Out With The Old
As the New Year dawns and 2018 turns into 2019, is it, “Out with the old, in with the new?” Or, “What was once old is new again?”
My daughter came home from the hospital yesterday, her newborn daughter in her arms. Penelope (!?!?) was born 21 years to the day after my father died. Now, that may have no significance whatsoever, but it is a stark reminder that life goes in cycles.
On that same day renowned author and writing teacher James Scott Bell posted a link, on Twitter, to his article, “The Writing Books That Helped Me At The Start,” on Killzoneblog.com. The very first book on his list is Writing and Selling Your Novel by Jack Bickham, who taught writing at The University of Oklahoma in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. In his article Bell writes, “It was his treatment of ‘Scene and Sequel’ that gave me my first big breakthrough as both a screenwriter and novelist. A light came on in my brain.”
Scene-and-Sequel came up again the next day, at the Nightwriters’ Christmas Party, when new members Tony and John (forgive me for not recalling your last names) began discussing structure in fiction.
At OU, Jack wrote Scene-Sequel as an almost mathematical equation: Scene=Goal-Conflict-Disaster; Sequel=Reaction-Dilemma-Decision-Action. He taught that in every Scene the viewpoint character has to: 1) have a Goal; 2) face Conflict—the fuel of fiction; 3) which ends in a setback, or Disaster, for the character.
Sequel is the character’s reaction to the scene, his/her: 1) immediate physical Reaction; 2) Dilemma, or internal thought process; 3) Decision the character makes, which leads to; 4) Action, the first step into the next scene. Jack showed that novels could be—and were—written using that kind of step-by-step structure.
But if you go by the “Out with the old, in with the new,” theory, this whole scene-sequel idea ought to be retired, cast aside. After all, that’s old school stuff nobody uses anymore. Yet Bell himself espouses an internal and external “LOCK” system: Lead (character); Object (goal); Conflict (!) and; Knockout (disaster).
And Lisa Cron, in her popular and excellent book Story Genius, has a whole section on her own version of “Scene Cards.” She instructs her readers to draw a square, then separate it into four smaller squares with one horizontal and one vertical line. The small squares represent internal and external cause and effect, and are labeled: What Happens (conflict); The Consequence (disaster); Why It Matters (dilemma/thought process) and; The Realization (decision). The scene goal is written at the top of the card; at the bottom, she has a line “And So?”—the first step (action) into the next scene.
The Scene-Sequel structure may be a dinosaur for many, but when it comes to writing fiction step-by-step, “What was once old is new again.” Yet things do change. Sequels hardly ever stand alone. You rarely see a character’s immediate physical reaction. The vast majority of the time his/her internal thoughts are part of the mix a character goes through during a scene. But then again, they always were. . .