Last time we talked about scenes. Today we’re going to talk about what happens next. The technical term for this follow-up is called the “Sequel.” In many ways the sequel is more important than the scene. Because you can have all the action sequences you want, but unless your audience cares about the characters, it’s just flash and noise.
The sequel is where you make them care.
It is the job of the writer, first and foremost, to give their audience an emotional reaction. To make them laugh, to scare them, to make them cry, this is your sacred duty as an author. Thankfully your audience wants you to do this very badly (it’s why they read books after all) so you may indulge your evil writer tendencies to your heart’s content.
The problem is you can’t have your characters breaking down willy-nilly. The conflict inherent in a scene prevents them from taking the time to properly react to things beyond the equivalent of “screams internally.” However, once the moment of conflict has past (for better or worse) and the rush of fight or flight adrenaline dies down, your character should take the time to breathe and sort through this latest kettle of fish.
This happens in four steps, exactly the same four steps every single time. This is because humans react to moments of high stress the exact same way, every single time. You can spend more time on certain steps and less time on others (usually varying by genre), and maybe should the occasion be dire enough skip one because there just isn’t time, but generally speaking, all four steps happen. Every. Single. Time.
And here’s what they are…
Step 1: Emotion
The first reaction is the hard wired one–the freak-out fight or flight response, the surge of adrenaline, the burst of laughter, the onset of tears–by the time your higher conscious has caught up with the rest of you, your body is already doing something in an attempt to mitigate damage. Generally your body isn’t very good at guessing what would actually help (which is why the other three steps exist), but it does try to get you to safety so you can work out the other steps. Ever find a spider on your arm? That freak-out moment is your body simultaneously trying to remove the spider while calling for help.
Let’s consider our lady at the bank again. She has gotten her loan, but learned her house is haunted–and we’re not talking Casper the Friendly Ghost here either. At some point later in the story, the ghost tries to kill her–dropping a chandelier on her head (this is another scene by the way).
She dodges out of the way, but immediately afterward has to deal with all the adrenaline flooding her system–Oh my gosh that was close, I can’t believe I survived, clutching her heart and trying to catch her breath–that sort of thing. There is your emotional reaction.
Step 2: Logic
After the initial freak-out, your brain tries to make sense of what happened. It runs through the events and gives you suggestions on what to do. This is the frantic jumble of thoughts that makes up the “what’ll I do, what’ll I do?” rambling in a moment of panic; the spider on your arm making you simultaneously wonder if it was poisonous, and berate you for looking like a fool. It’s also the “what WAS that back there?” retrospection that happens in a safe space, after the trauma is over.
Our lady friend, still shaken but more in control of herself, starts to look around. “Why did that chandelier fall on me?” she asks herself. She looks at the ceiling, the chain, any sign that this was just a freak accident in an old house. This is also where she starts thinking, “was it…the ghost?”
Step 3: Anticipation
Now that you’ve thought about it for a minute, you start to consider what to do next. You sort through all those points of logic you’ve acquired and select the ones with the most merit. You start to map out what those solutions might look like and decide if those end goals are acceptable. You consider what you can grab to kill the spider with, or who is in the house that’s better at killing spiders than you–and if you want to risk letting the spider escape to go get them.
The lady takes stock of what she finds. If the chandelier was just an accident, she should get some tea and go to bed. She can deal with the clean-up in the morning. But…if there is a ghost, she needs to get out NOW. Spend the night in a motel, and find help in the morning. The ghostbusters don’t exist, so who the f@#! could she even call to deal with this? A priest? The police? Maybe that guy at the bank knows something. But that’s tomorrow’s problem…right now, does she stay here? Or leave?
Step 4: Choice
After you’ve done your prognosticating, it’s time to act. Which of the options available will you take? Do you go and find your big brother? Or take up your shoe and fight the spider yourself? Your choice will propel the story forward into the next scene, so make it count. Do you want a scene of you valiantly slaying the beast, or intelligently getting help? It depends on your story, really. Just remember, scenes need conflict. If your brother would help you out, no questions asked, he’d be the hero…not you. If however he’s busy and sends you back into the creatures lair with no help other than “you can do this,” then that choice is valid.
Our heroine now faces the horror movie dilemma. Get out now like a coward, or stay and face more supernatural murder attempts? If she had more than a feeling in the pit of her stomach that the ghost was real, then the money spent on the motel might be worth it. But, poor as she is, with a perfectly logical reason as to why the chandelier might have fallen, she can’t risk two days worth of food on the very likely chance that she’s over reacting.
She goes to put the kettle on…she’s probably not going to get much sleep tonight.
If she did try and leave, the next scene would have to introduce conflict in some other way. Maybe the ghost can inflict nightmares. Maybe it’s not just the house that’s haunted. Or maybe the motel is closed. The point being, there is no escaping the conflict.
Sequels are fairly fluid. You can have several chapters’ worth of action before the stress of the day gets to the hero and he just comes undone. You can have them on every other page as the hero hammers at a problem from multiple angles. They can take up a whole chapter on their own as the hero grieves the loss of his beloved. Or they can occur in the spaces between lines of dialogue. The point is, without those little moments of emotion, logic, anticipation, and choice, the characters stop feeling human. And the writing stops feeling readable.
So take a moment to get inside the heads of your characters. Your audience will thank you.
Until next time, keep writing.