JIM BUTCHER ON WRITING – SEQUELS

So, this is another “cop-out” post.  Where instead of coming up with stuff on writing, hashing out my process, or just plain ranting, I gift wrap and hand over a post on writing that is far better than anything I could come up with so I can get my butt back to writing my book.  This one by Jim Butcher is one of the best breakdowns I have seen.

This is in no way meant to be claiming credit for the part in quotes.  The original is found here:http://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/2880.html:

“SEQUELS

And no, we’re not talking about book 2. We’re talking about the original meaning of the word sequel–the part that comes after, the next in the sequence. In the scenes of a book, you’re getting all your plot-pursuing and action-taking and choice-making done.

Now you get to the hard part.

Getting your reader to give a flying frack about it.

To do that, you’ve got to win them over to your character’s point of view. You’ve got to establish some kind of basic emotional connection, an empathy for your character. It needn’t be deep seated agreement with everything the character says and does–but they DO need to be able to UNDERSTAND what your character is thinking and feeling, and to understand WHY they are doing whatever (probably outrageous) thing you’ve got them doing.

That gets done in sequels.

Pay attention. This is another one of those simple, difficult things.

Sequels are what happens as an aftermath to a scene. They do several specific things:

1) Allow a character to react emotionally to a scene’s outcome.
2) Allow a character to review facts and work through the logical options of his situation.
3) They allow a character to ponder probable outcomes to various choices.
4) They allow a character to make a CHOICE–IE, to set themselves a new GOAL for the next SCENE.

Do you see how neat that is? Do you see how simply that works out?

1) Scene–Denied!
2) Sequel–Damn it! Think about it! That’s so crazy it just might work!–New Goal!
3) Next Scene!

Repeat until end of book.

See what I mean? Simple. And you can write a book EXACTLY that way. Scene-sequel-scene-sequel-scene-sequel all the way to your story climax. In fact, if you are a newbie, I RECOMMEND you write your book that way. You can always chop and cut the extra scenes (or sequels) out later, and you will have a solid bedrock structure for getting your book done. We’ll talk a little about balancing them in a minute.

First, let’s outline exactly what happens in a sequel–and WHY the basic outline I’m gonna show you works.

Here’s the basic structure to a sequel. It’s another little worksheet you can fill out when you’re thinking about it ahead of time:

1) EMOTIONAL REACTION:
2) REVIEW, LOGIC, & REASON:
3) ANTICIPATION:
4) CHOICE:

And it MUST happen in THAT ORDER. Why you ask me? Because we’re all human beings, and THAT is the order in which we respond, psychologically, to events that happen around us. Especially to big nasty events that bring out a lot of emotion.

Most of you have probably been in a car accident of some kind, and that’s the model I’m gonna use. Even if it was only a little accident and no one got hurt, everybody reacts in pretty much the same way. Imagine it with me, if you will. You’re driving and all of a sudden, SQUEEEEEERRRCRUUUNCH! Car accident. What happens next?

You react emotionally, on instinct. Maybe you sit there stunned and startled for a second. Maybe you feel a moment of horror (if it was your fault), or else seething outrage (if it wasn’t). Maybe you yell and curse, or throw up on yourself, or break out into hysterical laughter. There are a whole lot of viable human emotional responses to that kind of stimulus–but the first ones on the scene are ALWAYS the most basic, instinctive, emotional reactions.

Next, your brain kicks in. (This takes a variable amount of time, depending on the person.) Your brain tells you things and you pay attention to it. Maybe it says “this accident was your fault, and if they catch you, you’ll go to jail. Run!” Maybe it says, “Check to see if anyone is hurt! Call the police! Exchange insurance information!” Maybe it says, “Call so-and-so to help,” or “Oh my God, I’m bleeding,” or “Please God let me have my proof of insurance in the glove compartment.” You think about things like how the accident happened, and what you could have done to avoid it, what’s necessary to accomplish immediately–and then you get to think
about where you’re suddenly not going to be.

(During your review, logic, and reasoning process, it is very human to realize or rediscover facts that bring on an echo of your emotional response, or which otherwise inspire an entirely new line of emotional response. If you realize that the guy who just slammed into your car ran a stop sign to do it, for example, it might inspire a radically different set of emotions than a moment before, when you thought neither one of you had a clear right of way.)

You can get as upset as you want, for as long as you want, but sooner or later you’re going to have gone over all the facts of what happened a minute ago, and you’ll start thinking about what happens NEXT. You anticipate the immediate future, based upon what you know and what your current options are. Maybe you’ve got a buddy who can pick you up and get you to work, and you’ll only be a few minutes late. Or maybe you don’t, and you’ve just lost your job. Maybe
you’re going to have to find a phone to call an ambulance because someone is hurt. There are a lot of things that could be pretty obviously a part of your immediate future, based on your current circumstances.

And once those things have rolled through your mind, you’ve got to decide what you’re doing next. Maybe you’re just trading insurance information and getting back on the road. Maybe you’re hiding the body. The point is, you’ve got a choice to make, and that choice is going to determine your next action.

Voila.

You’ve just had a sequel, a broad, archetypical human reaction to a sudden situation that goes radically out of your control.

YOUR CHARACTERS DO THE SAME THING.

At the conclusion of a scene, they’ve just had something go out of THEIR control. You know how I know this? Because you didn’t answer YES to your scene question. Something went wrong, because you are a smart writer, and that’s how you did the scene. Now your characters go through the same set of reactions:

1) An immediate emotional response.
2) A review of what happened, applying logic and reason to the events and why they turned out that way, and of what options are open to them.
3) Anticipation of what might follow the pursuit of those options. (Highly important, this one. Never underestimate the effects of anticipation on a reader.)
4) Your character makes up his mind and decides what to do next. IE, he makes a CHOICE.

Now, it’s possible to SKIP some of these steps, or to abbreviate some of them so severely that you all but skip them. But you CAN’T CHANGE THE ORDER.

Emotion, Reason, Anticipation, Choice. That reaction is typical to people, regardless of their sex, age, or background. It’s psychologically hardwired into us–so take advantage of it. By having your character react in this very typically human way, you establish an immediate sense of empathy with the reader. If you do it right, you get the reader nodding along with that character going “Damn right, that’s what I’d do.” Or better yet, you get them opening their mouth in horror as they read, seeing the character’s thought process, hating every step of where it’s going while it remains undeniably understandable and genuine to the way people behave.

Sequels, frankly, are what really make or break books. How you choose to show your reader your character’s reactions determines everything about the reader’s response to the events of the story.

Worse, sequels are very fluid, very flexible things to apply. You can do all kinds of tricks with them. Some sequels are all internal monologue. Some are conversations carried out with a character’s best friend (or his all-in-black-id). Sometimes a sequel LOOKS like a scene, in the trappings anyway, but what’s actually important is the character’s internal reaction.

(Search your feelings, Luke. You know it to be true. *I* am your father. *NOOOOOO*. Yeah, that lightsabre fight looks like a scene, but at that point it isn’t. It’s a sequel.)

This is where, frankly, I think writers have the greatest fluidity, the most chance to apply their creative talents–which means, of course, we also have the best chance of screwing things up here. You can approach sequels from an almost unlimited number of directions. There are no limits to how you can lay out a sequel, except for your own imagination. Just remember:

1) EMOTION
2) REASON
3) ANTICIPATION
4) CHOICE

Get those in there, in the right order, and you’ll be fine.

Let’s talk, for a moment, about how you want to weight the various parts of the sequel, based upon your genre, what you want to accomplish, etc. The sequel is where you can put a spin on almost any story to make it more suited to a given genre. Each of the genres has its own bias towards a given part of a sequel.

Romance, for example, is VERY heavy on Emotion and only slightly less on Anticipation. Mystery and SF lean very heavily on the Reason portion of the sequel. Action novels go light on everything but Choice, and give you just enough sequel to get you through to the next scene. Horror loves to linger on Anticipation. Think about it for a while,and you’ll start to see what I mean.

So, if you’re writing a romance, you’ll want to place extra emphasis on your character’s Emotional reaction and on his Anticipation of what could come next.

Mystery writers had better be able to produce clear lines of logic in the Reasoning portion of their character’s reaction. If you need the reader to be cozy with a character, put extra emphasis on that character’s sequels. If it isn’t necessary for another character, go light on the sequels, or skip them entirely.

If that wasn’t enough, Sequel-to-Scene ratio is the single largest factor for controlling pace. Sequels have a unanimous tendancy to slow the pace of your story, while scenes have the opposite effect. If you’ve ever read a book and felt like it blurred by too fast and never seemed to touch on anything long enough, go back and look at it. You WILL find that the book’s scenes took up a great deal more space than its sequels. If you’ve read a book that you thought was too slow, too cerebral, or that wandered back and forth while droning on and on, go back and look at it. You WILL find that sequels took up a hell of a lot more page space than scenes.

It’s a balancing act, and how you stack up scene-to-sequel is going to depend on several factors, including your genre and your audience. Romance, for example, is really nothing BUT sequels with occasional scenes to make them stick together. Romance wallows in sequels, because that’s what it’s ABOUT–emotions, feelings.

If you write an action book, those emotional passages–not so much. You’ll want to spend more time and effort on the scenes, and make sure that the sequels don’t start to outweigh them. If you’re writing for a more cerebral, mature audience, they have a much higher desire/tolerance for sequels than if you write for, for example, young adults. The older audience might well be more interested in the thought and emotion behind the plot, while the younger audience might want you to stop moaning and dithering and get straight to the point. You control that pace by balancing sequels with scenes.

Sequels also determine what I’ve always called the “warmth” of your novel. When people talk about a “warm viewpoint” what they really mean is that you’re throwing in a lot of emotional reaction. Oftentimes, warm viewpoint novels (like the Dresden Files) toss in micro-sequels as a part of scenes. Any time you see Harry talking to someone, wanting to tear his hair out, forcing himself to control his temper and get back to the task at hand, you’ve just ridden through a micro-sequel with him.

“Cool” viewpoint novels, like the more classic hardboiled PI novel, downplay their protagonist’s Emotional reactions–often skipping them entirely during a scene, and showing them only indirectly during sequels. They tend to emphasize the Reason side of things.

My God, there are so many things you can do with this stuff. Brainy, intelligent characters go heavy on reason–and then you cheat by going light on Anticipation, and keeping his Choice half-veiled from the reader, so that when he actually acts in the next scene he looks a lot smarter and more resourceful than he might have if you went step by step through the whole thing. (“Of course! He animated the T-Rex! Brilliant!”) Characters who are balancing their loyalties up to some critical moment can get the whole sequel laid out, extra heavy on Anticipation, and then you deny the reader any info on the Choice until they’re actually in action.

Get it? SEQUELS ARE WHERE YOU APPLY THE COLOR TO YOUR STORY. It’s the best point at which to manipulate your readers’ emotions. I’ve been working within this craft structure for ten years, and I feel like I’m only barely beginning to get a handle on it. Seriously. You’ve got to give this some thought.

Knowledge of how sequels effect your book’s impact on the reader is damned handy in rewrites, too. If a character is coming off too flighty, all you have to do is add in a bit more Reason to their sequels. Character too dry and boring? Add in more Emotion to /his/ sequels. Someone comments that your character’s motivations aren’t clear? Go give their sequels a tune-up, and make sure his Emotion-Reason-Anticipation-Choice is in the correct order and consistant.

When you do it right, the reader knows exactly what is going through your character’s head, and why. The /reader/ starts being the one anticipating along with your character, and when that happens, you pwn them. It creates forward momentum for the next scene, and it helps the reader /want/ to read it.

This basic structure for sequels is pretty much the ENTIRE secret of my success. I do it like this in every freaking book I write. I know it works because check it out. People like my books. They like them for some of the special effects, sure, and for some of the story ideas sometimes–but mostly it’s because they find themselves caring about what happens to the characters, and that happens in sequels.

People don’t love Harry for kicking down the monster’s front door. They love him because he’s terrified out of his mind, he knows he’s putting himself in danger by doing it, he’s probably letting himself in for a world of hurt even if he is successful, but he chooses to do it anyway.

Emotion. Reason. Anticipation. Choice.

Special effects and swashbuckling are just the light show.

The heart of your character–and your reader–is in the sequel.”

So I hope you enjoyed this little foray into the head, and advice, of the Butcher 😉

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