Advanced Storytelling



Read the following excerpt from the book Writing Novels That Sell, by James Bickham. (pp. 113–118).

What happens with Cliff as he leaves Bigley's factory for the last time?

"My God! he cries, clapping his hand to his forehead. "I feel shocked and scared and angry and terrible! What can I possibly do now! No avenue looks good! I've got to think about this . . . let me see . . . I guess I'll go down the street and try to get a job at Acme Tool." And he starts down the street.

And that, in a nutshell, is the pattern of sequel: emotion, quandary, decsion, action.

This is the way we react to any disaster in real life. First: blind emotinonal reaction. Later, a struggle to think again, but confusion, where possibly no course of action looks very good. Finally a new decision, maybe not very good, but the best we can come up with. And then new action based on that decision.

The nature of scene is excitement. But the nature of sequel is logic, with emotion and characterization thrown in.

Sequel allows summary, transition, skipped time. It is where the character reacts to what just took place (the disaster), looks at his hole card, plans something next to try, and gets going again.

Some sequels may be as short as the one we imagined poor old Cliff going through moments ago. Some may go on forever. Scene is swift-moving and involving, but there isn't a lot of time for thought, except for stimulus-response internalizations. Sequel is slow-moving and possibly emotional, and there is time for thought and feeling. In a slam-bang action adventure novel, the entire sequel, after the mad killer hits the hero on the head with a meat-ax, might be something like this:

Bart's skull hurt like hell. "Damn, that makes me mad!" Bart thought. I'm going to kill that sucker!" And he hurled himself back into the fitght.

Such a book reads breathlessly, at a wild pace, never a letup. In a novel like Herzog (by Saul Bellow), on the other hand, Amoz Herzog spends most of a long book in sequel to a scene or scenes that played before the novel ever opened. The result is a long, lovely, thoughtful, evocative book.

So how you handle sequel depends on the fictional situation, your intent as a writer, your authorial bent and architectonic demands of the moment, in view of the space of your entire novel's structure.

We can, however, make some points about each segment of the sequel, even if you must decide how long any section should be—and, indeed, whether some sections are to play out on the page at all.

The first part of the natural reaction cycle is emotion. Pure feeling, with little thought possible just yet. This period may be as brief as it is in the exaggerated example about Bart just above; or it may extend for many story hours, days or weeks, many manuscript pages or chapters.

The length of time devoted to the emotial reaction will depend on the kind of character you're writing about, and the kind of plot. A tough, self-disciplined Marine Corps officer might allow himself very little emotion, and if he were in an action story where you had to get on with the plot, the emotion portion of the sequel might be very brief indeed. On the other hand, a highly emotional woman in a love story, where the reader interest is centered precisely on emotion, might be given many pages of sensitive rendition of her feelings.

The emotional segment of the sequel, like its other parts, may be reneded by the author's getting into the character's heart, and describing the feelings directly. The description of emotion might be more cool, almost clinical, as the author backed away a bit from trying to descrigbe the feelings directly. It might be portrayed by having the sequel character talk with another story person and tell how she is feeling. You'll find examples of each approach in your writing. I hope you'll look for them, mark them, and make notes of your finidings and impressions in your work journal.

Writingt the emotion segment of sequel is the most dangerous place for the writer to tends to get carried away and write purple, hysterical prose. Therefore, many contemporary writers tend to cool their approach to emotion in sequel, and press on as quickly as possible.

A person overwhelmed by emotion is always either paralyzed or acting crazy. Neither state moves the story forward very much. For this reason, too, the emotional compartment of the sequel has to end at some point, and the character has to start thinking again.

This quandary section usually takes the form of: review, options, and search.

The character thinks, in effect, "Iv'e got to review what this disaster means and how it came about, look at my options, and search for a new course of action to get my quest back on track somehow." Not all three parts are always played, and, as in other parts of the sequel, the process may be short or long depending on circumstance.

Following a disaster, the character prototypically reviews not only how the last disaster took place but what it means; in doing this, sometimes a review of high points earlier in the plot may be necessary. These often-painful reviews by the viewpoint character put things in perspective for the reader, too, and are wonderful focusing devices that keep the long-term story question in clear view, and point out what's significant.

After reviewing, the character starts looking at new options, and is struck by a dilemma, that of seeing two possible courses of (new) action, neither of which looks very good. More often, the dilmma quickly becomes a quandary as—with the character—you the author show the thought process by which the character explores all possible new goal-oriented actions.

This is the place where your character really plots the next stage of your novel for you. She considers doing this, or that, but finds problems with both. Then she thinks of other avenues she might try.

Having considered a lengthy list of what really are author plot development options, she starts searching through them to find the one that looks best. Her thought processes, courage (or lack of it), ingenuity, demonstrated devotion to the cause, and intelligence all characterize her as she searches on.

Finaly—perhaps in a page, perhaps in thirty of them—she makes her new decision. She selcets what she will do, and commits to this new plan and goal.

She moves into her newly chosen plan. She goes somewhere and does something, and reiterates her newly chosen goal. Someone confronts her in a conflict—

And where are you?

In the next scene.

Scene leads to sequel leads to scene leads to sequel. This is the struture of long fiction that tells a story.

And of course from my biased standpoint there is no other kind.

People will argue that everything that happens in a novel is not a scene, and that every feeling thoughtful passage is not a sequel. This is true; there are incidents without real meaning—with no downstream effects—in a novel. The fewer of these there are, however, the better the novel is likely to be. Accomplished novelists can turn almost all their incidents or accidental encouters into little scnes, at least, with subtle disasters or twists at the end. You can too, if you will try.

The key to turning already written, dead incidents into dramatic scenes often lies in searching back to the opening of your existing incident and searching for an implied intention on the part of the viewpoint character. Then it may be possible to emphasize, clarify, and finally thwart this intention in the incident's conclusion, turning it into the basis for a scene.

Here is an example:

I once had a friend who wrote a long incident involving a schoolteacher with high school kids on a tour abroad. The way she wrote it, the woman had the bus driver take them to a big castle on the hill, as planned in the tour book. When the bus arrived, the woman got off, went to the door, and met a cranky, sinsiter, older man who said they could stay the night as planned, but wouldn't enjoy it.

This sequence of events seemed flat and undramatic. It just sort of sat there on the page.

Why? Because it was mere incident.

I suggested to my friend that she make the sequence into a scene.

"I don't write scenes!" she wailed. "I can't!"

After we fixed that self-concept problem her revision was cast like this:

Same basic situation, same heroine. But now, the heroine noticed, as the bus approached the castle, that some of the kids were nervous and cranky, perhaps scared of the old castle. So the heroine formed the intention of persuading them that staying the night would be fun. With this goal in mind, she walked up to the door of the castle. When the sinsiter man appeared, she stated her goal and urged him to help her reassure the kids by coming down to the bus and talking to them. The man argued; she insisted. Finally he marched down to the bus and said, in effect, "There's nothing to worry about. The police believe that the man who killed seven students here last week is no longer in the immediate area."

The goal was: Get the man to talk to the kids.

The question then became: Will she get the man to talk to the kids?

And the disaster thus became: Yes, BUT as a result of her efforts, he came down and scared all of them—including her—a lot more.

So the heroine marched into the castle feeling much worse than she would have if she hadn't tried anything at all, and as a result of that (in sequel), decided to take the kids on a fun sidetrip the next day, but . . .

I hope you being to get the picture.

Developing good, disastrous scenes will tax your ingenuity. It will also make your novel. Writing good sequels will put you and the reader in closer touch with the character, and lay out future developments in the novel, while also, perhaps, patching up story logic and motivation.

Scenes, remember, are fast and involving. They make the story fly. Sequels are slower by nature, slowing down the pace of your story. Therefore, it stands to reason that you control the pace of your story by scene and sequel.

If your story is too breakneck, you lengthen a sequel.

If it's going too slowly, you expand scenes, shorten or even leave out sequels.


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.