Applying scene sequel format to story structure
Summary: Author Dwight V. Swain's scene-sequel format applies on a broader level to entire act structures.
In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Author Dwight V. Swain introduces a framework for writing compelling, psychologically realistic scene progressions. His framework is a repeating structure of what he calls “scenes” and “sequels.” (Swain, Page 84 ff)
Swain’s focus is on the level of individual scenes, but I believe you can apply his same framework to the structure of whole story acts as well.
What are Scenes and Sequels?
In Swain’s framework, Scenes are an action-based progression of what he calls goal, conflict, and disaster. (Swain, Page 85) The protagonist has a desire she is pursuing (goal). Some form of opposition threatens her ability to obtain the object of her desire (conflict). Then, when the conflict reaches its peak, there comes a crescendo: a “logical, yet unanticipated development” ends her plans in in disaster. (Swain, Page 89)
Sequels are the response, a progression of what Swain calls reaction, dilemma, and decision. (Swain, Page 100) Reeling from the shock of the disaster, the protagonist must process what has happened, take stock, and form a new plan.
In good stories, the response to action is just as compelling as the action itself. Sequels are all about the protagonist’s decision-making, and the process must never be easy. The protagonist faces what story theorist Shawn Coyne calls a crisis of “best bad choice” or “irreconcilable goods.” (Coyne, Pages 177-178) In Swain’s parlance, it’s a “choice between equally unsatisfactory alternatives.” (Swain, Page 101)
Once the protagonist makes her decision, this forms a new goal, and the cycle repeats. Scenes grip audiences with the thrill and tension of “What will happen next?” Sequels allow the emotional and logical resonance of story to strike home. (Swain, Page 98) “What will the protagonist do now?”
From scene to act
To see how the scene-sequel framework plays out on a broader scale, let’s take a typical first act structure as an example.
Aligning roughly with Campbell’s Hero’s Journey as interpreted by Vogler, we’ll break the first act down into four key phases:
- Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- Denial of the Call
- Crossing the First Threshold
We’ll use George Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope as an example since it fits the Hero’s Journey so well.
Goal and Conflict: Ordinary World
The story opens with the protagonist in her ordinary day-to-day life. This maps to Swain’s goal and conflict phases.
At this early stage, the protagonist’s goal and related conflict aren’t yet what we’ve come to call the “story goal.” This is a prior goal, borne out of the Ordinary World. Ideally, this goal is a manifestation of the protagonist’s desire and hint at her need.
In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke’s starting goal is to escape his boring life as a moisture farmer and seek adventure, which is embodied in his stated goal to go off to the Imperial Academy.
The conflict begins when Luke’s uncle buys droids, which, unbeknownst to him, are fugitives from the Empire. The conflict escalates as Luke removes one of the droid’s restraints, and it runs away. Luke, fearing his uncle’s wrath, rides off into the dangerous night to bring the droid back and cover up his mistake.
The conflict at this point is still “Ordinary World” conflict, but it begins an escalation that will lead to Swain’s next major beat: the disaster.
Disaster: Call to Adventure
In the first act, the disaster is what has come to be called the “Call to Adventure.” It’s a moment when something happens to radically upset the protagonist’s status quo and challenge her to change her plans. At the Call to Adventure, the protagonist can no longer ignore the demands of the plot. She is forced to react.
In Star Wars: A New Hope, this is when Obi-wan Kenobi rescues Luke from the Sand People and invites Luke to join him and train to be a Jedi. While this is, ironically, just the sort of adventure that Luke has been asking for, it’s a far cry from the one he was expecting.
This is a “disaster” in the sense that Luke cannot continue with his former life and pursuits. He must choose either to take up the call to something different than what he planned or he must turn his back on the adventure he sought and return to his boring life as a farmer, forever bearing the knowledge that he had his chance — and blew it.
Reaction and Dilemma: Denial of the Call
Humans can’t process abrupt, disruptive events instantaneously. We need time to absorb and reflect. This is Swain’s reaction and dilemma phase, what Campbell identified as the “Denial of the Call.” I like Blake Snyder’s term, the “Debate” a little better. (Snyder, Pages 77-78) Looking at the fractured splinters of her previous plan, the protagonist must process what’s happening to her. She must integrate the implications of the disaster and come to some kind of resolution.
In Star Wars: A New Hope, we see this as Luke rejects Obi-wan’s invitation with some polite excuses. Laid before him so unexpectedly, the adventure he desired frightens him. He begs off.
Sometimes, as she passes through the debate phase, the protagonist reasons through the implications of the Call to Adventure and comes to a decision on her own. Often, however, there’s one last revelation or minor disaster — what Snyder calls a “catalyst” (Snyder, Pages 76-77) — that finally forces her to make a choice.
Decision: Crossing the First Threshold
The decision is the last phase in Swain’s framework before the cycle begins again. At the decision point, the protagonist forms a new goal to begin pursuing.
In first acts, the decision maps to what those following Campbell call the “Crossing of the First Threshold.” The main plotline begins, now with the protagonist finally embracing the story goal that was introduced at the Call to Adventure.
In Star Wars: A New Hope, the catalyst for Luke’s decision is when he discovers that the Empire has murdered his uncle and aunt and are coming for him and the droids. Both his former, boring life as a farmer and his dream of adventure at the Imperial Academy are irrevocably destroyed. He cannot go back. He must go on. So, he decides to accept Obi-wan’s invitation. “I want to go with you to Alderaan and learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi, like my father.”
The first act closes; the first cycle of goal, conflict, disaster, reaction, dilemma, and decision has completed. The plot is off to the races.
More than just first acts
The scene-sequel framework doesn’t just apply to first acts. You can use the same structure to map each of your major story movements.
For example, if you’re like me and subscribe to a four-part model, this framework fits especially nicely in the second half of the second act (Act 2b). The disaster of that segment creates an All Is Lost moment, and the following reaction and dilemma phase form a Dark Night of the Soul. Then, the decision at the end of that phase maps to what I’ve heard called a Recommitment, setting the protagonist on the road to the climax.
No framework is perfect. Inevitably, you’ll find stories that work in spite of apparently flouting the scene-sequel form. But, hopefully, you’ll also be able to benefit from having one more tool in your story toolbelt. I think it’s a good one.
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