Way back in 1994, my RWA chapter decided to produce a writing craft book to sell as a fund-raiser. Various members volunteered to write articles about a particular aspect, and authors who weren’t members also contributed to The LERA Writer’s Guide (The Ultimate Guide to Writing and Your Career as a Writer.) I was a part of the committee passing out the topic assignments.

One related to Scene and Sequel, which were writing terms I’d never heard before. Under the theory of “if you don’t know, find out,” I volunteered for this topic. It was suggested I read Scene & Structure: How to construct fiction with scene-by-scene flow, logic and readability by Jack M. Bickham. It was part of the Elements of Fiction Writing series put out by Writer’s Digest. I bought the book and read it.

This was definitely one time when the theory’s command to find out paid off well. I learned about scene structure and things I didn’t even know I should know as a writer. The book pushed my understanding of the writing craft ahead in a bounding leap.

The most important thing I learned was the distinction between a scene and a sequel. According to Mr. Bickham, story telling is based on cause and effect, or to use his terms, stimulus and response. An author constantly uses this when writing. Jack’s fist hit Bill’s jaw, stunning him. The fist hitting is the stimulus, and the stunning is the response. Scene and sequel takes stimulus and response from the micro sentence level to the macro story level.

Mr. Bickham believes a scene is “a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story ‘now’” (page 23.) Because it can be acted out, it is not the character thinking. The pattern of a scene is a goal, conflict, and a failure of the character to achieve his goal—a disaster.

A scene goal differs from the story’s goal, in that the character is doing something toward the story goal. The scene goal is a step along the way. Most authors understand that a goal should be defined, so the reader knows what the character is striving to achieve. The scene’s conflict is provided because the character doesn’t get his goal without an effort. Someone or something won’t let him have it. The disaster is what keeps the reader turning the pages.

In this usage, a disaster doesn’t necessarily mean a flood, tornado, or hurricane. Disaster is the state the character is in after not achieving his goal, a setback, which ends the scene. Mr. Bickham lists four potential scene endings:

  • Yes: The character achieves his goal and moves on. Occasionally the character may succeed in his efforts, but a yes scene ending should be reserved for the final scene in the story.
  • No: The character’s attempt at goal fails. That option is now closed, and he moves onto another possibility.
  • Yes but: In this scenario, the character achieves his goal but there are strings attached. Now he could have more tasks to do.
  • No and furthermore: This is a very strong scene ending. Not only is the character unable to achieve his scene goal, now more problems (obstacles) are piled on.

The scene goal gives the reader a question about the character’s success over the conflict. The disaster answers that question in one of the four possibilities. If there is no answer, the reader can be left unsatisfied. Too much unhappiness with the story, and he will put the book down.

That summarizes what Mr. Bickham believes the structure of a scene should be. My next blog post will discuss what a sequel is.