(Originally published Dec. 12, 2007).
While struggling with writing my first draft of Fur Ball Fever, I flipped through a mountain of workshop notes until I excavated the treasure I was hunting for. Yes, Virginia, building blocks for constructing a novel DO exist, and I will summarize and share these arcane writing secrets with you.
According to Dwight Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer, your story should consist of a series of writing constructs called Scenes and Sequels. Using Dwight Swain’s terminology, a Scene refers to a unit of conflict lived through by the character and the reader, and a Sequel is a unit of transition that links two scenes. Alternate a series of Scenes and Sequels, and eventually you will build an entire novel.
To summarize (a good consultant always provides an Executive Summary):
- A Scene consists of three components: Goal; Conflict; and Disaster;
- A Sequel consists of three different components: Reaction; Dilemma; and Decision.
If you are writing a Scene, each of its three parts (Goal, Conflict, and Disaster) is equally important. I am going to define each of these pieces and then explain why each is critical to the structure of the Scene.
- Goal: A specific and clearly definable Goal, the more urgent the better, is what the protagonist wants at the beginning of the Scene (i.e. the protagonist’s agenda). The reason the protagonist must have a Goal is that it makes the character proactive, willing to overcome obstacles. The protagonist should not be a passive player, waiting for life to overtake her. She should go after what she wants. It’s a simple fact that a protagonist who wants something desperately is an interesting character. Even if she’s not nice, she’s interesting. And the reader will identify with her, root for her, cheer her on to victory. That’s the reaction we writers salivate over.
- Conflict: Conflict is the obstacle or impediment the protagonist faces in order to achieve her Goal. A Scene must contain conflict. A protagonist must suffer, or at least squirm. Lack of conflict is boring. A victory has more value if the protagonist struggles to achieve it.
- Disaster: A Disaster is the protagonist’s failure to reach her Goal. As difficult as it is, we writers must deny our protagonist her Goal. Foil her easy success. When a Scene ends in victory, it’s a well known fact that readers feel no compulsion to turn the page. In fact, if things are going well, readers tend to close the book, roll over, and go to sleep. To prevent the unthinkable from happening, we must end the scene with a disaster (or apparent disaster). Back the protagonist into a corner, surround her with peril, and readers will turn the page to see what happens next. This is called a ‘hook’.
I will give you an example of a Scene from Fur Ball Fever:
- Protagonist’s Goal: To sneak into parking lot of the upscale Sandy Cove Golf and Country Club without detection, and break into her ex-boyfriend’s SUV, and steal a surveillance DVD containing crucial evidence about the great canine heist from his glove compartment.
- Conflict (Escalating): In spite of whispered instructions from her elderly accomplice, the protagonist has trouble jimmying the door lock using a slim jim (not enough practice). A couple of untimely interruptions from returning golfers serve to keep her nervous and flustered. Finally, the SUV owner arrives early, forcing her to hide under the vehicle.
- Disaster: Naturally, the owner discovers the heroine huddled beneath his SUV, and hauls her out to face his wrath.
The Sequel has the three parts: Reaction, Dilemma, and Decision. Again, each of these is critical to a successful Sequel. Let me add one important point here. The purpose of a Sequel is to follow after a Scene. A Scene ends on a Disaster, and you can’t immediately follow that up with a new Scene, which begins with a Goal. When the protagonist has just been slugged with a serious setback, basic psychology dictates that she’s not ready to rush out and try something new. She needs a recovery period.
- Reaction: A Reaction is the protagonist’s emotional response to a Disaster. When something awful happens, you’re staggering for awhile, off-balance, out of kilter. You can’t help it. A POV character must react viscerally to her Disaster. Show her hurting. Give your reader a chance to hurt with your protagonist. You may need to show some passage of time. This is not a time for action, it’s a time for re-action. A time to wail. But your protagonist can’t stagger around in pain forever. In real life, if people wallow too long, they lose friends. In fiction, if your protagonist does it, readers put the book down. Eventually, the protagonist needs to get a grip. To take stock. To look for options. And the problem is that there aren’t any . . .
- Dilemma: A Dilemma is a situation with no good options. If your Disaster was a real Disaster, there aren’t any good choices. Your POV character must have a real Dilemma. This gives your reader a chance to worry, which is good. Reader must wonder how the protagonist will wriggle out of this one. The protagonist must work through the choices, sort things out.
- Decision: A Decision is the resolve to settle on a path of action. After much thrashing and soul-searching, the protagonist should select the option that is the best of a bad bunch. At last, your protagonist takes charge of her life again. Passive people who never make decisions, who wait around for someone else to decide, are boring people. Nobody wants to read about boring people. So your protagonist must decide, and decide well. Readers want a decision they can respect — risky, but with a chance of working. Now your protagonist has a new Goal, and readers will turn the page to discover how the decision turns out.
I will give you an example of a Sequel from Fur Ball Fever when my hero (now the protagonist) catches his former flame red-handed, trying to jimmy the lock of his SUV:
- Protagonist’s Reaction: Furious but resigned (his former flame is, after all, a loose cannon, as he well knows from sorry experience).
- Dilemma: If his ex insists on conducting her inept amateur investigation, she will blow his cover in his quest to nail the man who caused many innocent deaths. The harder he presses to convince her to let him handle a dangerous situation, the more determined she will become. He doesn’t want to reveal the truth, because once he does, he’ll be stuck with her as a sidekick, whether he wants one or not.
- Decision: He will try the rational approach, appeal to her better nature, and reassure her that he is on top of the case of the missing canines (the reader suspects this approach is doomed to failure).
Here are a couple of rules of thumb about Scenes and Sequels from Dwight Swain:
- If your story tends to drag or grow boring, strengthen and enlarge the Scenes. Build up the conflict.
- If an air of implausibility pervades your masterpiece, strengthen and enlarge your Sequels.
And now we’ve come full circle. We’ve gone from Scene to Sequel, which creates the Goal for a new Scene. This is why the Scene-Sequel pattern is so compelling. A Scene leads naturally to a Sequel, which generates a new Scene in a never-ending chain. At some point, however, the cycle must end. In a romance, the protagonist will achieve Sweet Success and Happy-Ever-After, and that will be the end of the book. But until then, the alternating pattern of Scene and Sequel will compel the reader to flip the pages.