Scene and Sequel: The Formula for an Unputdownable Novel

Together, scene and sequel create the current that carries your reader along from “Chapter One” to “The End.”  

Scenes are the thrilling waterfalls that plunge your story into deeper depths. Sequels are the gradually calming waters that flow out beyond the waterfall, quietly leading the reader to the next shocking drop.

If you learn how to use these elements to their fullest advantage, your reader will find themselves happily flowing along the river of your novel, oblivious to the passage of time.

Now, if this reads a bit like I just got back from a Pacific Northwest vacation and am still there mentally, it’s because I did and I am. But the metaphor still holds.

When you know how to blend scene and sequel well, you know how to:

  • Give your characters rich inner lives and compelling outer lives
  • Keep the story moving without abandoning character development
  • Raise suspense
  • Deepen your readers’ emotional engagement
  • Create a theme and give your story meaning

You know, all the big stuff that makes your book a major hit with readers.

If this sounds like something you want to accomplish, stick around. I’m about to lay out the difference between scene and sequel, how to rock both, and how these two units work together to make your novel impossible to put down.

Let’s grab our flip-flops, inflate our tubes, and hit the river.

What is a Scene?

Three kayakers navigate kayaks along a the rapids of a canyon river, approaching a waterfall.

Many people think of a scene as a storytelling unit defined by location and time. The assumption is that once you move the narrative to a new setting or a new spot on the timeline, you’ve proceeded to the next scene.

For the purposes of discussing scene and sequel, we’re going to focus on a different definition.

A scene is an action unit within your story. This unit moves the story forward by presenting new challenges, heightening conflict, and raising the stakes. In a scene, the point-of-view (POV) character:

  • Pursues a specific goal
  • Meets with obstacles
  • Encounters a new disaster

Those three ingredients are always present in a scene. 

Now, could an action unit occur within one specific place and time? For sure. In fact, it usually does. But it doesn’t have to, because the setting is not what makes it a scene.

Now, let’s talk about how to absolutely nail the three ingredients of a scene.

How to Craft a Scene

A graphic of a plummeting waterfall against an orange background. Words read: "Elements of a Scene. 1. Goal 2. Conflict 3. Disaster"

As I mentioned above, a scene has these three elements:

  • Goal
  • Conflict
  • Disaster

In short, your POV character waltzes into a scene with a big plan, runs into an obstacle, and (usually) leaves with a bigger problem. 

This all sounds pretty clear and simple, but there are a few tricks to make each of these scene elements as compelling as possible. We’ll take them one by one.

Goal

Your POV character should have a scene goal that is clear and specific. It should also be obvious to the reader at the top of the scene.

A scene goal does not have to be the goal that defines your character’s entire arc. In fact, most scenes work with incremental goals—those smaller steps your character has to take to reach the big thing they’re really after.

Your detective’s big goal is to catch the murderer. But to do that, they have to get information from a tight-lipped witness. When they can’t get that information, they have to figure out who's threatening that witness. Next thing they know, they’re trying to earn the trust of a crime lord’s nephew.

Each of these smaller goals still serve the big goal, but they also stand alone as compelling goals for single scenes. 

As in the example above, the stakes should get higher with each new goal. And incremental goals should come with big risks, even if the risk is only the potential humiliation of a rejected kiss.

Conflict

The conflict of a scene comes from the obstacles standing between your character and what they want. 

Obstacles can be external, like an orc guarding the door of the fortress. They can also be internal, like when a scarring memory resurfaces just as the heroine is about to allow herself to be vulnerable with a new love interest.

Either way, make sure:

  • Your character actively attempts to overcome the obstacle(s)
  • The obstacle is big enough that victory is unlikely or impossible
  • The obstacle plays on your character’s weaknesses or flaws

The conflict is where all the action comes in, and action is your opportunity to show character limitations and character growth without being all explainy about it.

A single scene can contain multiple obstacles. Your POV character might be able to overcome some of those obstacles. But, generally speaking, they should fail to overcome the overarching scene conflict, especially in the first two-thirds of your story. 

This failure leads us to the third element of a great scene. 

Disaster

You know the rule by now. Your job as a writer is to be an unapologetic jerk to the characters you love. You’ve got to keep making their lives worse. And that means every scene should end with a new disaster.

Even if they overcame the obstacles you threw at them.

Your protagonist finally shared an incredible evening with their crush? Great! Now give us a little knock at the door. Oh, look! It’s the crush’s ex—the one that got away—looking for a second chance.

Unless you’re writing the final battle, your scene should always end with “Oh no! What happens now?” That’s what gets the people at home turning those pages and sliding right into the sequel.

What is a Sequel?

A person in a blue life vest kayaks down a calm river lined with bright green pine trees.

If you’re like 99.9% of people, you think of a sequel as a book or movie that continues the story of another book or movie. That’s not the kind of sequel we’re talking about in this article. This sequel is a storytelling unit the same way a scene is a storytelling unit.

But while a scene is an action unit, a sequel is a reaction unit. This is the moment when your character reacts to the disaster that happened in the scene before.

Now, I know reacting sounds way less important than acting. It sounds less engaging, too. 

But a sequel isn’t just a character looking out over a lake and thinking about their feelings. A well-crafted sequel clues us into the character’s internal journey, presents a compelling dilemma, and ends with the character setting a new goal.

And just like a new disaster, a new goal raises the question, “What’s going to happen next?”

In fact, a lot of major story beats happen in a sequel. The Refusal of the Call. The Dark Night of the Soul. Plot Points One and Two in the three-act structure. Sequels are where major decisions, reversals, and growth happens. They set up the character’s next move.

This is why there is so much power in a well-crafted scene-and-sequel formula. Each unit cascades into the next.

Sound thrilling? Great. Let’s talk about how to master that “well-crafted” thing.

How to Craft a Sequel

A graphic of a plummeting river against a teal background. Words read: "Elements of a Sequel. 1. Reaction 2. Dilemma 3. Decision"

Conveniently enough, a sequel also contains three clear elements. Those elements are:

  • Reaction
  • Dilemma
  • Decision

Let’s take a closer look.

Reaction

What does your character think and feel about the new disaster? You’ve got to give their instinctive, emotional reaction a beat before launching into their next move. 

This moment doesn’t have to be long. It might be appropriate to give your character two pages of dazed, meandering thoughts as they try to brew coffee after learning about an unexpected death. Or it could be a three-sentence burst of rage before sitting down to breathe and think things through.

Either way, your character needs to feel some feelings. Their reaction helps the reader sympathize more deeply with the character (or despise them more, if that’s your angle). It can clarify where the character is in their journey of growth, as well as reveal fears or weaknesses.

Once they’ve had a chance to react, they can face the dilemma.

Dilemma

The dilemma is the problem your character now faces as a result of the new disaster. 

To design a great dilemma, make sure your character has no good options… or at least no options that are good from their perspective. The tougher and riskier the options are, the more interesting the story becomes.

This element is where character arc really meets story. You know that scene in Breaking Bad where Walt writes a pros-and-cons list to decide whether or not to kill a guy? That’s a sequel, and one of the most heart-stopping ones I’ve ever seen or read.

Anne Shirley freaking out about how she’s going to save face after accidentally dying her hair green? Sequel.

Basically every scene where Harry Potter has to decide whether to trust Hermione’s informed guidance, Ron’s emotion-driven opinions, or his own searing scar pain? Sequel, sequel, sequel.

The dilemma clues us into the fears and desires that motivate the character

And then it’s the decision that shows us where they are in their journey of transformation.

Decision

The sequel concludes when your character makes a decision about their dilemma. The decision marks your character’s shift from reactive mode back to active mode.

They now have a new goal. They’re ready to take on a new scene, face new obstacles, and—because fiction is cruel—come out the other side with a brand new problem.

The decision doesn’t have to be an objectively good decision. However, it does have to make sense for your character’s arc. 

For example, is this character ready to make new choices and release the Lie that’s been holding them back from living a full life? Or are they still clinging to bad habits, old fears, and beliefs that aren’t serving them? 

Since you’re the great and powerful writer who sees far into the future, you can ask yourself the big questions, too. Where will this decision ultimately take them? How will it build towards an inevitable transformation? What will the consequences of this decision be in the next scene?

And now you’ve come full circle in the scene and sequence routine. Your character has made a decision, which creates a new goal, and you’re ready to launch into a new scene.

Those are the basics. Now let’s go a bit deeper and explore some tips for making the most of this formula.

How to Use Scene and Sequel to Write Better Stories

Two groups of people paddle white water rafts through the rapids of a gray-blue river.

Like all aspects of story structure, you have to be artful with your scene and sequel execution in order to make your story shine. Simply alternating action and reaction without any thought for theme, pacing, or character arc won’t do.

Here are a few ways you can use the principles of scene and sequel to write an irresistible story.

Make It Make Sense

Remember, the goal of working with scene and sequel in the first place is to create a natural flow of events. This means crafting each unit with an awareness of what came before and what comes after.

As you write each scene, ask yourself:

  • As my character pursues their goal, are they making choices that are consistent with the fears or desires I laid out in the previous sequel?
  • Will this disaster create an interesting dilemma that forces my character to look deeper within?

As you write each sequel, ask yourself:

  • Does my character’s reaction align with who they have been and how they handled the obstacles of the previous scene?
  • Does their new decision set them up for even greater conflict in the next scene?

Questions like these help you follow this next tip.

Build a Snowball

It’s not enough for your character to face disaster, think about it, face disaster, think about it, on and on until the troll is dead and everybody kisses. To keep your reader engaged, you must continuously raise the stakes and build tension.

The scene and sequel cycle is a snowball picking up more snow, bulking itself up with each rotation.

The brothers bickering over their inheritance in the first scene should be ruminating on old grudges in the sequel which inspires them to do some shady, underhanded nonsense to get the better of each other in the next scene, which leads to more extreme decisions as the story goes on.

This is how you keep your reader on the raft, excitedly bracing themselves for the next thrilling drop. 

Mind Your Pacing

The length of your scenes and sequels influence the pacing of your novel just as chapter length does. But, in this case, it’s not just about how many words you spend on a moment. It’s also about what the moment does.

Because sequels focus more on the inner life of the character, they typically bring a sense of stillness. This doesn’t mean sequels are dull. But you can typically assume that reaction, reflection, and decision-making will slow the pace of your story.

Meanwhile, a long string of back-to-back obstacles and conflict will speed things up a bit.

By tapping into these mechanisms, you become a master manipulator. If you want to give your readers a false sense of security before the next big conflict, you can linger a bit in the moment when your POV character taps into an inner well of confidence and calm. 

Or if you want to keep your thriller rushing along, you can tack a one-paragraph sequel on the end of an action-packed fight scene, like this:

“The dumpster caught her fall, but she slammed her ankle against the rim and heard something splinter and crack. She shrieked in pain (Reaction). The mere idea of putting weight on it made her nauseous, but if Goober got away today, there wouldn’t be a second chance (Dilemma). She had to go after him (Decision).”

Also, don’t be afraid to step on a sequel. While you don’t want to overuse this technique, you can build tension by interrupting your character with a new catastrophe when they’re in reaction mode. Like when they’ve just caught their breath, are starting to say, “Okay, let’s think of a plan,” and then the tsunami bursts through the window. Or whatever.

Honor Thy Genre

Speaking of pacing, you’ll likely find that your chosen genre comes with some unspoken rules about how to handle your scene and sequel combinations.

Literary fiction and romance often have longer, gentler sequels. Their protagonists have many deep thoughts to think and old wounds to examine.

Meanwhile, suspense and action-adventure often keep their sequels short and sweet. Things are exploding. There’s not much time to think.

Get to know your genre. Serve your reader’s expectations.

Use Sequels to Reveal Expository Information

You can and should drop some exposition into your conflict-heavy scenes, too. (You can learn more about this in our article on exposition.) But backstory is also a great way to keep those sequels interesting for readers.

It’s one thing to watch a character wrestle with a dilemma. It’s another to learn that they once spent an afternoon in a whale’s digestive system and that’s why they’re torn about whale watching with their crush.

Above all:

Never Lose Sight of the Story You’re Telling 

As you create your scenes and sequels, keep asking yourself:

  • Does this scene goal align with the character’s larger story goal?
  • How does this obstacle reveal the character’s limitations or flawed beliefs?
  • How does this disaster make it even more obvious that this character cannot reach their goal using their old mentality?
  • Does my character’s emotional reaction make sense for where they are in this journey?
  • What does the dilemma tell the reader about my character’s desires, fears, values, or limitations?
  • Does the decision reflect a stubborn commitment to old beliefs or a step towards transformation? Which one does my reader need to see at this point in the story?

It can be hard to keep an eye on the big picture—to see the flow of the entire river when you’re just trying to place the right boulders in one waterfall.

That’s why I love working with the Dabble Plot Grid. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, you can build and revise the big picture all in one spot.

A screenshot of the Dabble plot grid showing three different scene cards with ribbons for scene and sequel, as well as two character columns with scene cards showing character growth in each scene.
Just create scene cards to track your characters' journeys! Click on each card to add details about the scene elements.

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And if you could use more help shaping your novel, nab a copy of our free e-book, Let’s Write a Book. It covers everything you could possibly want to know to get started on your masterpiece.

Now get flowin’.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.