Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Scene and Sequel (or: Show, then Tell)

I pause in the middle of my work day because a) I'm in my post-lunchtime slump, and b) I thought of something that might be useful to other people who are revising/rewriting manuscripts right now and are interested in ideas about balance within the architecture of the novel.

Scene and Sequel is a structural technique for balancing show and tell within narratives. It gives the reader time to breathe, as it were, between actions in the story, and the author a place to deepen character while advancing the plot. Here's how it works: after any significant action ("significant" being a term only you can define for your specific story needs) you take a moment to have the characters react to that action. The reader gets to know your characters better, the text relaxes and opens up a bit, and you have built in both a lull which will make the following action stand out more in relief and an opportunity for characters to ask, "Now what?" Or to regret what they've just done, or celebrate their (likely temporary) victory, or to give us backstory. Loads of things can be done in the sequel after a scene. Loads of things except those that bring the action to a dead halt. The sequel should, as a rule of thumb, be brief unless you've got really fascinating backstory to add.

How I'm using it in my current rewrite: The main point of my revisions is to deepen the reader's emotional connection and understanding of my characters. As my ms currently stands, the narrator/protagonist stands fairly aloof from the events, and none of the other characters do much in the way of discussing what's going on around them. In other words, it's scene/scene/scene of forward-moving action, and even I get out of breath reading it sometimes. So I am going through the story and asking my characters after each scene if anyone has anything to say about what just happened. But not after every scene, because hopefully at least half of the scenes exist to show character and emotion. It's also not something you want to do all the time, because then you're just writing to a formula, which never works. It's more something I'm trying to be aware of and use when appropriate.

I have a growing idea about balanced elements in large-scale works that this scene and sequel technique seems to fall under. I begin to feel that, for instance, every element in a story must have an equal-and-opposite element to balance it out. Not necessarily in a surface-level sort of way. I don't quite know yet; I'm still working it out.


  1. Thanks, Scott. This is good for me. My first writing teacher told me that I was often too tight and focused. She used your words almost exactly. She said she didn't have time to catch her breath when reading my work. So, I've become more conscious of this, but I still tend to lean toward the tight, focused side, which isn't necessarily good. You're talking about balance, which is similar to how I think of things as complementary. I don't think so much in scene and segue, like going fast and going slow, but more like, a balance of sweet and sour, not a less versus more, but a this versus that, if that makes any sense. We're saying the same thing but with different impressions, I think.

  2. Good post. I fear in my attempt to action-pack my wip, I have shoveled too many disasters into the same scene, giving my characters no time to react to one thing before something else happens.

  3. Davin,

    I agree: we're talking about the same thing. Sometimes I worry about techniques that can seem like fill-in-the-blank formulae, but my perception of balance (or complementary urges) is more like a painter knowing how divide a canvas. In fact, I likely think about this because I fell in love with the concept of "informal balance" back in the heady days of my youth, when I was an ill-behaved art student.

  4. This is a great post, Scott! I took a look at my ms and see that I do this naturally after action scenes. I probably do this because plays and movies work the same way. There seems to always be that breather between action in a well set-up movie. Not that I write like a movie, but it's a good place to start thinking about storytelling.

    I could compare all this to sex, but I think you know exactly what I'd say, hehe. It's the afterglow that really helps bring everything together. :)

  5. Tara Maya,

    Sometimes we *want* to exhaust our readers, though! Or at least our characters!

    Lady Glamis,

    "That was nice."
    "That was...nice."
    "That was weird."
    "What the hell was THAT?"
    "That was..." (swoons)

  6. this post. I think I do this naturally too. I'm going to have to take a closer look.

    Love the sex scenario...LMAO!

  7. Hmm...interesting post. Another thing to consider while revising.

  8. Scott, great post. I just wanted to thank you again for your great advice on Rick's blog, I appreciate it. As usual, you've given me a lot to think about!

  9. This was an interesting way to explain the show don't tell idea. I'm always trying to find a practical and more hands-on way to show this to other writers as well as apply it to my own writing. Thanks for sharing!