Structure of a Scene, Part One – Scene & Sequel

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One of the awesomely cool things about taking an online writing course is the fun new ways you learn about old techniques. I love it when something you already know clicks in your head because now you fully understand the concept. And you can point out what you’ve learned in every published book you read.
 
In Margie Lawson’s Deep Editing course, she referred to an article by Randy Ingermanson (the ‘Snowflake Guy’) called, “Writing the Perfect Scene.” The sad part is I read this article a loooong time ago, but none of it clicked for some reason. So Margie shared this article and added her thoughts because it truly was the best way to understand both Scene and Sequel and Motivation Reaction Units (which I’ll cover next week)…and I got it!
 
As Randy states, a scene has a large-scale structure and a small-scale structure. The large-scale structure is Scene and Sequel; small-scale is Motivation Reaction Units.
 
And here’s how I broke it all down in my head to where it clicked:
 

Scene

In this sense, scene can also be understood as the stimulus. You open the scene stating the goal of the character. Then you create a conflict that keeps the character from obtaining it. Then the fun part comes: the disaster of being unable to reach said goal.
 
Easy enough, right?
 
I know it sounds easy, but pinpointing this in every single scene? Not so easy sometimes. There are some scenes where the goal isn’t obvious or clear to the reader. Or maybe there really isn’t a conflict there and the character goes straight from goal to disaster.
 
But as Randy states, your character has to have a goal at the helm of every scene. If they don’t have a goal then they’re simply sitting there twiddling their thumbs waiting for something to happen to them. With a goal they – and the reader – have a clear understanding of what they want so they’ll go after it. And the fun of fiction as a writer is throwing conflict their way. *evil grin* We think of everything possible to plant in front of them, to slow them down, which is great – and also known as disaster. This keeps the reader intrigued and ups the tension (yay!).
 
The best way I understood Scene was to insert myself as the character. I want to be a published author (goal). But I have to learn how to write compelling stories with knock-it-out-of-the-park plots, but it’s hard to do that when life either gets in the way or a character(s) won’t cooperate, or the muse is nowhere to be found (conflict). Then…disaster strikes! My computer goes kaput, or the plot goes to hell…or maybe I reply to MS requests and get rejections (we all know rejections can feel like disaster).
 

Sequel

Sequel is parallel to response. You’ve written your scene where your character has a clear goal, he’s going for it then gets shot down, pushed around, and trampled on by a herd of wild banshees (great visual, huh?).
 
Now it’s time for the character to react to the disaster, face the dilemma ahead of him, and make a decision that’ll allow the story to move forward.
 
Again, easy enough, right?
 
But sometimes we miss ensuring each step is represented in the sequel. We’ll have the character react but then he’ll follow that up in a quick manner with a decision. Or maybe we’ll have him look at the dilemma and make a decision but forgot to include his reaction.
 
This is where the tried and true advice of Randy comes into play. Sequels must have all three of these elements in order for them to work. No exceptions. Period.
 
In life when we’re working toward something we desperately want and get hit so hard it puts a kink in those plans, we react. We cry, scream, steam, stew, stomp, bang our heads against the wall, and sometimes threaten the worst on whatever caused the set back.
 
So why wouldn’t our characters do the same?
 
Once we’re done having a reaction, we sit back down, face the dilemma head-on, then finally come to a decision that will clear the path to getting what we ultimately want…once again.
 
Again, this can be compared to the life of a writer. We’ve gotten tons of rejections which feel like a disaster. So we react by crying, screaming, etc., etc. Then we face our dilemma: one of the rejections suggested revising a core element of our MS, so now we’re faced with the decision to change it and resubmit the query, or move on and query more agents.
 
 

I had a huge “A-ha!” moment when I got to this section in the lectures. Then I got another one when both Margie and Randy explained Motivation Reaction Units (MRU) as the small-scale structure of a scene.
 
This is what a novel is! It’s going from scene and sequel, over and over and over again until the character finally arrives at their ultimate goal. Yes, I knew the overall plot of a story was to get a character from point A to point B, and that they needed to face a series of obstacles throughout that journey. But the problem not only lies in getting the character there. It also lies with ensuring each and every scene has a goal, conflict or disaster followed by a reaction, dilemma and decision.
 
I think sometimes when we’re in the midst of writing that first draft, we just write, write, write until the bare bones are on the screen. Then it’s difficult when we go back and edit because we just can’t figure out why a scene isn’t working. And most times we’ve been told it’s the plot that’s causing a scene not to cooperate – which is true. But a way to examine this theory is to look for the Scene and Sequel, then check for the Motivation Reaction Units.
 
By having these points written on an index card and sitting on my desk, I’m constantly reminded as I write and/or edit that if I look for these elements – or include them as I’m drafting – my path to getting my WIP polished will be brighter and provide me the much-needed jolt of excitement that says, “You can do this! It’s all right there, you just have to pull it out and make it obvious!”
 
And the best part of having these elements in your WIP? If they’re there, in the right order, you’ve helped eliminate the telling…and brought on the showing. 🙂
 
HUGE kudos to both Margie and Randy for their genius in helping this finally sink in and stick!
 
Can you easily pinpoint these elements in your WIP? What other advice have you read or can share on the structure of a scene? Have you had any “A-ha!” writing moments recently? Were they during the plotting, writing or editing phase? 

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