Scene structure asks for a one-two punch pairing of action and reaction—or as Dwight V. Swain named them in what has come to be considered “classic” scene structure, scene and sequel. The need to write sequel scenes, the reaction half of the equation, is sometimes overlooked and misunderstood. This is unfortunate, since the reaction phase is both what controls a story’s pacing and where much of a story’s meaning may be found or explored.
Some writers fear that lengthy reaction scenes, in which characters process and respond to the consequences of just-concluded conflict-oriented scenes, will slow their pacing too much. And sometimes these fears are well-founded. But without solid sequel scenes, a story will struggle, both because the entirely conflict-oriented pacing will founder in ironic monotony and because characters will feel unemotional and undeveloped. Somewhat non-intuitively, the sequel scenes are often some of a story’s best and richest scenes. (Indeed, many literary and character-driven novels spend proportionately more of their word count on reaction scenes than action scenes.)
The shorthand of all this is that learning how to write sequel scenes is a specialized technique all its own. Mastering the sequel scene will allow you to grip readers’ attention on every page. So let’s take a look at a lovely example of a sequel scene, as well as some pointers on pitfalls and ways to strengthen possible weaknesses.
Learning From Each Other: WIP Excerpt Analysis
Today’s post is the ninth in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you have shared with me. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.
Today, my thanks to Robert Plowman for sharing an excellent excerpt from his light fantasy Wings. He noted:
This scene sequel is from the end of the mid-point. The MC, Tzeria Aetos, lives in an alternate reality evolved from the ancient classical world. She has just been crowned empress by popular acclaim, after having repelled an enemy attack on the capital city. She alone knows that it was her own scheming that indirectly led to the attack, and this fills her with guilt.
Negotiations successfully concluded, I returned to the palace. Someone brought a stool to help me dismount at the formal main entrance. A captain of the guard saluted, an honor guard flanking the main doors snapped to attention, and the heavy bronze doors swung inward, groaning on their hinges.
I returned the captain’s salute. “I would be alone now.”
I entered and the doors creaked shut, closing with a dull boom. This was the grand audience chamber, seldom used except on formal occasions. The official enthronement of a new emperor was normally an occasion of great pomp and circumstance. This time, it would only be me.
Multi-hued light from stained glass windows illuminated the vast space. At the opposite end stood the throne. It could have been my father’s or my brother’s… now it was mine. I limped across the patterned marble floor and took three steps up to a dais of blue stone, the color of cold ocean. A pair of dragon skeletons flanked the throne. Discovered centuries ago, these were twice the height of a man, with open jaws and outstretched claws. The skulls of two smaller, long dead dragons formed the ends of the throne’s arms. Their jagged fangs were covered with gold leaf and iridescent fire opals filled their eye sockets. I climbed four broad steps and sat down, tapping my fingers on the rock-like skulls. The throne was surprisingly comfy. My throne now, mine. How strange that sounded.
I tried to grasp all that had happened in the past three days. It was heady stuff; a mind-altering blend of intoxicating triumph and heartbreaking loss. It was easy to be cynical about the imperial crown. Easy, given the politicking, the deal-making, the outright bribery that went into the election by the Senate. Still, the act of coronation held great symbolic meaning. The chief priestess was the earthly representative of Tzerotos Nikee. In essence, I received my crown directly from the divine hands of our Goddess of Winged Victory. Doubly true in my case, having bypassed the Senate.