Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 10: Options for Decisions in a Scene Sequel

Perhaps the most instinctive of all the Scene’s* building blocks is the decision. This third and final piece of the sequel grows out of the character’s dilemma and leads right into the next scene’s goal. In scene structure, the decision is the little cattle prod on your story’s backside that keeps it moving forward. Conceivably, your characters could sit around contemplating their dilemmas for the rest of their lives. But good stories require forward motion, and the only way out of a dilemma is to make a decision—whether it’s right or wrong.

As is true of all the parts of scene structure, the key to a good decision is making sure it is a direct result of the previous dilemma. A random, unrelated decision might be able to keep the plot moving—but not in the straight line readers want. If your character’s dilemma is about what to make for dinner, the decision needs to be making filet mignon and lyonnaise potatoes—not running down to the hospital and donating blood.

Options for Sequel Decisions

You won’t find many story techniques more straightforward than the sequel decision.

Basically, the options boil down to just two:

1. To take action.

2. To not take action.

Both are acceptable choices, but usually you want your characters to make decisions that will force to them to act. You want character who cause thing to happen, not ones who sit around and allow things to happen to them. That said, there will be moments when a character’s decision to refrain from action will be just as important to the plot and just as revealing of inner conflict as would be the most exciting of actions.

Your characters’ specific decisions will, of course, depend entirely on the nature of their dilemma. A decision might be anything from I’m going to wear blue socks today to I’m going to sacrifice my life to save everybody in that burning building. Whatever the case, it will translate into a goal that will fit into one of the five categories we discussed in our post on goals.

Long-Term Goal, Short-Term Decision

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Often, a character’s dilemma will be one that can’t be solved with a simple one-shot decision. In fact, you’ll want to actively avoid too many simple dilemmas/decisions in a row. If characters are faced with one easily solved problem after another, the story will take on a scattered, episodic feel, and readers will be begin to doubt the realism of the stakes.

This is where the “long-term goal, short-term decision” factor comes into play. If your character’s problem is how to marry that cute neighbor boy, she’s going to be faced with many “mini” dilemmas along the way to reaching her ultimate goal. In figuring out your sequel’s decision, look for the first step the character must take. Maybe she does decide to marry the neighbor boy in that first sequel, but she also has to decide on a much smaller, more plausible course of action. In this case, she decides to apologize for yelling at the boy’s dog.

Obvious Decision or Long-Shot Decision?

Your character’s decisions will shape the plot. If all the decisions are obvious and easily accomplished, the story will quickly lose steam. You don’t want characters to consistently decide upon ridiculous or illogical courses of action, but you do want to keep the odds long and readers guessing.

Our lovelorn heroine’s most sensible course of action in trying to marry the neighbor boy might be to simply ask him out. Nothing wrong with that, and it could certainly lead to all kinds of interesting story possibilities of its own. But we might be able to unearth some unexpected options by having her make a different decision. Maybe she decides to serenade him outside him window. Maybe she decides to make herself forget all about him. Or maybe, like Anabel Simms in the classic movie Every Girl Should Be Married, she investigates every aspect of the boy’s life in an attempt to casually infiltrate his routines.

To State the Decision or Not?

You should be able to put a character’s decision into words. Write it down so you have something concrete to build upon. However, this doesn’t mean you must state the decision outright in the story. Often, the decision will be clear from either the preceding dilemma or the following goal in the next scene. Sometimes, the decision won’t even be made until seconds before the character acts upon it, in which case it will meld with the goal.

A few guidelines:

Don’t state the decision outright if it is in any way repetitious or condescending to readers. If the decision is clear from the context, it won’t require an outright explanation.

Do state the decision outright if the act of deciding is just as important as the goal (e.g., the decision is a turning point for the character).

Do state the decision outright if you need a strong link between your sequel and the next scene (e.g., several intervening Scenes separate the decision and the goal, and/or the decision provides a strong end to the chapter.)

Questions to Ask About Your Sequel Decisions

Before you tie the ribbon on your sequel and call it a wrap, double-check yourself with the following questions:

1. Is your decision an organic result of your dilemma?

2. Does your decision lead into a strong goal?

3. If your dilemma is a long-term problem, have you narrowed the decision down to the first logical step in solving that problem?

4. Does your decision solve the dilemma too easily, or does it lead to new complications—either because the character made the wrong decision or because solving the dilemma created a new dilemma?

5. If your character decides not to take action, is this a logical and important step within the plot?

6. Is your decision important enough to state outright in the sequel?

7. If you’ve stated the decision outright, is it repetitious in light of either the preceding dilemma or the following goal?

Sequel Decisions in Action

What does this final building block of the sequel look like in action? Let’s take one last peek at our books and movies:

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen: The second chapter ended with the Bennet women’s dilemma about how to meet up with Mr. Bingley. This dilemma is, of course, the first step in the much larger story dilemma of how to get Bingley to marry one of the girls. The decision is never stated outright, but its implication (Mrs. Bennet will invite Bingley to dinner at the appropriate time) is clear both from the dilemma and from the actual dispatch of the invitation at the beginning of the next chapter.

The first complete sequence of scene structure in the novel Pride & Prejudice ends with the decision to invite Mr. Bingley to dinner, in hopes he will marry one of the Bennet girls.

It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra: The angel Clarence’s dilemma is how to convince George Bailey he shouldn’t commit suicide in order to pay off an accounting discrepancy with his life insurance. George’s offhand comment about believing the people he cares about would be better off had he never been born leads Clarence to his decision: he gets head angle Joseph to grant George’s wish. The decision segues directly into the goal, which, easily accomplished thanks to Joseph, segues right into the next scene’s conflict.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, the angel Clarence confers with his superior angel and decides to grant George Bailey’s wish: “You’ve never been born!”

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: Ender’s dilemma about how to get out of going to school turns into something much bigger when Graff and his men show up at the house and give Ender the option of attending Battle School. Although Ender’s ultimate decision to go with Graff effectually solves his sequel’s dilemma, it also introduces an entirely new twist, which requires almost the entire chapter to explain and reason through.

In the book Ender’s Game, Ender’s initial dilemma of avoiding school turns into something much bigger when he is recruited to join Battle School and must decide what to do.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir: After discussing the battle with his officers, Captain Aubrey flies in the face of their expectations and makes the surprising decision to remain in the Pacific, refit the ship at sea, and then pursue the enemy ship Acheron. The outright statement of his decision is crucial since Aubrey’s taking it upon himself to exceed his orders with this decision is more important at this point than the actual goal itself. This decision will drive the entirety of the plot, as well as Aubrey’s personal character arc and the story’s thematic exploration of power dynamics.

The first complete sequence of scene structure in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World ends with Captain Jack Aubrey’s crucial decision: “We’re not going home.”

You’ve now learned how to build an entire Scene, from scene (goal, conflict, disaster) to sequel (reaction, dilemma, decision). Put one solid Scene upon another, and before you know it, you’ll have a story that’s solid all the way through!

*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 Variations on the Sequel.

Complete Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Was your protagonists latest decision clear from the context in your scene structure, or did you state it outright in the text? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).

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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.

Comments

  1. Always, interesting. I love the examples. Really helps! And helps to know I’ve instinctively been on the right track.

  2. Writing is a very instinctive process, and our instincts are rarely wrong. Usually, the biggest trick is just interpreting what our gut is telling us.

  3. Prior to realizing ber father is in fact already a zombie, the heroine is unsure of his fate or that of any survivors deeper in the overrun compound. The decision she and her group face is to cut their losses and leave or risk it and push further into the base in the hopes of maybe finding other survivors. There is a moment when she realizes she can’t speak for the others but only for herself and states that she must press on in the hopes of finding her father. The others all contemplate and decide verbally to risk it with ber instead of abandoning the story goal.

  4. Perfect expression of a sequel dilemma.

  5. Thanks! I must say at this point that this discussion is so clarifying. I am familiar with structure (favorites are SAVE THE CAT and WRITER’S JOURNEY) and am aware that each scene should be about something, have a beginning, midddle and end, that it should begin on a positive and end on a negative and all of that. BUT the way you are breaking it down here is just remarkable. I have already bookmarked part one of this and am going g to read the whole series. This will be very helpful in rewrites too to tighten weak and aimless scenes. Remarkable!

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. I know this doesn’t answer your question at all, and it’s kind of random but I think its a cool thing running around: The Very Inspiring Blogger award.

    http://theitinerantd.blogspot.com/2013/02/very-inspiring-bloggers.html

    Thanks for the awesome posts!

  8. I’m attempting to make it clear from the context that the girl wants to run awya from her abusive uncle, rather than her directly state “I’m going to run away from my uncle.” As I feel that’s more realistic. She does however plot itself her head though.

  9. @Phil: This approach to Scene structure comes to you by way of Dwight V. Swain’s wonderful Techniques of the Selling Writer. Required reading for every writer.

    @Daniel: Thanks so much!

    @Sarah: If she’s making plans to run away or going over scenarios in her head, her decision will probably be clear enough.

    • The decision my character makes does not lead into a goal, in fact my character decides to give up on it and finds a new goal.

      The new goal has nothing to do with the decision because he now has a new problem.

      Will this make my story episodic?

      It’s just my character is in a lose lose situation. He’s been cornered.

      He tries to do something but he really can’t do anything at the moment.

      I’m wondering if this is still considered a reaction.

  10. Its more because I have not made it obvious the uncle’s abusive, the fact that she’s running away might seem out of the blue.

    He’s suppose to be the antagonist, but I’ve sort of made him a little to redeeming. (He says thank you when she gives him tea, and appears for now sympathetic about Bianca’s backstory.)

  11. By the way, I figured out a way to make character profiles less grinding. Instead of saying, “Family makes 20,000 dollars a year.” I instead write a store about how said financial situation directly effects them.

  12. Writing stories – or throwaway scenes – to get to know characters is an awesome exercise. It’s one of the best ways to not just get to know a character, but to get under his skin and find out what it will feel like to write him.

  13. I’m trying to figure out scenes are sequels, because it might also be helpful for graphic prose poetry too.:3

  14. If it’s told in a story format with anything approaching a Scene format, the scene/sequel dynamic would definitely be helpful.

  15. Decisions, decisions… what´s worst than a character wandering without a goal?

  16. No goal, no conflict, no story!

  17. I’m wondering about the difference between the planning aspect of the dilemma, and the decision, and the goal of the next scene. They are seeming pretty interchangeable to my brain. Thanks!

  18. In practice, they often *are* interchangeable. One can lead right into the other without the reader ever realizing they’re three separate things. Also, the fact that an obvious goal often negates the need for an explicit decision (and sometimes vice versa) contributes to the inherency each part of the scene has to the other. It’s important for authors to be able to pick apart the differetn pieces, but they don’t necessarily have to be obviously distinct within the story.

  19. Kenitay James Houston says

    Hi K.M. Weiland,

    I have a question regarding Decision and point-of-view. And so I wonder if it is alright if it’s not the protagonist, but the antagonist making that ‘decision’ to do whatever that allows the scene/sequel go full circle?

    For example here’s what’s going on:

    Goal: Protagonist (a kid) waits behind a line to board a cruiseship at the new docks.
    Conflict: Thief pickpockets protagonist’s purse and a chase follows.
    Disaster: Protagonist gets trapped by thief at the shady old docks, where pirates come to steal little children.

    Reaction: Protagonist is frightened, and then physically resists getting taken.
    Dilemma: It is either going along, or get locked up in a box.
    Decision: Pirates decide to put protagonist to sleep and put him in a box. (because the kid seems too hard to handle otherwise.)

    Would that last part be okay to go with? Or does it have to be a decision made on part of the protagonist?

    Have a blessed day,

    Kenny

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Technically, you always want the decision to be in the POV character’s power. However, things aren’t always so simple as the 1-2-3-4-5-6 cycle of the scene structure suggests. What you’re describing here as scene and sequel, I would actually consider to be just the scene. The rhythm here suggests that the protag’s getting trapped at the docks and put to sleep is all part of the same disaster–with a brief reaction segment inserted. The true sequel will arise when the protagonist awakes and has to deal with the dilemma of his capture.

  20. Jason Card says

    Good info indeed. My advice would be to use a (de “s” er) on the audio. The mic seems to be picking up high in the S frequency. Thank you!

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  1. […] Decision: They’ll grab the droids and head over to Obi-Wan’s house. […]

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