Scene + Sequel structure


Dwight Swain wrote a book about 50 years ago called “Techniques of the Selling Writer” which says your book must be comprised of units with the “Scene-Sequel” structure. This is the same scheme you’ll find in Jack Bickham’sScene & Structure. The Scene-Sequel structure looks like this:


–1. Scene
—–A. The main character in the scene has a Goal. This is, more generally, the SCENE’s Question (typically, Will she or won’t she achieve her Goal?)
—–B. The main character has a Conflict which threatens that goal. The conflict may be with herself, other characters, or forces of nature.
—–C. The main character suffers a Setback. (Swain calls it a “Disaster”, which gives the false impression that it needs to be a major setback. Using only major setbacks is a formula for writing bad action/adventure stories like those Bickham wrote.) More generally, it is the Question’s Answer, which can be “No” (failure), “Yes, but…” (success, but introducing an even worse Setback), or “No, and furthermore…” (failure, and introducing an even worse Setback).

—2. Sequel
—–A. the emotional Reaction of the POV character to the setback
—–B. The main character thinks about this Problem. (Swain calls it a “Dilemma”, which I don’t like because “dilemma” means “two options”.)
—–C. The main makes a Decision on how to react to the setback.
—–D. The main character Acts on that decision, beginning the next SCENE.

Watch out! We now have three kinds of “scenes”:

scene: What most writers mean by a “scene”: A sequence of events without a sudden jump in time, location, or point-of-view (POV). This has nothing to do with the other two!
Scene: A Goal-Conflict-Setback unit.
SCENE: A Scene and a Sequel.

The Scene-Sequel structure seems like a good default structure. I don’t think about it consciously when I write, except sometimes when I run into specific trouble areas and don’t know why the story isn’t working. Buy the books, or google scene and sequel, if you want to read about its merits. I’m here to talk about its problems.

The standard presentation of Scene and Sequel, like many things emanating from Writer’s Digest, has been oversimplified to the point where it probably does advanced writers more harm than good. Bickham says you should present the components in order, clearly spelled out to the reader, and then on finishing the Sequel, jump immediately into another Scene. Iterate until the protagonist achieves his/her novel Goal, and the book is finished. Eliminate everything from the book that is not a Scene+Sequel.

Doing this makes it more likely you will write forgettable pot-boilers like Jack Bickham did. Have any of the people quoting him read his books? They lack theme, insight into human nature, or, well, anything other than one damn thing after another. Also, Bickham didn’t limit himself to scene+sequel structure. Twister contained many omniscient-viewpoint scenes describing weather and storms which had no characters at all.

Here are the big problems I see with scene-sequel theory:

1. Typical explanations of scene-sequel theory give examples of SCENE which are also scenes. This rarely happens in the wild. Rather, a complete goal-conflict-etc. SCENE is spread across multiple scenes. Each scene may contain numerous small, usually incomplete goal-conflict-etc. SCENEs. These match the SCENE template so poorly, however, that it might be more fair to Swain to consider them to be “motivation-reaction units” (another part of his theory).

2. The scene-sequel structure isn’t used serially. It’s used hierarchically, from top to bottom: The entire novel is a hero with a goal, a conflict, a disaster, and a reaction; each chapter is a lesser goal / conflict / setback / reaction / reflection / decision; and each chapter is likewise composed of smaller SCENEs. More or less. A Scene-Sequel structure may split across chapters, particularly with cliffhangers.

3. The formula is written for a single-protagonist story. Great books often don’t fit that pattern. Even a straightforward single-protagonist action-adventure like The Hobbit can’t be easily stuffed into single-protagonist scene+sequel format, because the protagonist shares the problems and goals of the entire party.

4. Each character in the story has their own scene+sequel structures, and these overlap with each other. The “antagonist” will be having their own scene+sequel, and its Disaster may play a different part in the “protagonist”‘s scene+sequel. Various compromises and POV problems prevent each of these scene+sequels from having all their parts visible.

5. The scene+sequel components often aren’t presented to the reader in chronological order.

6. Goal, Setback, and Decision are often either absent or hidden. POV restrictions often prevent the Goal from being stated. The Scene may have a stacked structure, such as Goal-Conflict-Goal-Conflict-Setback or Goal-Conflict-Setback-Conflict-Setback.

7. Other things happen to affect the goal stack, such as fortuitous assistance or discoveries, or goal changes.

Scene-Sequel is most appropriate in action/thriller/genre novels. But even there, it doesn’t take the simple form Bickham prescribes. I just spent a couple of hours trying to find it in the wild, and the pure SCENE is a rare beastie.

Right now I’m reading Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding (MOTW), and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Reading about a dozen pages from each, and recollecting what I still can of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, I found no instances of a Scene-Sequel structure meeting Bickham’s requirements.

Literary fiction often has main characters who don’t know what they want, or don’t know how to get what they want. It has more protagonists and fewer antagonists, and so it may have several main characters in one SCENE. It has fewer decisions, in part because the setback may pass unnoticed by the main character, and because more characters drift from scene to scene without direction, or carried along by forces beyond their control. It has more dialogue and less action. And each character in the story has enough psychological depth to need their own goals, reactions, etc. This structure, when used, should probably apply to every character present.

Bickham says all the elements must be explicit and occur in that order; it appears that literary fiction requires this notto be the case. If a narrative section resembles Scene-Sequel structure, some part of it must be implicit or hidden until later. The elements occur in chronological order within the story world, but may be presented in a different order. A Passage to India might have some Scene-Sequel structures in it; but if so, they’re well-hidden. People rarely explicitly state their goals, and the multiple main characters and POV limitations means there’s no way for the narrator to tell us their goals.

The entire first chapter of MOTW’s three chapters is Frankie, the main character, trying to figure out what she wants, and to understand her reaction to the main “disaster” (her brother’s wedding). Hence the protagonist has no conscious Goal and so there are few places within that chapter with all the parts of this Scene-Sequel structure. Where it fits, it’s some secondary character who has a goal, not the main character.

The first chapter presents a Setback: Frankie’s brother is getting married. Frankie strongly feels this as a setback, but doesn’t know why. The bulk of the chapter is Reaction and Problem, showing how Frankie feels, and how she struggles to grasp her situation. Only at the very end of this rumination does Frankie realize that her Goal is to find some group of people she belongs with, “the ‘we’ for her ‘me’”, and Decide on an action. So the first chapter fits the Scene-Sequel structure, but doesn’t present its elements chronologically. And the Disaster of the chapter is not really a Disaster in Swain’s sense. It’s not a plot complication, but an incident that highlights the Goal Frankie had at the start but didn’t know she had.

I try The Last Unicorn. There are goals and conflicts and disasters, but they are distributed among the characters. Who is the protagonist? Schmendrick? Molly? Lir? The unicorn? I can’t apply the formula when there are four protagonists.

Now I’m reading through The Hobbit, an adventure story about a single protagonist facing Disasters and Deciding how to respond to them, so it should be chock full of Scene-and-Sequel.

The story opens with a long description of a hobbit-hole. This shows Bilbo’s Goal: Continue living a quiet, respectable, adventure-free life in his hobbit hole. Gandalf scratches a sign on his door, and dwarves begin arriving. Bilbo has a Conflict (be respectably polite, yet don’t run out of food or miss his own dinner or allow his plates to be damaged), which is a manifestation of the larger Conflict (adventure vs. respectability) of which he is not yet aware.

What’s the Setback? There is none; there is an Opportunity, a re-evaluation, a Discovery that Bilbo has some Took longing for adventure within him. Rather than trying to defend his Goal of quiet respectability, he decides to set it aside for a while. So instead of Setback, let’s say the third element of a scene is a “goal challenge”, and the protagonist’s Decision may be to abandon his Goal.

Continuing through the book, I come at random to Chapter 9, “Barrels Out of Bond”, in which the dwarves are taken captive by the wood elves. We switch to Thorin’s POV, and he is thrown into a dungeon. The only way to fit this into Scene-Sequel is to consider the whole span of events, starting from their being captured, to their escape, as a single SCENE from Bilbo’s point of view. That means that when we see Thorin being thrown into a dungeon, we should think of it as being a problem for Bilbo, who doesn’t even know yet what has happened.

Within that big SCENE, we have smaller units that resemble Scene-Sequel, but they result in Discoveries, Goals, and Decisions, but no Setbacks. The companions are already in a dire situation, and there’s no need for further Setbacks. Bilbo makes a series of Discoveries (where Thorin is held, the river leading out of the caves; the King’s wine cellars), and pieces them together into a plan. The chapter’s story arc, from capture to escape, has a Scene-Sequel structure; but not one of the scenes within the chapter has a Scene-Sequel structure.

Looking at my own writings I think that If I’d written the story with Scene-Sequel structure in mind, it would have been much simpler. On the other hand, the first few chapters would have been more exciting. On the other other hand, the first few chapters are about two specific characters not conflict, because the story is about those two characters. Diving right into a conflict in chapter 1 might have kept more readers reading, but I think the way I did it makes it a better story for those who stayed with it.


My overall impression is that Scene-Sequel, like the Hero’s Journey, or character archetypes, is a template that you can hold up against your story to identify possible problem areas, but that is more likely to be used by lazy or bad writers to churn out formulaic fiction. It is certainly not, as its advocates claim, a formula that you need only iterate enough times in order to produce a good book.

The true pattern of SCENEs is more general than Swain or Bickham say it is. Instead of a Setback, you may have an Opportunity which leads to abandoning a Goal. Within an overarching Scene+Sequel, you may find the smaller structures have Discoveries or other Advances instead of Setbacks, which move the main character further forward toward their Goal. And the Goals may not be true Goals at all; a significant part of the novel may be the characters trying to understand what their Goals really are.

All in all, the Scene-Sequel structure is IMHO not as useful as just asking yourself 2 questions at all times:

1. What motivates each of my characters to do what they’re doing?
2. What motivates my reader to keep reading?

Unfortunately, like most bad writing advice, Scene-Sequel theory is infiltrating the writing community and will inevitably change our expectations and conventions so that scene-sequel stories seem better to us, just as sentences without speech tags now seem natural when they were initially merely bad prescriptivist grammar. I watched the movie Gravity last night, and I thought it was very good; but it was a perfect Bickhamesque scene-sequel scene-sequel scene-sequel, from start to finish. Would it have been written this way before Bickham, or would the writers have given us something with a little more structure?


One thought on “Scene + Sequel structure

  1. I really appreciate this analysis. I’ve been reading about this structure and wonder if it is taught in creative writing courses. Does Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch) think about this? Do any literary writers think about this? Is this strictly for genre fiction? I think you’ve answered many, if not most, of my questions, and I really appreciate it. Thanks.


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