Part 8 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
Sometimes just the mention of “sequel scenes” makes writers cross their eyes. Isn’t a sequel, you know, a followup to your first book? What does it have to do with individual scenes?
The answers to these questions are important, because the sequel makes up fully half of every scene and is crucial in creating deep character development, realistic cause and effect, and resonant themes. Today, we’re going to explore what happens when you neglect your sequel scenes, either by leaving them out of your story altogether, skimping on the cream, or just choosing the wrong sequels.
Scene Structure 101
Most of my regular readers are probably already familiar with the terminology of the sequel scene. But just in case you’re not, here are the basics.
The structure of every Scene in your story can be broken into two halves: scene (action) and sequel (reaction). (And, yeah, I apologize for the ridiculously confusing terminology; blame Dwight Swain.) Each of those halves are then broken into three sections apiece.
In the scene, your character has a (1) goal, which is met by (2) conflict, which ends in at least a (3) semi-disaster. This then prompts the sequel, in which your character (1) reacts to that disaster, ponders his new (2) dilemma, and comes to a (3) decision—which leads right into the next scene’s goal.
(For an in-depth exploration of scene structure, see my series How to Structure Scenes in Your Story.)
Most writers understand the scene half. Goal and conflict, baby! That’s the easy part. But sometimes, it can be easy to overlook the sequel—to your story’s detriment, as we can see in Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World. Let’s take a look.
Where (and Why) Thor: The Dark World Fails to Deliver
Welcome to Part 8 of our exploration of the highs and lows of storytelling from Marvel’s popular movie series. Dark World was the first Marvel movie I saw in the theater post-Avengers, so to say I was highly anticipating it is a bit of an understatement. Walking out of the theater, I felt it was an enjoyable movie that had included all the elements I was hoping it would (Loki, Jane, Asgard, action, humor)—and yet, it hadn’t quite scratched my story itch. There was something about it that left me feeling unsatisfied.
Think I’m going to say it was because Dark World had weak sequel scenes? Head of the class for you!
But, first, the obvious highs:
- I thought it was spectacularly gorgeous, one of the few movies where I noticed a decrease in visual quality from 3D (in which I viewed it the first time) to 2D.
- Jane gave a deserving Thor a good whack (or two) in the face, for not sending her a postcard from NYC. (I was hoping she’d throw her cereal box in his face, but, hey, this works.)
- The brother love between Thor and Loki! This was undoubtedly the best part of the film: the conflict between Thor’s wanting to trust the familial bond and knowing he can’t.
- More Asgard—and more Heimdall.
- The Dark Elves. They were a super-cool concept, everything from their doll-like masks to their Kursed battle fury.
- The Dark Elves. They weren’t taken advantage of in any way, which is really no surprise in a movie as busy and thematically scattered as this one.
- The thematic scattering. I’d argue that the heart of the Thor movies’ theme is family—specifically brotherhood. But neither of the existing two movies have gotten a chance to sufficiently explore that, mostly because Thor’s doomed romance with the mortal Jane keeps eating up the screentime.
- And, finally, and most importantly: the characters do. not. react. For every beautiful, interesting, scary, heart-rending event, there should be a HUGE sequel scene. And… there’s not.
The 3 Jobs of Your Sequel Scenes
Writers sometimes get hung up on the advice that “there should be conflict on every page.” You might feel it’s time for your characters to sit down and have a chat about what just happened, but then you hear that advice in the back of your head and you start fretting. “Where’s the conflict in this scene? What’s the character’s goal? Gah, I love this scene, but are readers going to think it’s boring?”
Short answer: no, they’re not. Not if you set up your sequel scenes wisely.
Here are the three things you have to take the time to show in your sequel scenes.
1. Use Your Sequel Scenes to Explore Character
The action half of the scene is where the plot happens; the sequel/reaction half is where the character development happens. Skip the sequel scenes, and you can be sure you’re skipping the most powerful aspects of your character’s arc.
Sequel scenes—the reaction half of scenes, the scenes with no action and no conflict—are routinely some of my favorites as a reader and viewer. What a character does or experiences is only interesting insofar as he reacts to it.
Easy Rule of Thumb: If he doesn’t react to it, it doesn’t matter.
Why Dark World Gets It Wrong: Think about how Thor and Jane never react to the fact that Thor’s mother Frigga died protecting Jane. Obviously, this is a huge event that should create ripples in both characters’ lives and in their relationship. But we get nada in the film. The only character who truly reacts to Frigga’s death is Loki (which is yet another reason Loki is usually considered the more compelling character).
How You Can Do It Right: Take a look at your scene structure. Does every action have a response period? Sometimes this will be a full-blown chapter in its own right; sometimes it may only be a paragraph or two. But everything that happens in your story must elicit a reaction from your protagonist and other pertinent characters. Otherwise, you’re cheating readers and cutting the emotional legs out from under your characters.
2. Use Your Sequel Scenes to Create Cause and Effect
Dwight V. Swain, originator of this approach to scene structure, wrote in his wonderful book Techniques of the Selling Writer:
[Your reader] demands that your character’s efforts have meaning. They must be the consequences of prior development and the product of intelligence and direction.
If you’re not using scene and sequel to create a tight weave of cause and effect, then what you’re creating is not a plot, but rather a random string of events. The sequel/reaction shows the effect of every scene/action’s cause. If you neglect either side of this dynamic duo, your story will start staggering around like a drunken pirate with one leg.
Cause and effect creates realism, it creates consequences, it enables suspension of disbelief. Without these elements, it becomes harder and harder to keep readers invested in the story world you’re trying to create.
Why Dark World Gets It Wrong: In this film’s defense, it did have a lot of ground to cover in just two hours: Jane’s illness, Loki’s fate, Frigga’s death, Odin’s revenge, Darcy’s intern, the Dark Elves’ backstory, etc. But, ultimately, that’s no excuse for skimping on the aspect of scene that is most important for grounding a story. How much better would all of these subplots have been with a little more grounding?
One of the best sequel scenes in the entire movie is the early scene when Lady Sif speaks to a melancholy Thor outside the tavern where his friends are celebrating their recent victory. It explains his emotional landscape and anticipates his motivation in the next scene for pursuing Jane—and it develops the minor character Sif into the bargain. How much better would the film have been with a few more such scenes?
How You Can Do It Right: Pay attention to the six-part weave of each Scene—goal, conflict, disaster, reaction, dilemma, decision. When each of these pieces are in place, it allows each moment in your story to build seamlessly into the next. You’ll never have to wonder if you’ve written an unnecessary scene. If it fails to fit into one of these six parts, you’ll know it’s unnecessary.
3. Use Your Sequel Scenes to Advance Theme
If the most important character development happens during your sequel scenes, then so does your thematic development—if only because character and theme must be developed side by side. Without quiet moments of reflection, irony, and subtext, the theme languishes on the back burner.
Theme lives in the spaces between your character’s actions. It lives in your story’s subtext. And subtext arises perhaps most richly in scenes of reaction, when your characters are exploring the consequences of their actions and the motivations that will prompt their next move.
Why Dark World Gets It Wrong: I love Jane Foster. She’s a thoroughly delightful character: funny, perky, sweet, feminine, brilliant, determined, awkward. But she’s just plain in the way of the theme. These movies should never have been conceived as love stories. Their burning heart has always been Thor’s difficult relationship with his adopted brother Loki.
It’s interesting that Loki actually does get the most interesting and complete sequel scenes in this movie (such as after he and Thor have escaped Asgard and share a fight and a few semi-fond memories while Jane is—conveniently—passed out in the bottom of the skiff). But because he got relegated to a subplot that’s squished in between all the story’s more action-oriented elements, the theme is ultimately just as short-changed as he is.
How You Can Do It Right: Your character’s reaction scenes are the perfect place to explore the Lie/Truth dynamic that is driving his inner conflict and evolving his personal development. This is where the arguments come to the fore, where the Mentor can advise, the Contagonist can tempt, and the protagonist can begin to see things more clearly.
Because proper scene structure affects every part of your story—plot, character, and theme—you can see how important it is to make sure you’re balancing it in every chapter of your story. Learning to write effective and well-placed sequel scenes might even spell the difference between a good book and a great book.
Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about how Captain America: The Winter Soldier used theme to knock its character development out of the park.
Previous Posts in This Series:
- Iron Man: Grab Readers With a Multi-Faceted Characteristic Moment
- The Incredible Hulk: How (Not) to Write Satisfying Action Scenes
- Iron Man II: Use Minor Characters to Flesh Out Your Protagonist
- Thor: How to Transform Your Story With a Moment of Truth
- Captain America: The First Avenger: How to Write Subtext in Dialogue
- The Avengers: 4 Places to Find Your Best Story Conflict
- Iron Man III: Don’t Make This Mistake With Your Story Structure