Structuring Your Story's Scenes: Variations on the Sequel

Structuring Your Scenes, Pt. 11: Variations on the Sequel Scene

Sequels*, even more than scenes, offer all kinds of flexibility in scene structure. In large part, this flexibility is what can make sequels difficult to quantify in stories. Unlike the scene, sequels can be so subtle they blend right into the scenery. This can sometimes lead authors to believe sequels aren’t as important as scenes, but their flexibility in no way eliminates their necessity. For every scene, there must be a sequel, even if it isn’t immediately recognizable.

To help you realize the possibilities of the sequel, let’s take a look at some of the common variations.

3 Variations on the Sequel Reaction

1. The Reaction Is “Ongoing”

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You may find you need to allow characters to react to events as they happen, instead of all at once after the scene. To some extent, characters will always be reacting throughout a scene. If one character throws his milk in another’s face, it won’t make sense for the second character to delay her reaction. If nothing else, her internal narrative will tell readers how she felt about the unasked for milk bath. By the time you reach the sequel proper, you may have already shared the character’s initial reaction with readers. You may choose to develop that reaction further, or you may decide you’ve covered it fully enough and can move right on to the following dilemma.

2. The Reaction Is Delayed

If characters must overcome their dilemma with a split-second decision, you probably won’t have time to explore their reactions in immediate depth. Let’s say a character is faced by a life-threatening disaster. The baddie shoved him off a cliff, and he’s hanging by his fingernails to a spindly root. Letting him hang there while you spend two pages musing on his terror, hopelessness, and general annoyance at the bad guy’s inconsiderateness is going to bring your story to a screeching halt (not to mention giving that root more than enough time to break). Realistically, your character must react to the dilemma and decide on a course of action in a matter of seconds. No problem with that, but you will then want to try to return to the moment later on, in a quieter setting, and record your character’s reaction.

3. The Reaction Includes a Flashback

The meditative quality of the flashback means it will be much more at home within the sequel than the scene. The flashback itself, depending on its length, may take on the structure of a scene (goal, conflict, disaster), but because it is a memory of something that happened previously, it will usually fit best within the introspection of the sequel’s reaction phase.

1 Variation on the Sequel Dilemma and Decision

1. The Decision Ends Up Being a Dead End

The sequel may include “half scenes,” in which characters make a decision and put the goal into action, only to have it go nowhere. If you flesh this out, the dead-end goal may take the form of a scene disaster. But if you choose to summarize it, it can serve to lengthen the dilemma/decision section. After regrouping from the dead-end decision, characters will decide upon a new goal and the next scene will progress.

5 Variations on the Sequel as a Whole

1. The Sequel Can Take Place in a Matter of Seconds

If your characters’ original goal is foiled by a disaster, they may need to immediately react, take stock of the dilemma, make a new decision, and enact the new goal right away. When the entire sequel takes place on such a short timeline, you won’t have any need to dwell on each of its elements. Make sure the reaction, dilemma, and decision are clear, either explicitly or from the context, then move on.

2. The Sequel Can Take Half a Sentence or Several Chapters

The length of your sequel will control your story’s pacing. Longer sequels will slow down the pacing and reinforce plausibility. They can go on for chapters, if necessary. Shorter sequels will keep the scenes’ action rolling and allow the story to move with greater speed. If the logical sequence of events calls for it or if you’re merely trying to amp up your story’s pacing, you may want to shorten the sequel to a mere sentence or two.

3. The Sequel’s Sections Can Be Disproportionate

Although this series has placed equal emphasis on all three parts of the sequel to allow us to fully study them, the reaction, dilemma, and decision won’t always be given equal weight. Sometimes you’ll want to spend more time on the reaction, sometimes more on the dilemma. Some dilemmas and decisions will be so clear from the context you won’t even need to mention them outright. What’s important is that all three sections are there, even if you don’t flesh them out in the text.

4. The Sequel’s Sections Can Be Included Out of Order

You’re not going to want to do this one very often, but you can mix up the sequel if you need to. Sometimes logic may require you to delay the reaction until after characters have already faced the dilemma. For example, if an elephant stomps on your character’s foot, she’s probably going to act before she can put her reaction into mental words. You’re still including all of the elements within the same section (in contrast to the previously mentioned variation, in which the reaction is moved to an entirely new section); you’re just rearranging them.

5. The Sequel Is Interrupted by a New Scene

Your character may have returned to base after a disastrous battle. He may be knee deep in his reaction phase—mourning his dead comrades—and just getting ready to face the dilemma of figuring out what dirty turncoat leaked the battle plans—when, surprise!, the bad guys launch an attack on the base. Your character suddenly has new priorities and goals. Your reasons for doing this may have been to postpone the dilemma about the turncoat, to ramp up the pacing and stakes, or even to keep readers a little off balance.

Once you have a solid grasp on the elements of the sequel, you’re free to play around with them to your heart’s content. Mix and match, interrupt them with new scenes, smoosh them or stretch them—whatever your story needs. The only solid requirement is that you know your character’s reaction, dilemma, and decision within each sequel and that you make those elements clear to readers, either outright or by implication.

>>Click here to read “7 Questions You Have About Scenes vs. Chapters”


So there you have it! You’ve now learned the two parts of the Scene and the three elements that compose those parts—the scene’s goal, conflict, and disaster and the sequel’s reaction, dilemma, and decision. You’ve learned how to build these elements into a solid Scene, which will, in turn, create a solid story. You’ve figured out the variations that will allow you to mold your Scenes to your story’s unique demands. And in so doing, you’ve gained a deeper understanding of what makes a story work on a technical level. Welcome to the broad new world of conscious Scene structure!

Stay tuned: Next week, I will conclude the series with a post answering Frequently Asked Questions about Scene structure.

*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.

Complete Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of a successful sequel scene that varies from standard structure? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Thank you for going over the sequel so thoroughly. It’s probably one of the biggest areas I need to pay attention to in my revisions so my characters grow.

  2. Sequels can often be overlooked simply because they’re misunderstood (in large part because of their confusing name). But if we can gain a solid understanding of them, our stories will benefit tremendously.

  3. Thank you, I’ve enjoyed your solid presentation on sequels! 😀

  4. Thanks, Rich! I’ve enjoyed writing the series. Always solidifies what I know myself when I have to put it into learnable terms.

  5. This reminds me of Viktor Frankl.

    “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
    Viktor E. Frankl

  6. I like that. Sometimes that space is the authors’ greatest asset.

  7. WOW, what a helpful series of posts. I now have a spreadsheet titled “Scenes”, with columns for goal, conflict, outcome, reaction, dilemma, and decision. It’s helped me map out my story’s structure and identify what’s missing. More than once I’ve thought, “wait a sec, I’m completely missing the dilemma here!”

    Thank you very much for this!!

  8. Before writing this series, I did just that with one of my WIPs. Amazing how everything wrong with a story becomes so much clearer when you break down it down to the micro level.

  9. Hi Katie!
    Question about interrupting a sequel with a new scene. If you do that, do you then have to go back to his dilemma and decision about what he was reacting to? Or does it get negated because of the new goal, conflict, disaster cycle?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ideally, yes. But in some instances, you only need a single sentence to sum up the previous reaction, especially since it’s presumably shortened by the next goal cycle.

  10. Even though I brainstormed and I have my novel’s story structure, world, and character arcs, I am stuck on my scene outline.

    When it comes to scene details, it feels as if the story is going in no right direction.

    My mind goes blank when I am writing down the details of each scene and I am making up things as I go unfortunately. I’m also not sure how to transition into other scenes.

    I just read your article called “How to write a scene outline you can use” and it looks like I missed Step 2. Use These Important Labels for Each Scene.

    Also, for the scenes and sequels I don’t understand how to apply them to the scene. For example are the scenes and sequels summarized at the beginning before writing what happens, or is it a guideline used to map out the scene outline?

    For example: If I know my 1st scene is about Goldilocks arriving to the 3 bears house, would I state the goal, conflict, and disaster at the beginning and then describe the scene after?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I use the structure of scene and sequel as a guideline for mapping the scene. Then when I’m done with the scene itself, I will write a quick summary of the structural parts to make sure I got them all.

  11. As long as a character has a goal throughout the scene, can a scene take place over several days with many things happening that aren’t directly related to the goal?

    I’m not sure how to rephrase my question so that it makes sense, so here’s a very random example:

    Goal: to talk to their aunt
    Conflict: the character needs to go to school
    Disaster: their aunt has left the country

    But within that scene, the character meets new characters and rescues a kitten before finally getting to the disaster section of the scene.

    If you’re able to make any sense of the randomness above, I’d appreciate your answer!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Individual scenes often contribute to longer sequences that have a single linking goal. However, even within the sequence, each scene needs to have goal/conflict/outcome building up to that final goal in the sequence.

  12. Are sequel scenes the same as the Crisis Question, Climax, and Resolution in Shawn Coyne’s (author of Story Grid) scene outlines? It sounds similar.

    Inciting incident: Something starts the scene. Basically the beginning.

    Progressive Complication: Character gets into deeper trouble

    Crisis: Character must decide on what to do next. Do I do XYZ and risk this or do ABC and risk that?

    Climax: Character makes decision and acts

    Resolution: Based on that action, a new decision/action must be taken.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, sounds like he’s using the same approach, although I much prefer Swayne’s emphasis on a goal in the beginning of the scene rather than just “start the scene.” Keeps the character active.

  13. Been awhile since you wrote this, but just wanted to say I really enjoyed your whole series on Scene Structure. I have a question about sequels though. Can a sequel (reaction) be within a scene (action) or should it be separate? Thanks again for this great resource!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The sequel is a separate unite from the scene, but if you’re asking whether they can take place within the same chapter, the answer is yes.

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