This post is in honor of Laurin Wittig, the nice lady with a keen eye for critique who helped me get Her Dear & Loving Husband on track back in 2010.
When I began writing Her Dear & Loving Husband in 2009, I saw the internal and external conflicts for James and Sarah so clearly in my mind, but I was having trouble articulating it on paper. It was the first time I had ever used two points of view in the same story, and it was also the first time I had a nonlinear plot since Her Dear & Loving Husband moves back and forth between the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 and present day Salem. For some reason, the narrative flow didn’t come easily for me as I plodded through draft after draft. I was lucky enough to find Laurin through an Internet search, and when she critiqued the book she shared the scene sequel with me as a way to slow down and allow the character, and the reader, to think through what is happening. The scene sequel takes place in four steps.
Step 1: Emotion
This is where the character is reacting to what has happened. In that moment when something happens, we feel it first. Before rationality, before logic, there is emotion.
Step 2: Thought
When the emotion of the moment fades away we begin to think about what has happened. Sometimes logically. Sometimes not. But the intention is to make sense of whatever is going on. What does this really mean? What is the right thing to do? For me, the thought stage is where the character questions what has happened, what should have happened, what might happen. If I do A, will B, C, or Z result?
Step 3: Decision
After the thinking is done, what will you do? Will Sarah run screaming from James when she discovers his secret? Will James tell Sarah what the secret is? This is the moment when the character forms a judgment based on his or her thoughts, making a decision one way or another.
Step 4: Action
This is the result of the decision. Once the decision is made, then the character has to do something about it. As Laurin said, sometimes the decision is to deal with it later. But there should be some kind of culmination to the thinking and the decision.
I have become a huge fan of the scene sequel. Laurin told me she kept the formula on a sticky note on her computer for years, and now I do the same. The sequel is relatively simple, just four steps, yet it allows us to understand the characters on a deeper level. I think part of the reason the formula works so well is because it mimics our real-life process of dealing with whatever it is we have to deal with. First we react in an emotional way, then we think about it, then we decide what to do, and then we do it (or we decide to do nothing, which, as Laurin pointed out, is also a decision).
A scene sequel isn’t the kind of thing you want to use at every little event. But whenever something important is happening, it’s helpful to slow down and allow your characters to feel, think, decide, and do. This will create a richer, fuller story for both your characters and your readers.
Laurin not only turns out a handy-dandy critique–she’s also an award-winning historical romance novelist. If you’d like to check out her books, you can do so here.