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Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 8: Options for Reactions in a Sequel

At the heart of every sequel* is the narrating character’s reaction to the preceding scene’s disaster. This is where the author gets the opportunity to dig around inside his character’s emotional and mental processes and find out what he’s really made of. The scene is about external action; the sequel is about internal reaction. The sequel will sometimes be entirely confined to the POV character’s mind; other times, it will be dramatized through action or dialogue.

Although the sequel possesses three basic and unavoidable parts, just like the scene, it is much more flexible in execution. The three parts may take place within a single sentence—or be stretched out over many chapters. Sometimes one or the other of the parts may be implied; sometimes they may appear to be intermixed with the pieces of the scene.

 

Because the scene’s goal/conflict/disaster are an external expression, they are almost always easy to pick out once you know what you’re looking for. But the sequel, as an internal processing of events, can sometimes get buried within all the flashier goings-on. Its occasional invisibility, however, in no way lessens its importance. If anything, that subtlety brings a greater power to the sequel.

Don’t Be Afraid of Boring Readers

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryAuthors who lack a complete understanding of the scene/sequel structure can sometimes worry their sequels won’t contain enough action or conflict to keep readers’ attention. But this is far from the case. Readers love action (whatever its manifestation), and authors can’t create a story without it. But without character reactions, all that juicy action will lack context and, as a result, meaning.

A soldier fighting in a war may be interesting from an intellectual perspective. But if there is no emotional context, readers will ultimately grow weary. I once read a science fiction novel that offered a fantastic premise and some great action scenes. It hooked me from the first paragraph, but by the time I was a quarter of the way in, I was bored. I put the book down and never came back to it, something I almost never do. Why? Because the whole thing was action, action, action, with no insight into how the main characters were internally reacting to all that gunplay.

Some stories will emphasize the action; some will emphasize the reaction. This will depend upon your genre as a whole and the specific needs of your story. All stories must contain both if they’re to successfully entrance readers. Don’t be afraid of boring readers by elaborating on character reactions. What you really need to fear is boring them by leaving the reactions out! Use these opportunities to dig down deep inside your characters, figure out how they tick, what they’re really after, and how the action is transforming them.

Options for Sequel Reactions

The three parts of your sequel will manifest in three different ways: the reaction is emotional, the dilemma is intellectual, and the decision will lead to physical action (by way of the next scene’s goal). As soon as your previous scene’s disaster hits, your character is going to experience an immediate and instinctive emotional reaction. The possibilities are as vast as the gamut of human emotion, which includes all of the following and loads more:

1. Elation.

2. Fury.

3. Anger.

4. Confusion.

5. Despair.

6. Panic.

7. Shame.

8. Regret.

9. Shock.

Once you’ve nailed down an emotional reaction that makes sense within both the context of the previous disaster and your character’s established personality, you have to decide how best to relay that emotion to readers. You have four choices:

1. Description.

You can simply tell readers how your character feels. This isn’t always going to be a good choice, since you’ll usually get more bang for your buck by showing readers what’s happening. But sometimes a simple summary will allow you to return to the action quicker.

2. Internal narrative/monologue.

Most reactions will contain at least some aspect of this option, since your character’s inner landscape is most important at this point.

3. Dramatization.

You can effectively show a character’s reaction via his external actions. This can sometimes be used by itself if the dramatization is strong enough on its own to convey the character’s inner reaction. But it is often especially effective when used in conjunction with description or internal narrative. For example, your character’s fearful reaction might be dramatized through his chewing his fingernails or shivering uncontrollably.

4. Tone.

You can also use the general tone of your story, as you describe other elements (such as setting, weather, other characters’ actions, etc.) to convey your character’s inner landscape. Your choice of words will influence your readers’ perception of events and help them make assumptions about your character’s internal reactions.

Questions to Ask About Your Sequel Reactions

Double check your sequel’s reactions by analyzing them with the following questions:

1. Does the character’s reaction directly correlate to the preceding disaster?

2. Does the character’s reaction make sense in context with the preceding disaster?

3. Is the character’s reaction logical for his personality?

4. Have you taken the appropriate amount of time to portray the reaction (whether it’s a sentence or several chapters)?

5. Have you illustrated the reaction as powerfully as possible, through narrative, description, action, and/or dialogue?

6. Have you made the situation clear without unnecessarily rehashing information the reader is already familiar with?

Sequel Reactions in Action

Because sequels can often be comparatively difficult to extract from the story, let’s take advantage of our classic books and movies to help us figure out what a sequel reaction looks like:

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen: In the second chapter, after Mr. Bennet has visited Netherfield Park, Mrs. Bennet and her daughters react with excitement and curiosity. Because Austen’s narrative is an omniscient third-person that never offers internal narrative, she conveys her characters’ reactions almost entirely through dialogue. Readers are effectively shown what the characters are thinking and feeling about the latest development in the pursuit of the eligible Mr. Bingley.

It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra: After Clarence saves George from committing suicide by jumping into the river himself, the characters sit around in the toll booth, drying off. Due to the visual nature of film, movies almost always convey their characters’ reactions through dramatization. Clarence’s cheerfulness over his success and George’s deflation are clear both through their physical attitudes (Clarence is standing up, busily tending his wet clothes, while George slouches by the fire, nursing his bleeding lip) and through the ensuing dialogue, during which Clarence reveals his identity as an angel and his mission to save George.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: Ender’s immediate emotional reaction to killing Stilson is to retreat down the hall and weep. His crying offers such a powerful demonstration of what’s going on inside his head that Card needs only a single line of internal narrative to complete the initial reaction. The whole of the next chapter, during which Ender’s brother Peter mocks him for losing the monitor and his sister Valentine tries to calm them both, extends the reaction period using a variety of techniques, including a conflict with Peter, to round out Ender’s reactions to all of the important events in the first chapter.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir: After escaping the Acheron’s surprise attack, the film enters a sequel sequence that begins with Captain Aubrey going below deck to discuss the “butcher’s bill” with the Dr. Stephen Maturin. The film skillfully allows for a reaction to the dead and wounded, the attack as a whole, and the technical details of the battle, most of which is conveyed through dialogue.

The reaction phase of the sequel can be one of the most rewarding parts of any story, for both reader and writer. Don’t skimp on this section. Always scratch around under the surface to discover how events have affected your characters and, most importantly, what their reactions can tell you about their personalities.

*For the purposes of this series, “Scene” with a capital S will refer to the scene in general (which can include in its definition the sequel). I’ll use a small s and italicize scene and sequel to refer to the two different types of Scenes.

Stay tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about Options for Dilemmas in a Sequel.

Tell me your opinion: What emotion is your character reacting with in your latest sequel?

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At the heart of every sequel is the narrating character's reaction to the preceding scene's disaster.

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Thanks for another great post :)
    Sequels are very important since they keep the story moving forward!
    M.

  2. Thank you, Kate! Great advice as always. And tied with examples, even better. Thank you!

  3. @Meryl: Thanks for commenting! I couldn’t agree more.

    @Cecilia: Glad you enjoyed the posts. Sometimes it’s difficult to really get our minds around things until we can see techniques in action.

  4. Great post, as always! :)

    I FINALLY got out of my sequel in one book, and am working on another project, too, and that particular one is in sequel right now. My characters both worry whether they’ll be able to pull off a hoax that may help them lure in a serial killer and there’s a lot of back and forth–both are worried, and trying to reassure the other.

  5. Thanks for bringing the scene, sequel framework of a story up. I do it instinctivly now, but you’re shown me again how important the sequel is.

  6. @Liberty: Sounds like you’ve got the tension cranked up high – which will keep readers from even thinking twice about being bored.

    @Francene: So much of writing *is* instinctive. But if we don’t understand the fundamentals, we can grow frustrated and discouraged, even when we’re doing most of it right.

  7. Thanks for the examples. As you said, the scene and action portions are usually easy to pick out. The sequel isn’t always so simple. Thanks again.

  8. Most of us think we understand Scene structure until the sequel is thrown into the mix! But once we get past that initial scratching of our heads, everything falls into place even more solidly.

  9. Katie, i find it’s not necessarily a disaster in the preceding scene, but something that disturbs character’s life and goals. I often write a sequel in two parts: as first part at the end of the preceding scene and the second part at the beginning of the next scene. Sometimes, my sequel is a stand alone scene (small s lol). However, the bit in the preceding scene thing is tricky, it has to be a properly crafted reaction, otherwise the reader won’t be tempted enough to start reading the next scene. I sometimes do end a scene without any reaction, if I do it too often – it feels too forced for my story. I’m not a fan of over-used cliff-hangers

  10. This is yet another reason sequels can sometimes be difficult to grasp – because, you’re absolutely right, the sequel can be divided between chapters or breaks. It can be a chapter of its own, or completely at either the beginning or the end of the bookending scenes.

  11. Excellent, Katie.
    Just what I needed to hear now that I am neck-deep in planning my novel re-write. I see that I have shied away from using enough sequels.
    This was written with your usual clarity, punch, and helpfulness.
    P.S. I posted a headsup to your post on my blog.

  12. Thanks so much for sharing the link, Bill! Sequels can be easy to overlook, particularly since we can sometimes feel guilty about their lack of action. But it’s amazing how much more rounded a story is once a few sensible sequels are included.

  13. Thank you for this article. The beauty is sequels can be very simple – an acknowledgment from the character (or characters) that they have performed an extraordinary action or felt an extraordinary emotion. Sequels can ratchet up the reader’s commitment to the characters.

  14. Very true. It’s that flexibility of form and function that allows sequels to accomplish so much within a story – and what makes them so integral to successful structure.

  15. These days I might introduce it with a introductory sequel. “My old man was repairing a gun once used by his old flame, who died in the war. He stared at my eyepatch, he knew I still missed my old eye.”

    In other words, a slight clue that might hint at backstory with using a sequel, without spending a page on it. But it might feel a bit like “There was a war here, prove it!”

  16. I like to extend reactions/sequels over a long period of time. Of course there are lesser problems that don’t linger, but if something truly goes awry, I expect my character to struggle with understand it for a long time. Sometimes an entire novel.

  17. @Sarah: Flashbacks and lengthy discussions of backstory do work much better within the sequel structure. But the cause and effect progression always has to be clear: the character’s reaction creates his memory or his searching for answers to the dilemma spurs the memory. The backstory itself doesn’t often fulfill any of the specific parts of either the scene or sequel.

    @London: Most character driven novels will spend as long, if not longer, on sequels as they do on scenes. Doing so slows the pace, but it solidifies the foundation of character development.

  18. KM – I’ve nominated you for a Very Inspirational Blogger Award. More on that here:
    http://robitille.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/very-inspirational-blogger-award/

  19. Thank you so much! I’m honored.

  20. Great post. I sometimes find myself cramming the key ‘scenes’ in to my first draft, and fleshing out the ‘sequels’ in the rewrites. A novel can suffer from too much action without reaction — the shocks aren’t as shocking, the emotional punches not quite as weighty.

    Some good advice here, thanks.

    Ryan

  21. Stories are built around the scenes – or “key scenes” – but, really, it’s the sequels that gives it meaning and bring it all to live. Gotta have both to make the story run.

  22. That reminds me, since I can’t really find a book at the moment that goes into what exactly a pinch point is, I was wondering if you could do an article on that?

    The only time I ever really know if I’ve reached one, is if I have a character who runs away from the call so to speak. Yet having a bunch of micro-pinches is sort of exhausting, even in psychological sf.

  23. Larry Brooks does a great job of explaining pinch points here.

  24. Mine is reacting to finding out about her girlfriend’s betrayal and to her new Master’s genuine concern for her. Her hurt is coming out in her drawing closer to him and getting rid of reminders of her ex (she cut her hair short because her girlfriend liked it long). Her anger is coming out in a heated confrontation with said girlfriend in the next chapter. And I just had an idea of how to rewrite the action of the confrontation scene that works better than what I had originally. Excellent post, thank you! ^^

  25. Glad you enjoyed it!

  26. Thanks, I’ll take a look.^^

  27. Oh, I wanted to ask about where to place a sequel. Is it generally considered wise to open a book with a sequel? I’m contemplated opening this one character arc this way, but I’m not sure if it would leave them wondering, “Ok, so what are the reflecting about?”

  28. Not that it *can’t* be done, but it’s absolutely better not to open with a sequel. Start with your character acting, hook readers in, then slow down to reflect.

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