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:

Mentors: Alternatives to Murder

Obi-Wan from original Star Wars

First off, not every hero gets a mentor.

By “mentor” I mean the Obi-Wan, the Gandalf—the sage who guides the hero on her quest. For every story with a great mentor, there are many more where the hero sets out to accomplish something and figures things out herself. Some stories need mentors, and some don’t.

But sometimes you want somebody to explain the world, teach the hero some things, and then bow out and let the hero do her job.

It’s the bowing out I want to talk about.

Okay, confession time. I’m writing this post entirely because I’m reading this amazing sci-fi series* that’s been derailed by an all-knowing, all-powerful mentor character who WON’T DIE. He’s taken agency away from characters I’ve gotten to love over the previous six books, and it’s really, really frustrating. Hence this post.

First, let’s talk agency. A character wants something and overcomes conflicts and obstacles trying to get it. That’s agency. This doesn’t always mean she runs in, guns blazing. You can have self-deluding characters who refuse to face things (The Remains of the Day). You can have trapped, powerless characters constrained to a tiny range of actions (The Handmaid’s Tale). You can have characters frantically doing everything except the thing that would solve their problems (Hamlet). A character with agency acts within her constraints to get what she wants, even if those constraints are overwhelming.

When a protagonist lacks agency, there’s this heavy, listless unease to a story. Nobody seems to know where it’s going because the character who should be driving it … isn’t.

A mentor used poorly drains agency from the hero. He tells the hero what to do and how to do it. We’re left thinking, “Why doesn’t the wise old dude just fix this himself?”

Traditionally, therefore, you kill the mentor off. It’s a little predictable and can involve silly notions of destiny and chosen ones, but it works. The hero has learned cool shit; she’s come to love her mentor, then BAM, she’s bereft and has to strike out alone.

But death isn’t the only way to free the hero from an overpowering mentor. Here are some alternatives:**

  1. The mentor is evil.

He’s powerful, he’s experienced, he knows the hero’s weaknesses, and best of all? The hero trusts him, so he’s uniquely positioned to break her heart. Mentors make great villains.

  1. The mentor is insufficient.

He’s more powerful than the hero, more knowledgeable, and he’s determined to do right … but he’s no match for the villain. This is a great way to build up a bad guy: if the mentor can’t beat this overwhelming evil, what hope can our newly minted hero have?

  1. The mentor is waylaid.

He’s been kidnapped, or he’s on a different mission. Either way, he’s missing, and the hero must fend for herself.

  1. The mentor and hero disagree.

He’s taught the hero everything he knows … but his way is wrong. Maybe it’s morally reprehensible. Maybe it just won’t work. Maybe the hero’s ultimate goal is different from the mentor’s. The hero must break from her mentor and find her own path.

  1. The mentor has a different job.

The mentor and hero are good at what they do—but they do different things. The mentor does the research while the hero does the fighting. Or the mentor does diplomacy while the hero carries the gun—or vice versa. This “mentor” may simply be an older, wiser member of the hero’s team.

  1. The “mentor” is actually the protagonist.

There’s no reason the story has to be about the callow youth. An older, wiser person can make a great protagonist.

I’m sure I’ve missed lots of others. Let me know in the comments what I’ve left out!

*Kage Baker’s Company novels. It’s an absolutely wonderful series, except when it’s completely infuriating.

**Of course, none of these preclude murdering the mentor later…

Photo Credit:–circa-2015-a-stamp-printed-in-great-britain-commemorative-of-star-wars-movie-shows-%20o.html?term=obi%2Bwan&vti=lsndc2im0hfy8j3tpd

The Love Story: Mutant Sharks Are Not Enough

Pearl diver collecting shells from the beds of Torres Strait, Queensland / Frank HurleyFor this post on love stories, I’m stealing massively from Matt Bird of the Cockeyed Caravan blog, specifically his idea that love stories are about two people who fundamentally get each other in ways others don’t. To quote him directly: “Every love scene is about one thing: ‘I understand you.’ If they don’t understand each other, it’s not real love.” That post is HERE, and if you’re writing a love story—or a story with any interpersonal connection—whatsoevergo read it, it’s brilliant.

With that as a premise, here are my thoughts.

People live disconnected from each other almost all the time, and finding the people who see you clearly is rare and hard and miraculous. Love stories, for the purposes of this post, are stories that capture that. It doesn’t need to be romantic love or the central plot. When a story makes me feel that, I’ll follow it anywhere.

But in stories, unlike life, similarity is easy. Fictional people are in constant danger of having viewpoints and preferences identical both to each other and the author. That isn’t compelling, and it doesn’t count.

Let’s say Alice and Bob discover they both adore surfing and then fall in love.

Literally, nobody cares.

Here’s why:

1) We feel nothing for Alice or Bob. They’re not compelling personalities whose goals matter to us.

2) Their connection isn’t unique. It sounds like we could give Alice any surfer boy and she’d be happy, so why worry about Bob?

3) We don’t feel the threat of disconnection. We know of nothing lacking in their lives, and there’s nothing that puts them in conflict.

A love story, like any story, needs conflict, tension, obstacles, and a character struggling towards a goal. But it also needs that one-in-a-million hope of connection that we ache to find and fear to lose.

Here’s my possibly-totally-wrong theory:

In a love story, two people need to be uniquely, specifically, astoundingly aligned in some important way.

And they need to be uniquely, specifically, astoundingly misaligned in some other important way.

In a happily-ever-after story, the forces of alignment gradually win out.

If the relationship ultimately fails, it’s because misalignment wins.

I was going to say that’s it, that’s a love story. It’s not, of course.

I’d love to say I figured that out quickly, but no. I wrote out a whole scenario for Alice and Bob up above, using my theory to turn those surfer kids into a romance that worked. It was pretty cool, too–mutant sharks and everything. But it wasn’t a love story, because I forgot the same thing I always forget.

It’s about vulnerability.

It’s about the slow deepening; it’s about the interplay between I want you to see me and Can I afford to let you see me? and the series of events and revelations that ask your characters to choose. It’s about how I understand you, which is not just great, but also awful and terrible and terrifying.

Character creation is the act of distilling a nigh-infinitely complex human being into few enough traits that we can comprehend them. Howsoever quirky and distinct we make our characters, they’ll never be as gloriously weird as real people.

The above theory is me trying to make a love story something small enough for me to grasp.

Let me know what you think.

Photo Credit: Pearl diver collecting shells from the beds of Torres Strait, Queensland/ Frank Hurley 1885-1962.