Monday, March 10, 2008

Sequels and Scene Pacing

I just read Alicia's last Q&A post and have to chime in. You can add me to the "not a big fan of sequels" column.

I have two additional points to make on this topic. These don't contradict what Alicia has said, but are mere elaborations.

First, a mechanical application of Bickham's rule for scene, then sequel often results in a too-introspective story. Not all actions require analysis. As a general rule, I think we need this kind of analysis when the motivation for the character's next action requires some set-up. In other words -- not sequel, but prequel. And the amount of prequel should be in proportion to how much the character must change and grow in order to take that next step.

In other words, stop thinking about what just happened. It's over. Been there, done that. The only thing that matters now is what happens next, and you have to lead the reader to it without either boring them or undercutting the conflict.

So that's my first thought. My second has to do with Dan Brown. (Stop groaning, all you purists. There's a good technique lesson here.)

When The DaVinci Code hit big, everyone I knew who'd read it -- including people who read, on average, one book every decade or so -- made the same comment. "I couldn't stop reading. I kept thinking, one more section, one more chapter, but then I'd read the next part and still couldn't put the book down."

Hmm, thinks I. What's behind all this frantic page-turning?

I asked my writer friends who had read the book, and got a range of answers related to the short length of the scenes and chapters, the constant sense of danger to the characters, and the plot itself. But when I finally read the book myself, I noticed that Brown breaks the convention of treating scenes like self-contained units which begin and end in predictable places.

A complete scene unit usually follows this basic pattern:
  • scene goal
  • character action in furtherance of the goal
  • character meets obstacle
  • obstacle creates complications
  • complications force decisions
  • decisions lead to new scene goal

And then repeats itself, over and over, with minor variations, until the large scale conflict is resolved. Goal, action, obstacle, complication, decion, goal, action, obstacle, complication, decision, goal, action, obstacle, complication, decision, goal, and so on....

Under the Bickham model, a lot of emphasis is put on the moment of decision, enough so that he seems to recommend treating it as a standalone unit, perhaps in conjunction with the next goal. So the actions are clumped:
  • action, obstacle, complication
  • decision, goal
And repeat themselves in this fashion until the end of the book.

Because most people appear to think of scenes as some group of actions beginning with a goal and ending after that goal has been attempted (with whatever result), this Bickham model makes some intuitive sense. Put the active things together in one unit, and the analytical things together in a separate unit. Scene cuts and chapter breaks can fall naturally either before or after one of these units.

But if you're Dan Brown, you know that the moment when things are worst is the moment when readers are most interested. And when are things at their worst? During the obstacle, or maybe the complication. So he places his scene cuts and chapter breaks in the obstacle, or sometimes in the early part of the complication. His pattern, then, is:
  • complication, decision, goal, action, obstacle
  • finish previous complication, decision, goal, action, obstacle, start of complication

Which means that all the boring head stuff, the slower paced stuff, is buried in the middle of his scenes, and all the fast, OMG-what-now stuff falls right at the moment where a reader would normally put the book down -- the scene cuts and chapter breaks -- but in this case, must keep reading. Because really, who can put the book down when bullets are flying and the hero is trapped in an upside down sarcophagus and the bad guys are right!! there!! --

-- and what? we're cutting away from this scene now? Holy crap, the reader thinks, don't leave me hanging --

-- so we read the next line, which takes us to the other good guys, the authority figures or semi-good guys. (Brown triangulates his storylines -- good guys, semi-good guys, bad guys.) And damn it all if we didn't leave the semi-good guys this--><-- close to some disaster at the last scene cut. Which Brown kindly reminds us of, and then races us through to the next obstacle, before leaving us hanging -- leaving us hanging again! Are you freaking kidding me?--

-- And now we're with the bad guy, who is going to do what? No way! He can't possibly be so evil as to-- cut again! Leave it hanging! What exactly is that bad guy doing?--

-- But the first line of the next scene reminds us of the last disaster to the hero, and the bullets are still flying, and the hero is discovering he has a very dry roommate in the sarcophagus, and how the hell can anyone ever put a bookmark in the book? One more page, just one more page, and then we'll put the book down and go to sleep.

Yeah. I stayed up all night reading it, too. And yes, I agree with all the criticisms -- in particular, the women characters are badly drawn -- yet I still had to read it through in one big gulp.

All of which is to say, play with your sequel material. Minimize it where possible, bury it in unlikely places if you want the emphasis to remain on the action, and never forget to save the Dan Brown books for a night when you can skip sleeping.



Anonymous said...

The Dan Brown technique you describe here has been standard operating procedure for television shows for decades. You've got to get the audience to sit through the commericals.

Dave Shaw said...

Excellent point, Adrian. It's also been used in a slightly larger sense in serials, whether visual (TV and movies) or magazines, since long before any of us was born. Heck, I grew up with Rocky and Bullwinkle. ;-)

I don't actually think it's something new with Dan Brown, now that I think about it. I recall juvenile adventure stories that used that kind of approach, and I've seen a few SF&F books that do it, too, to a greater or lesser extent. Piers Anthony comes to mind as someone who uses it with some success, for example. I don't read a lot of romance or books with literary pretensions, so I can't speak to those.

It's definitely a neat technique when it fits. Thanks, Theresa.

Bernita said...

Ah, thank you.

PatriciaW said...

I need to read that DaVinci book! I love a good pageturner.

I like the scene/sequel thing but it can be very overdone. Even Bickham doesn't say that there always has to be scene followed by sequel. That's a common but overly strict reading of his writing advice.

Edittorrent said...

Yes, exactly, Adrian! The truth is, this is a common technique in many genres. (Except romance -- wonder why?)

I just threw that out there because we were talking about Bickham anyway, and the technique is so striking in Brown's book that it makes an excellent example.


Anonymous said...

Theresa - IMHO the high drama that works for Dan Browne isn't appropriate for every kind of books. If the tension is jacked up too much - particularly if it consiists of artifical cliffhangers - I get uneasy and skip ahead because I want to savour a book, not feel rushed through it.

Also, when I have an hour a day to read I do not want a book that compels me to spend six or eight hours in one sitting; and many adults do not have the time to invest into pageturners. Or they buy a couple once a year for the beach/poolside when they *do* have the time.

A book that intrigues me - that I can put down but want to pick up again works better for me than one that tries to tie me in too much.

I tend to think of scenes more in terms of Robert McKee than Bickham. I like the idea that a scene is less of a structural element, than a story element. I'm also a strong believer in the tenet that a scene should advance the plot, develop characterisation, or uncover the setting - and the more it does, the better.

Dave Shaw said...

Hmm - just wondering what people think of this idea of what constitutes a 'perfect scene':

Don't let the different definitions for the same terminology confuse you!

Edittorrent said...

Green Knight, I think there's much common sense in McKee's notions of scene. But then, it's very Aristotelian, and I'm Ari's girl all the way. :)

Cool link, Dave. That's from the snowflake guy. Have you read about the snowflake method?


Dave Shaw said...

Theresa, no, I haven't. Should I? (Yeah, I know, I should probably read everything and decide for myself, but time is so finite, you know?)

Edittorrent said...

Well, if you're one of those advance plotting types, you might find the snowflake method very useful. If you're a draft-first, plot-later person, you won't appreciate the method.

The basics are here:

There used to be a website with detailed instructions and analysis, but I can't find it now.