What if each scene was a well-paced short story, one with just the right amount of emotional intensity and it ended with a page-turning connection to the next? If that’s of interest to you, Dwight V. Swain gets the bulk of the credit for documenting what has become know as the scene and sequel sequence.
Stand on the Shoulders of Giants
Centuries ago, Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658) wrote The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence, a collection of hundreds of aphorisms for understanding and navigating one’s life. For example:
Two kinds of people are good at foreseeing danger: those who have learned at their own expense, and the clever people who learn a great deal at the expense of others.
Together, we’ll explore lessons taught by teachers of our writing craft, standing on the shoulders of giants to see how we can master the best of what others already figured out.
The Intriguing Life of Dwight V. Swain
Who is this man who shaped many authors’ perceptions of how to write the scene and sequel sequence?
Born in Rochester, Michigan on November 17, 1915, Dwight Vreeland Swain grew up in Ohio. He earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Michigan in 1937. In 1954, he earned a Master of Arts from the University of Oklahoma.
Swain held many jobs up to and during the Great Depression, including weed pulling, door-to-door gadgets peddling, blackjack dealing, and dock loading. His writing career began in 1934, working for several newspapers in Michigan, Pennsylvania, California, and Oklahoma.
The first story he sold was to Target Magazine in 1935, and his major sale was to True in 1939. In 1941, Swain worked at Flying Magazine as an editorial assistant. With World War II underway, he joined the army in 1942, rose to the rank of sergeant, and left at the end of the conflict.
Running parallel with his employment, Swain wrote science fiction, and his debut story appeared in the November 1941 issue of Fantastic. Later, Swain said, “Most of my print science fiction consisted of magazine novels (25,000–40,000 words) of the space opera variety—Lord knows how many I did.”
Swain joined the staff of the University of Oklahoma in September 1949. He began as a scriptwriter in the Motion Picture Unit, scripting around 50 educational and instructional films until 1965, including several cited works. Swain joined the faculty as a professor of journalism in 1952, a position he held until retiring in 1974. After leaving the university, he kept writing, enjoyed many awards, and died at age 76 in 1992.
Where many of today’s authors met Swain was through his often cited book, Techniques of the Selling Writer (first published in 1965 and revised several times since then by the University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma).
Based on Swain’s decades of writing novels and scripts, we’ll first focus on his insights about scenes and sequels.
Swain’s Classic Scene and Sequel Pattern
Readers love familiar patterns that contain interesting surprises, especially those that stir our emotional juices.
Swain recognized essential patterns in stories, and we can thank him for the “scene and sequel” jargon. To be clear, the “scene” part of the pattern refers to “action” and the “sequel” refers to “reaction.” These patterns can occur in one scene or two.
This illustration summarizes the basic scene and sequel structure.
Why Does the Sequel Pattern Matter?
Many writers use scene and sequel sequence, and Jim Butcher, bestselling author of The Dresden Files, explained why the sequel pattern matters:
“This basic structure for sequels is pretty much the entire secret of my success. I do it like this in every freaking book I write. I know it works because check it out. People like my books. They like them for some of the special effects, sure, and for some of the story ideas sometimes—but mostly it’s because they find themselves caring about what happens to the characters, and that happens in sequels.”
Below I’m paraphrasing from Butcher’s blog (December 29, 2006) how he uses the sequel portion of the sequence.
- Emotional Reaction: Allow the character to react emotionally to a scene’s outcome.
- Review, Logic, and Reason: Let the character to review facts and work through the logical options of his situation.
- Anticipation: Permit the character to ponder probable outcomes to various choices.
- Choice: Allow the character to make a choice, and to set themselves a new goal for the next scene.
According to Butcher, he uses the sequel elements in the order shown because that’s the way humans react psychologically.
Emotions Are the Key
In James Scott Bell’s post from May 8, 2022, he emphasized including the right amount of emotions in the sequel based on the writer’s chosen genre.
He explained writers err if they avoid emotions in hardboiled detective books or if they include too much in romantic novels.
- For low-intensity emotional sequels, Bell recommended telling the emotion in a sentence or two (e.g., A trickle of worry hit Pam. Usually Steve would let her know if he was going to be late.).
- For high-intensity emotional sequels, he suggested showing the physiological effects of worry on the body (e.g., Hands trembling, she punched the number for his office. When the receptionist answered, Pam’s throat clenched like a fist clutching her vocal cords.).
Sequels encourage audiences to care about characters, and when that happens, authors increase their odds they’ll to write a book readers will love.
Use Action and Reaction to Pace Your Novel
In films, action (e.g., a car chase) speeds up the pacing and reaction (e.g., a character’s reflection on a prior choice) slows things down.
Consider your genre’s conventions. For example, thriller books expand the action and shorten the reaction. In contrast, romance novels shorten the action and lengthen the reaction.
Based on the conventions of your chosen genre, use the intensity and pacing of scene and sequel sequences to showcase the emotions readers crave.
Expanding Swain’s Scene and Sequel Pattern
You may have noticed how bestselling author Jim Butcher expanded Swain’s three-part sequel by adding an “anticipation” beat to the mix.
Readers expect a scene to have a logical beginning, middle, and end. Some writers create one scene for the action and another for the reaction, while others combine all the parts into one scene. Each author decides whether to combine or separate the action and reaction parts of the sequence based on personal preferences and a genre’s conventions.
Inspired by several authors and teachers, here’s my take on the 8-beat sequence.
Scene and Sequel Sequence Example
I enjoyed reading Mario Puzo’s novel, but many more people have watched the 1972 film version of The Godfather. Here’s a YouTube clip that captures much of the dialogue I used to illustrate the scene and sequel sequence.
According to a Hollywood Reporter article, in 1969, Puzo sold rights to adaptations of his famous book for $50,000. As of 2012, the estate estimated those rights had a reasonable value of $100 million. And by the way, it generated over $1 billion in revenues.
Given the popularity of the movie, let’s look at a scene and sequel sequence that includes Marlon Brando’s often quoted line, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
1. HOOK (Action): The HOOK snagged the audience’s attention by foreshadowing trouble.
JOHNNY: [Johnny Fontane in Vito Corleone’s office] I don’t know what to do. My voice is… is weak. It’s weak. Anyway, uh, if I had this part in the picture, ya’know, it puts me right back up on top again. But this, us… this man out there, he won’t give it to me; the head of the studio.
2. SETUP (Action): The characters (Johnny Fontaine and Vito Corleone) are in the Don’s office, and the opposition who represents conflict is offstage (Woltz).
VITO CORLEONE: What’s his name?
3. TRIGGER (Action): The dialogue forces to the surface Johnny is having trouble getting the part in a movie (conflict).
JOHNNY: Woltz… Woltz. He won’t give it to me… and ah, he there’s no chance. No chance. (As Tom quietly enters the Don’s office…) A month ago, he bought the movie rights to this book. A bestseller and the main character, it’s a guy just like me. I uh… I wouldn’t even have to act… just be myself. Oh, godfather, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.
4. EMOTIONS (Reaction): Vito Corleone reacts to Johnny’s whining, slapping and mocking him, showing a combination of anger, shock, and shame.
VITO CORLEONE: You can act like a man! [he continues after slapping Johnny’s face] What’s the matter with you? Is this how you turned out? A Hollywood…? That ah cries lie a woman? [he imitates Johnny] What can I do? What can I do?! [then he reprimands] What is that nonsense? Ridiculous.
5. PONDER (Reaction): The Don ponders what to do.
[Sonny enters the room, and Vito Corleone faces Johnny, but aims his words toward and about Sonny] You spend time with your family?
JOHNNY: Sure I do.
VITO CORLEONE: [still facing Johnny, but aiming the message toward and about Sonny] Good. ‘Cause a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man. [to Johnny] Come’re. [then] You look terrible. I want you to eat. I want you to rest awhile. And in a month from now, this—Hollywood bigshot’s gonna give you what you want.
6. EXPECTATION (Reaction): When Johnny complains it is too late, Vito Corleone sets the expectation.
JOHNNY: It’s too late, they start shooting in a week.
VITO CORLEONE: I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse. [then] Now you just go outside and enjoy yourself, and ah, forget about all this nonsense. I want you to leave it all to me.
JOHNNY: [exiting] All right.
7. CHOICE (Reaction): Vito Corleone decides, sending Tom to talk with the movie producer in California.
VITO CORLEONE: [after Johnny exits] Well… what time does my daughter leave with the bridegroom?
TOM: In a few minutes, right after they cut the cake. [as we hear clinking glasses coming from outside, which continues] Now your new son-in-law; give him something important?
VITO CORLEONE: Never. Give him a living, but never discuss the family business with him. [GPF Note: A foreshadow of future scenes.] What else?
TOM: Virgil Sollozzo called. Now we’re gonna have to give him a day sometime next week.
VITO CORLEONE: We’ll discuss it when you come back from California.
8. CLIMAX (Action): The scene ends by teasing with an implied question (i.e., creates an “open switch” in the minds of the audience): How will Tom settle this business with the movie bigshot?
TOM: [laughing] When am I going to California?
VITO CORLEONE: Want you to go tonight; I want you to talk to this movie bigshot, and settle this business for Johnny. Now, if there’s nothing else, I’d like to go to my daughter’s wedding.
I’m Gonna Make You an Offer You Can’t Refuse
The benefits of using the scene and sequel sequence include:
- Move readers from the first to last scene with continuous narrative drive (i.e., page-turning momentum).
- Entice readers to keep reading based on the rhythm of action and reaction beats.
- Create loyal fans by giving them the emotions they crave.
- Showcase the story’s theme as the characters deal with conflicts.
- Build up the suspense as one scene links to the next until the story’s climax.
- Satisfy readers’ desire for emotional intensity and pacing by varying the mix of show and tell.
Take advantage of these benefits by consistently using scene and sequel sequence.
Tips for Writing the Scene and Sequel Sequence
The scene and sequel sequence begins in the first scene and continues to the last one.
You can pace the story by choosing the amount of action and reaction. More action increases the pace while more reaction slows. Similarly, you can increase emotional intensity by showing and decrease it by telling.
The opportunities to pace the story and vary the emotional values often become visible during the editing phase, and here are key questions to consider for each beat.
- HOOK (Action): Does the HOOK snag readers’ interest by either showing action, foreshadowing trouble, offering unique dialogue, or raising a dramatic question?
- SETUP (Action): Does the SETUP establish the characters and location, staging the potential for conflict—the obstacle or opposition to achieving the scene’s tangible or intangible goal?
- TRIGGER (Action): Will this scene serve as the TRIGGER that forces to the surface a conflict that prevents the character from achieving the goal?
- EMOTION (Reaction): Does the character’s reaction to the event convey EMOTION (e.g., joy, elation, shock, fear, anger, rage, confusion, despair, panic, shame, regret), the essence of why readers buy books and become loyal fans of an author?
- PONDER (Reaction): Does the character PONDER prior choices or actions that led up to the event, increasing the scene’s suspense and tension?
- EXPECTATION (Reaction): Does the character’s moment of reflection create an EXPECTATION of what the individual could do to progress toward the scene’s goal?
- CHOICE (Reaction): Does the character make a tough CHOICE to take action (or not), setting up what takes place in this scene, and optionally serving as the catalyst for an action in a later scene?
- CLIMAX (Action): Does character take action at the scene’s CLIMAX, setting up the next-sequence goal (e.g., ends with a cliffhanger, redirects with a revelation, presents a setback, reveals a secret or a lie, teases with a question, creates a plot twist)?
The scene and sequel sequence works because it combines “art” and “structure.” With that in mind, I’ll close with this paraphrased Baltasar Gracián aphorism.
Many authors attribute their success to luck, but you can increase your opportunities by applying what others have already figured out.
Let Me Hear from You
We’re on a quest. Think of it as our grand experiment, and your advice and thoughts are of great value, so please join the discussion.
Now that you know the origin of the scene and sequel sequence, and you’ve seen how authors use the technique, what could make the approach more useful?
Please share your thoughts below.