Scene and Sequel, or How I Got to Know My Protagonist Two Years into Writing the Book

 

Doctor looking at x-rays

A couple of years ago I wrote an adventure novel full of terror, magic, romance, derring-do, etcetera. The main character wanted things, she went out and got them, and there were consequences for her—terrible ones. I figured the faster I paced it, the more exciting it would be. I rushed from exciting event to exciting event. I thought it was great.

But my lovely writing groups (to whom I am eternally grateful) kept saying the same things: “Am I supposed to feel something here?” “Does your protagonist have an emotional reaction to this?” “She seems very … calm.”

I didn’t get it. I’d blown up this character’s life. I’d wrung her heart out. Why couldn’t they tell?

The answer was that I never paused to let her think. I thought it would bog down the pacing if she sat around having feelings or wondering what to do. Instead, her lack of downtime stripped her of personality and robbed the book of impact.

In short, I needed sequels to my scenes.

First, a note: both “scenes” and “sequels” occur during scenes, which is a murderously confusing terminology problem. For more on scene and sequel, this is the blog post that helped me understand what it was. And this one looks like an excellent in-depth discussion.

Scene and sequel is a basic (the basic?) unit of storytelling.

First, there’s a SCENE:

The protagonist pursues a goal.

A conflict mucks up her plans, and she struggles to overcome it.

She achieves success, failure, or a complication.

This is followed by a SEQUEL:

The protagonist reacts to her new situation (emotional response, action, dialogue, etc.).

The protagonist considers how the situation affects her goals. She may face a dilemma.

The protagonist formulates a new plan.

The protagonist enacts her plan, beginning another SCENE.

There are large- and small-scale versions of this. A character can enact a plan, fail, react, and adapt multiple times within a single scene, but eventually she’ll reach success, failure, or complication that stops her cold and forces her to process and recalibrate.

You won’t write out all these steps every time. Sometimes sequels are short: a well-chosen action or line of dialogue can say more than pages of introspection. (Other times, you’ll likely want the introspection.) Sometimes another catastrophe hits before your protagonist can draw breath.

But this cycle of action, consequence, feeling, and planning gives solidity to a character’s personality. Because I’d been skipping it, people didn’t know who my main character was. I didn’t know who my main character was. Once I paused to let her think, she took on reality and depth. I understood her better. The book was better.

Here’s the big lesson I learned: Events can happen to anybody. What makes characters unique is how they react.

For instance:

A man catches his wife cheating …

… He’s heartbroken. He confronts her, and they have a terrible argument.

A man catches his wife cheating …

… He snaps. He sneaks out and buys a gun.

A man catches his wife cheating …

… He’s secretly pleased. He berates her, knowing that in her guilt she’ll let him get away with anything.

A man catches his wife cheating …

… He’s happy for her. She’s seemed less stressed lately, and now he knows why. He buys her flowers.

Those are very different men.

If I left out the man’s reaction (like I did to my poor protagonist), it would erase those differences. Lacking cues, we as readers would rely on stereotypes and familiar tropes to guess how the man feels. Our guesses might differ, but they’d almost certainly be less rich and varied than the reactions of fleshed-out characters or real people. This omission would impoverish both character and story.

And I believe it would do something worse. Without scene and sequel, it’s harder to talk about characters whose emotions defy expectations. It’s harder to show readers the minds of people different from themselves.

In short, it’s harder to tell the stories no one has heard before.

And I want to hear those stories.

Photo credit: http://nos.twnsnd.co/image/138158162774