Many of my posts are inspired by questions from my clients, or from SLAKE discussions, or questions from Quora (for which I am a Top Writer). This one came from authors and writers asking great questions at a SLAKE meeting. It is actually a two-part answer, and it won’t be an exhaustive answer, just an introduction to a super-helpful set of observations and principles that can greatly improve your fiction writing— and your nonfiction too, although in nonfiction you’ll employ these tools a bit less frequently. Maybe.
The first part addresses Dwight Swain’s insights to mid-level story structure (scene-by-scene, within a short story or within a chapter). The second part at least begins to unpack Dwight Swain’s core insight to micro-level story structure (paragraph by paragraph), called the MRU.
Let me begin by putting the idea of “Scenes and Sequels” and the mysterious MRU into larger context. It’s important to understand that all this stuff has nothing to do with characterization, description, voice, style… in other words, nothing to do with your wordcraft, your artistic skill as a writer. Consider “eloquence” as a completely separate world from “coherence.” Understanding this difference is one of the things that separates professional writers from casual writers. “Coherence” has to do with structure: it is the work of an architect or a design engineer. “Eloquence” has to do with craft: it is the work of an artisan or a carpenter, a construction engineer.
The art of writing is based on a fundamental mastery of language, just as the art of painting is based on a fundamental mastery of its tools and technique. But after acquiring that fundamental mastery, it’s all art, and extremely difficult to force into any kind of formula. Not only does “one size NOT fit all,” but you’ll hear writing coaches encouraging every author to develop their own distinctive and unique voice!
In contrast, the structure of good fiction writing is pretty well understood. You’ve probably already read or heard about macro-level story structure: The Hero’s Journey, the story arc, the five basic plots (or twelve basic plots, or twenty-six basic plots, etc., depending on how granular a blogger wants to get). It is important to grasp this macro-level story structure, but there are tons of great books and some good websites that do so. Later, I’ll write a post about macro-level story structure too, the real “Part One” of any three-part introduction to story structure.
But strangely, writers don’t seem to pay much attention to mid-level story structure or micro-level story logic. It’s amazing how many stories I see that are beautifully structured at a macro level, but then the tension-building scenes, action scenes, chase scenes, fight scenes are a mess, and sometimes difficult to wade through. They just don’t feel realistic.
Mid-level story structure is what “Scenes and Sequels” is all about, and MRUs are a terrific way to straighten out your micro-level story logic.
Mid-level first: The idea here is learning to write each chapter as a series of something Dwight Swain calls “Scenes and Sequels.” This might be confusing at first, since Swain is using the words in a very specific way, giving them a very specific meaning. In academia, we would say he is using them in a terminological way, not a common way. Generally speaking, both a “Scene” and a “Sequel” are just different kinds of scenes within your story, and a sequel is a story that follows the story you’re writing. But Swain is trying to help us understand something that normal people in the writing world call “story logic,” each component of which is sometimes called a “story beat.” So we’ll capitalize Swain’s terms, to distinguish them from the common meanings of scene-within-a-story and sequel-to-a-story, and I’ll use the terms “story logic” and “story beats” alongside his terms, so that you’ll see there is no real conflict between these different ways of describing the structure of story.
Each kind of scene, the Scene and the Sequel, is composed of three parts:
The three parts of a Scene sound just like what you might put into any scene you write: one of the characters strives toward some specific goal, there is some sort of resistance—Indiana Jones doesn’t just walk into the tomb and pluck the golden idol from its perch—and then some kind of setback or plot twist that puts the story into the next scene.
But this is Swain’s insight, and it’s worth exploring in your own writing: make the first scene a Scene, one that begins with the normal Goal and Conflict but ends in a Disaster of some kind, at least something that feels like a Disaster to your main character: she might end up becoming Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the Disaster in the very first Scene might be getting a bad grade on an essay for school, as long as it feels like a disaster to Buffy at that early moment.
And then make the next scene something different: make it a Sequel to the scene before it. Give the main character (or whichever character gets POV next, if you’re switching) a chance to feel, to absorb, to React to the magnitude of the Disaster that just happened. Then give them a Dilemma, force them to make an uncomfortable choice, even an impossible choice (or one that seems so to that character at that part of their character arc). Let them struggle with that Dilemma in a way that resonates convincingly with your reader. But not for too long. They must Decide on some course of action—which becomes the Goal for your next Scene.
Goal, Conflict, Disaster — Reaction, Dilemma, Decision
Goal, Conflict, Disaster — Reaction, Dilemma, Decision
As you string these together, you start a virtuous cycle of fascination and tension, like an engine that drives the reader inexorably through the story (assuming you’ve hooked them at the beginning of course). This smoothly-running engine can be revved up or allowed to coast to cruising speed, as the pace of the story varies, but if you can keep it running without interruption, you’ve got what’s called a “page-turner” on your hands. You have learned how to structure a book that your reader “can’t put down.”
Again, this is a mid-level, scene-by-scene, story structure that just works. It isn’t a formula, because every author will implement it differently. Your reader won’t “see” this Scene/Sequel structure because you’ll clothe it in characters, setting, thoughts, emotions, dialogue and action. Your reader will see and hear what you describe to them; they won’t notice the scene-structure you’re using. Unless, of course, you don’t have one, or you deviate from the Scene/Sequel cycle in a distracting way. Then they’ll miss the smoothly-running engine, even though they won’t know what exactly has gone wrong…
[Stay tuned for MRUs, micro-level story structure]