine.
Should you begin your story with a scene or a sequel?
When you start a story, start with a scene, not a sequel. Your character has to have something he’s going for. It should be small and related to his world, but it has to exist because you can’t start a story with his reaction to something. If we don’t see the thing he reacts to, we won’t be able to tell if he’s overreacting, underreacting, etc.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show) begins with Buffy wanting to make a good impression on her first day of 10th grade at a new school. That’s her goal. Jim Butcher’s Storm Front begins with Harry Dresden wanting to get his mail from a snarky mailman. Arrows of the Queen begins with Talia wanting to read her book in peace. Big Hero 6 begins with Hiro wanting to win a bot fight. The Wizard of Oz begins with Dorothy wanting to know what’s out there past the limits of her farm, and she wants to save her dog Toto. Spiderman: Far From Home begins with Peter Parker wanting to go on a normal class trip as a normal teenager. Every story begins with the main character wanting something minor, something that fits in with their normal day. That’s a scene. The disaster should be something relatively small, yet pertinent to the story, something that tells us a little about the world we’re in and the characters who inhabit it.
*Jim Butcher describes Sequels using Emotion, Reason, Anticipation, and Choice, but it’s basically the same thing. You can read his article here.