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Monday, October 4, 2021

Sequel Structure According to Swain

Last time, I started breaking down scene structure according to Dwight V. Swain, as found in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. In my previous article, I talked about the components of scene: goal, conflict, and disaster. Today, I’ll explain what Swain calls "sequel." A sequel is what connects scenes. It also has three components: reaction, dilemma, and decision. 

But first, let’s review Swain’s components of scene, because they directly affect sequels.

Goal—the focal character of the scene should have a measurable, scene-level goal, and this should (usually) be clear to the audience at the beginning of the scene. The audience needs to know what the goal is, so they can measure progress and setbacks—otherwise, they are just watching (or reading) stuff happening. It also helps them get invested in the story.

Conflict—the focal character runs into opposition on their way to the goal. This opposition can be obvious and direct, or it can be less obvious and more indirect. Whatever it is, it needs to pose opposition to achieving the goal. This creates conflict. Conflict is the rising action of a scene, and should develop and escalate to a climactic moment or turning point.

Disaster—the conflict leads to an outcome. Either the character reaches the goal or she doesn’t. Whatever the case, something unanticipated—a “disaster”—enters the story and gives the character a new problem. (This is essentially the “No, and . . .” and “Yes, but . . .” technique.) Not all disasters need to be earth-shattering; they just need to be significant (have ramifications). But nearly all scenes should end on a "disaster," though Swain acknowledges that some scenes don’t.

Now we get to sequels.

Part Two: Sequel

"A sequel is a unit of transition that links two scenes. . . . It sets forth your focal character's reaction to the scene just completed, and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come." - Dwight V. Swain

The sequel will transition from the disaster to a new goalIn sequel, we follow a natural chain of logic. 


Our character just encountered a disaster. Naturally, the first thing he’s going to do is react to it. This is another great opportunity to reveal character. Is he angry? Crying? Self-defeating? Getting drunk? How does he cope with the situation? As the focal character tries to make sense and deal with what happened, we convey to the audience his state of mind. This is a moment to focus on the character's emotions. 

In the story's timeline, this reaction may be brief--especially if the character doesn't have much time to react. Or, it may take place over days, months, or even years--maybe he just can't move on after the disaster. 

Sequels are often where summary comes in handy. If a character is reacting to a disaster for weeks, the reader doesn't really want a play-by-play of that, and getting a play-by-play of that probably isn't important to the story (because there are no legit goals or conflicts during the reaction phase usually). And sometimes what the character does physically doesn't actually really matter, what matters is his reaction. So maybe the text summarizes him going to the bar every night to drink away his pain, but the summary is more focused on conveying his state of mind than anything that happens at the bar.

It's also worth mentioning that the focal character may not be the only person reacting to what happened. Swain says that not only is the reaction about the state of the mind, but about the state of affairs. For example, if a love interest died at the disaster, then the reaction segment may also lay out how that affects other characters, society, or the setting. Maybe now her child is going to have to move to another city with his other parent, and the focal character is never going to see him again--maybe they were developing a strong bond. Maybe the love interest's will needs to be dealt with. Or maybe with her dead, no one knows how to defeat the antagonist, since she was a key player on their journey. Maybe it looks like they've already lost to the antagonist. 

What is the character going to do now? This leads us into "dilemma."


The character needs to consider what to do next. Often none of his choices sound promising. And as the character goes through different options, the reader also gets to consider which road she'd probably take if she were in that situation.

While the reaction phase is more focused on emotion, the dilemma is more focused on logic. The character tries to work out logically what the best course is forward. It's usually a good idea if there is a stake in play that prevents him from quitting the situation altogether--I mean, we still want to have a plot for the story. 

Basically, the character is considering different paths to take and their potential outcomes, so this is a place for him to recall or recognize different stakes. What does he have to lose, and what does he have to gain? And which path is most feasible and likely to best balance that? Depending on the character, the situation, and the length of the sequel, he may turn to other sources to help him make up his mind. For example, he might get advice from friends or do some research online. 


Eventually, the character comes to a decision. Sometimes he logically or rationally works his way to a new path--maybe by himself, or maybe with advice from others. Other times he has a revelation that makes the decision clearer. This might come as an epiphany, or it might be that his research uncovers something. Anyhow, new information enters, and he now knows what to do. 

His decision, of course, needs to be somewhat believable. This is why we spent time with reaction and dilemma. Even if he chooses something ridiculous, the audience needs to believe--given his emotions and thought process--that he'd make that decision. 

This decision gives him a new goal, which takes us into the next scene.

Example: Chihiro passes to the spirit world in Spirited Away

Reaction: Terrified that she's turning transparent and spirits are appearing, Chihiro runs away to a dark, lonely area, and begins rocking back and forth in shock, crying.

Dilemma: Haku arrives and offers some options of action. He says she needs to eat this berry, so she doesn't disappear. She resists at first, unsure if she wants to go that route, but it's either that or disappear. She wonders about her parents and what to do about them. We get a glimpse of an antagonistic force, and Haku explains that the antagonist is looking for her, and she can't stay here (stakes). 

Decision: Chihiro eats the berry and returns to normal. She stands to follow Haku to the bath (admittedly, he sorta pulls her along, but she does choose to stand). Haku explains Chihiro must get a job at the bathhouse (new goal), and lays out more stakes. 

Some Points to Keep in Mind with Sequels

- Sequels help control pacing. In a fast-paced sequence or story, the sequels will typically be shorter. To slow down the overall pacing of a story, make the sequels longer.

- Swain points out that sequels help reinforce plausability. I think this is in part because you are taking time to render the emotions and logic that lead to the next goal (motivation). Stronger or longer sequels generally lead to more plausibility (within reason).

- In many stories, the longest sequel happens at the "Dark Night of the Soul" beat. 

- A sequel may be extremely brief, as a character may be forced to make a quick decision. She might not even have time to fully react to what just happened or really think out her choices. Her emotional reactions may be addressed more later, and she might think back on the decision she made and wonder if it was the best choice. This will happen when she has the chance to "catch her breath."

- I've regularly seen beginning writers try to start a story with sequel. While it can be done, this is rather tricky. Since the sequel is about reaction, this means the story starts with the character reacting to something that happened in the past, off page, which is rarely as interesting as following a character about to hit conflict. 

- Passages of introspection, characters recalling past incidences, and (mild 😉) dumps of info usually fit best in sequels rather than scenes. In scenes they risk slowing pacing too much. In sequels, the audience doesn't mind a slower pace--they are still recovering from the scene.

Scenes & Sequels and Basic Structure

Some in the industry feel that scenes and sequels are actually two types of scenes. I know, it sounds confusing. But basically the SCENE as a structural unit can be either Swain's "scene" or Swain's "sequel." Swain doesn't actually say this in his book. However, I don't think that the claim is wrong. Like many things in structure, it depends on how you slice and dice it and what angle you look at it. I also think it depends on the story itself. 

A sequel can be very brief, or it can be rather long. If it's brief, it might be tagged on to the end of the "scene." If it's long, it may seem to make up its own SCENE. 

Most people define SCENE as a unit of action that takes place in a single location and continuous time. With this definition, a sequel could follow a scene without a break in time or a change in location, and thus it could be argued that together the parts make up one SCENE.

Alternatively, the sequel could happen in a different time and place, and by that definition, would be its own SCENE.

This is one of the reasons why learning about Swain's approach can be confusing to so many people. The sequel may or may not be a continuation of time and place, and it may be extremely brief or it may be rather long. It may be mostly summary, or it may be rendered in real time.

How you slice and dice and categorize it isn't super important though--what matters is that you understand each and their (usual) order: goal, conflict, disaster; reaction, dilemma, decision. 

We started this discussion with basic structure, so let's end this article by looking at that again. 

One might say that the sequel is really the falling action of the structure--especially if it is tagged on to the scene. In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Swain speaks as if sequel is the "valley" and scene is the "peak," but yet doesn't actually say that.

Alternatively, if the sequel seems to be its own SCENE, one may view it as having its own basic structure, with the climactic moment being the decision; the sequel is building up to that moment, and that moment turns the story. 

And of course, if this is all confusing to you, feel free to throw it out the window and just focus on the parts themselves and their order. I'm just explaining some things I wish someone would have explained to me when I was trying to learn this (and I still have more to learn).

Like any writing advice, don't get married to this. It's possible to take it to an extreme. Some pieces can get skipped or rearranged or may even overlap, depending on the needs of the story. (And I mean, to some degree, the character is constantly "reacting" to what's happening as it happens, and making small "decisions" along the way to the disaster). Swain says that as you learn the order and gain experience, you'll be able to "break the rules" to the right effect. Nonetheless, his approach can certainly come in handy when working on a scene . . . or SCENE--it all depends on how you look at it.

Read more articles on Swain's scene and sequel:

Writing Patterns Into Fiction: Scene and Sequel

How To Write A Gripping Scene

The Basics of Scene Structure: Action and Reaction

How to Structure Scenes in Your Story


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