Structuring Your Story's Scenes: The Three Building Blocks of the Sequel

Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 7: The Three Building Blocks of the Sequel

The sequel*—the second half of the Scene—sometimes gets shortchanged. But it is every bit as important as the scene, since it allows characters to process the events of the scene and figure out their next move. The sequel is the reaction half of the action/reaction pairing. This is where introspective moments, quiet conversations, and character development occurs.

Even though we all recognize the importance of these things, authors still sometimes end up hacking sequels out of their stories in the mistaken belief they’re bad Scenes simply because they contain no outright conflict. No doubt, you’re familiar with the common wisdom that every Scene (nay, every page!) must offer conflict. But this is misleading at best.

Sequels may well contain conflict in some form, but they’re more likely to offer tension (i.e., the threat of conflict). This is an important distinction. Outright conflict on every single page can create a relentless pace that exhausts readers and leaves no time for important character development. Even the highest of high-speed stories must take a break from the conflict and slow down, even if microscopically, for the sequel.

Sequels can be full-blown set-pieces that take place over dozens of pages or even multiple chapters. They can also be limited to a paragraph or two of summary. We’ll get into that more when we discuss Variations on the Sequel. For now, suffice it that the sequel is every bit as important as the flashier scene and deserves just as much attention.

Analyzing the Dragon Scene Structure From Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone

(Graphic by Christine Frazier of Better Novel Project.)

The 3 Building Blocks of the Sequel

Like the scene, the sequel can be broken down into three segments that work together to create a rise and fall of drama. Every sequel should include the following:

Building Block #1: Reaction

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story

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Ultimately, reaction is what the sequel is all about. This is a time for introspection, a time for characters to process what they’ve just experienced in the preceding scene, and a time for the author to share those reactions with readers. Without a focus on reactions, characters become emotionless automatons, moving through the story’s conflict without ever responding in relatable human ways.

For Example: Let’s say your character is that same POW who tried to bribe a guard to leave his post, only to have the guard throw him into solitary confinement. This is a relatively big disaster with which to end a scene, and you can bet your character will react in definite ways. Whether he’s kicking and screaming as he’s dragged to the cooler, putting on a calm façade while mentally beating himself up for his stupidity, or threatening the guard right back—his reactions are important not just in knocking over the story’s next domino, but also in revealing integral factors of his personality.

Too often, inexperienced writers unconsciously skip this part of the sequel without even realizing they’re neglecting it. Because they are so in tune with their characters, they often expect readers to understand the characters’ emotions and reactions just as easily. Context will usually help the author out, but don’t skimp on showing readers what characters are feeling.

Reactions can be processed one by one throughout the scene, summarized briefly, or discussed at length in internal narrative or dialogue. The choice of how to impart the reaction will depend on the needs of your story. What’s important is remembering its significance as a powerful counterweight to the action in every scene.

Building Block #2: Dilemma

Once your characters have finished their initial—and often completely involuntary—reactions to the previous scene’s disaster, they will be faced with a dilemma. Sometimes this dilemma will be as general as: “What do I do now?” Usually, it will be more specific:

  • “How do I undo the disaster?”
  • “How do I keep my best friend from finding out the truth?”
  • “How do I avoid the truant officer when he comes after me?”
  • “How do I apologize to my daughter before she leaves?”

For Example: In the case of our POW, his dilemma might be twofold: “How do I get out of the cooler and/or keep from going insane while in the cooler?” and “Once I get out, how can I proceed with my escape plan now that I know the guard can’t be bribed?”

The dilemma is the setup for the next scene. The disaster at the end of the previous scene created a new round of problems for the characters. During the sequel, they will analyze these problems so they can appropriately tackle them in the next scene.

Often, the dilemma will be obvious from the context. For example, if the POW character is moldering in solitary, his problem is pretty obvious. But don’t be afraid to state the dilemma outright, particularly for your own benefit in early drafts. You can always cut it later if it’s going to hit readers over their heads with its obviousness. You want to keep your sequels just as focused and deliberate as your scenes.

Building Block #3: Decision

The dilemma leads right into the sequel’s final part—the decision. In order to formulate a goal for the next scene, characters must figure out a solution (whether it’s right or wrong) to the dilemma. In essence, the dilemma is a question, and the decision is the answer.

This is the planning stage of your story. The characters return from their massive defeat on the battlefield and head back to the drawing board. They pore over maps, discuss the mistakes of the former battle, and figure out what to do next. Compared to the battle, this will be a quiet Scene, but because of its importance and its high what’s-gonna-happen-next quotient, readers find sequels like this every bit as intriguing (sometimes more so) than the race-’em-chase-’em scenes.

For Example: Our captured POW will enter his concrete cell, sit down, and start thinking furiously. His particular sequel will probably last days, or even weeks, since he can’t take action until he gets out of the cooler. He might make and remake his decision a dozen times over if doing so serves the purpose of the story. By the time the sequel ends and he is set free, he needs to have decided upon his next move—whether it’s punching that nasty guard in the face, trying to bribe a different guard, or even giving up on the escape attempts altogether. Whatever his decision, it will bridge the sequel with the next scene and set up his new goal.

Can you see how integral your scenes and sequels must be to each other? They are connected in such a way that to eliminate even just one would destroy the seamless evolution of the plot. The disaster creates a dilemma, the dilemma forces the character to decide what to do next, and that decision informs the next scene’s goal.

From the book Structuring Your Novel: Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition (Amazon affiliate link)

The Sequel in Action

Let’s take a look at the sequel, as a whole, in action in the fourth and fifth chapters of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. These chapters take place right after the dance at the Meryton Assembly, where Darcy rejected Elizabeth as a desirable dancing partner.

Reaction: General discussion of the dance by all the involved characters.

Dilemma: How should Elizabeth respond to Darcy’s prideful rejection of her?

Decision: To avoid Darcy.

Sequels can be more difficult to spot and break down, since they often occur much more quickly than scenes, and also because their parts are often mashed together or implied instead of stated outright. Once you understand the components of a successful sequel and its importance in balancing and driving your story, you’re well on your way to writing a smashing second half to all your Scenes.

*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 Reactions in a Sequel

Complete Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What happens in your latest sequel? 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. Great post 😀
    Sequels are really important, we should not dread they could be boring 😛

  2. Exactly. In fact, sequels can be some of the most fun Scenes to write. The opportunity for character development is never higher than in the quiet, introspective moments of the sequel.

  3. Oh, I agree! It´s then when your character is emotionally there and becomes more real 🙂

  4. And, really, good fiction = good characters = emotional resonance.

  5. So true. We all love a good story, but what´s better than a character you can feel deep within? 😀

  6. In my current sequel (which I’m ALMOST done with–been staring it down for WAY too long!), my MC is contemplating how he keeps screwing things up with his client (they’re both attracted to the other, but come at it from completely opposite ends of the moral spectrum), then shifts into deciding what needs to be done next on the case. There’s some footwork going on, but it’s mostly a quiet scene–err, sequel. 😉 Definitely some tension when the client shows up since he hasn’t decided what to do about her yet.

    While I love to write my action-packed scenes, I do enjoy writing the sequels probably best of all. It provides a nice balance overall to any story to have properly placed and paced sequels.

  7. I always enjoy sequels. As a writer, I need that time to figure out what my characters are really feeling about situations. The sequel is the single most important factor in creating a logical and linear plot.

  8. This makes me feel like I’m on the right track. Sorry if it sounds like I’m bragging.

  9. That’s a good thing! Author’s instincts are usually pretty accurate. Sometimes it’s our brains that get in the way, so if e can realize we’re on the right track, mentally, it’s much easier to *stay* on the right track.

  10. THANK YOU so much for this!! I am writing the sequel to The Dragon Forest right now. The main thing I wanted in the sequel was a tough decision my main character would need to make. This choice would project the story forward!

    After reading your post, it seems I am on the right track. Whew!

    THANK YOU again!

  11. I’m sure you’re all over this, but, just to be clear, I’m talking about the sequel as the second half the Scene, not the follow-up to a previous book. In the case of a sequel book, the same rules apply as in normal story structure.

  12. And think thats the part I forgot in my miniature plot outline. I’m a little unsure of how to go about sequels, as I’m not sure how long it should be for something that’s suppose to be an epic poem.

    I’m not really going for an “action adventure” per say, though it has action scenes. I’m going for more of a thinking or introspective story. Would this require shorter action, and longer sequels? I’m not sure.

  13. Sequels can be as long or as short as you want them to be. Most action stories will focus more on scenes, thus ramping up the speed. On the other end of the spectrum, you have literary stories that spend a lot of time on sequels and convey a more leisurely pace. Just think about how much emphasis you want to put on your character’s reactions vs. their actions. For example, if you know a particular reaction is going to end up being especially important, you’ll probably want to devote a longer sequel to it.

  14. Thanks for the free lesson on writing. My pattern is to outline each chapter or scene, and now I’m adding the three elements of a sequel to it. With over 20 years as a non-fiction writer, this kind of information is just what I need to learn new good habits.

  15. If you’re already an outliner, fitting in proper Scene structure usually feels very natural. If anything, it makes the outlining process even easier!

  16. A lot of it might also depend on if its a political thriller over an action thriller too I guess.

  17. Pacing is always a big factor in what makes up a genre. Reading broadly in your chosen genre is the best (read: only) way to really get a sense for what’s appropriate and what’s not.

  18. So reading in Bizarro, Military Sf, Biopunk, Anime Novels, Contemporary, & Epic Poetry might be beneficial.^^

    Well actually, its more like the battles themselves aren’t shown, rather its something like how some parts of Italy are set up. You don’t ever really see the the old sacking of Rome, but you feel the after effects of it in the underground ruins.

    Its hard to explain unless your familiar with Brutalist architecture.

  19. Definitely beneficial. And it’s still beneficial to read genres you’re not writing as well. Every story can teach us something.

  20. Well especially if it might have some features. Even though I don’t write romance, you never know when reading said book will have with a subplot.^^

  21. Exactly. The broader our reading habits, the more depth we have to draw on in our own writing.

  22. Contextualising what I’ve absorbed here into my own stories scenes – I become a little unsure:
    Say my characters got a scene goal (for that day), she’s going to go about achieving that goal through action and is going to come across conflict (e.g. A larger wave than expected) there’s going to be a quick moment of reaction, dilemma and decision there? (eyes widened, contemplated going for it or doing her best to avoid it and not get pummelled – she decided to…) then the disaster…

    As you said “reactions can be processed one by one throughout the scene” – in the middle of action where she’s not going to stop, and the author doesn’t want to slow down the scene too much – would the reaction be a one line to a short paragraph of thought, perhaps?
    And then the sequel half of the Scene coming after.

    Having trouble switching my internal censor off, but at the moment I’m working on a day which I’ve broken down into a morning and afternoon as action scenes, with a sequel in between, then a longer sequel taking place in the evening.
    I’m thinking the disasters are as low-key as wiping out on a wave, deciding to try again and again until a larger wave or a bad wipeout or, etc. something closer to the word disaster comes and – forces the character to stop… Going into a sequel.

    Any thoughts would be much appreciated

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You’re totally on the right track. Every action (however small) in a scene will require a reaction, so you’re going to have action and reaction volleying back and forth from paragraph to paragraph (or even sentence to sentence) in each scene. But the overall scene structure will focus on the bigger disasters that stand out and obviously move the plot forward.

  23. This series of articles is absolutely the most practical, useful thing I’ve ever read about writing a novel. Brilliant stuff!

  24. I’ve read a lot about scene and sequel, written detailed outlines, and blogs listing page numbers in books, but I don’t think anything explains it as clearly as your Harry Potter graphic. Great job.

  25. Hey there K.M. You mentioned that the sequel could play out over multiple scenes/chapters. Could it play out like this?

    Scene 1: Father and Son disagree on something important.
    Sequal 1:(New scene) His father convinces(passive-aggressively) the son all is well, and he has nothing to worry about – the son believes him because it is part of his lie.
    Sequal 1a:(New scene) They’re at dinner, and the father brings up the disagreement, but this time isn’t passive-aggressive but is flat-out degrading to his son(Ghost), and even though his son is upset over the way he is being treated, it ends with him agreeing that his father is right.

  26. I am reading your book now about scene and I found it extremely useful. I am so glad I found your blog as I am getting a bit confused. I understand about ending scenes with decisions that lead to the next scene, but how does that applies to the ending scenes of the book, when the villain has been revealed and lovers finally getting together? Does the “Decision” part ever ends? Does “let’s both move to LA to be together” count as a decision for a scene?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The end of the book is a special case. It can be nice to end with the characters’ forming a new goal, indicating the continuance of their lives after the story. But it’s not necessary. The final scene can end simply with their reactions to the previous events.

  27. Reading this made me realize that Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, though they are full-fledged stories, are also just big scenes. I think that’s the case anyway…


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