How to write a book readers can't put down: Using scenes and sequels

Aug 31, 2011

I've been working on revisions of my current WIP, The Unhappening of Genesis Lee, for a month and a half now. Because I did so much plotting ahead of time, I haven't needed as many large-scale changes to this book plot-wise, which is awesome. Of course, that doesn't mean the plot is perfect. My individual scenes, especially, need to be tighter, more focused, and to lead naturally from one to the other. I tried out a new method to make this work, and it has been one of the most helpful revision tools ever.

Have you ever heard scenes referred to as action/reaction types, or scene/sequel types (same thing, different terms)? I had, but I never knew how it really worked. Basically, every scene in your book will be either an ACTION (scene) or REACTION (sequel), and the scenes should always alternate. (Action -->reaction-->action, etc.) There are some handy graphics here so you can get the big picture.

An ACTION scene has the following components: a goal, a conflict, and a disaster. The goal, obviously, is your character's need/want/objective for that specific scene. The conflict is what gets in your character's way. The disaster doesn't always have to be a disaster. Either your character doesn't get what they want (if they do, the book is over), or they DO get what they want, but something else happens-- they learn they need something else, or the thing they get isn't what they really wanted, etc.

After the disaster, of course, your character needs to react-- hence the REACTION scene. This is made up of the reaction, the dilemma, and the decision. The reaction is your character's immediate response to the disaster. It starts with the emotional response or feeling, then a reflexive action, followed by a rational thought/speech/action. These three elements don't ALL have to be there, but they should ALWAYS be in that order.

After the initial reaction in the reaction scene (I know, confusing), comes the dilemma-- the disaster in the last scene created a problem, so now what? Your character needs to make a decision, which leads to an action. Wait, an action? As in an action scene? Fancy that! We've come full circle.

My approach to this was to take out a notebook and go through my chapters one by one, making sure the cycle flowed, and writing out each part of the action/reaction sequence for each chapter. I found that each chapter isn't necessarily its own action or reaction scene. Sometimes, a single chapter was a full action/reaction sequence (or even 1.5 or 2 of them), with either the action or the reaction being quite short. Sometimes, a scene would stretch for more than one chapter. But ALWAYS, I made sure they cycled from one to the other.

If done right, the cycle of action/reaction should flow seamlessly throughout your book. And, if done right, it will make it almost impossible for readers to put your book down! After each disaster, they'll need to know how the character deals with it...and after each decision, they'll want to see what action the character will take next...and soon it's 3 a.m. and they've read your book all night.

So, my friends, have you ever used the action/reaction/scene/sequel process before? Do you have other tips that make it impossible to put your book down? What book have you read recently that you just couldn't stop reading?

28 comments:

mshatch said...

I have not used that formula but I can see how it would be helpful. I did just finish a book that I had a hard time putting down (I was ten minutes late getting back to work yesterday from lunch!). It was Laura Lippman's I'd Know You Anywhere. Talk about a page turner.

Ruth Josse said...

More often than not I just write like a crazy person. Full speed ahead. But I Love your tools and tips! I'm trying to teach myself to be more organized. I'm going to try this when I revise!

linda said...

Thanks for the tip, Shallee! I'll have to remember that when I begin drafting. :)

Lori M. Lee said...

Love your cover :D And I also love the writing tip! I will have to write it down for future editing!

Reece said...

Deja Vu! I remember Newell talking about this! I wish I had remembered sooner though. This was a great post. Thanks!

Meredith said...

This is such a cool and helpful way to look at it! Thanks, Shallee!

Lady Gwen said...

New follower here stopping by from Teralyn's contest to see your cover. I'm a fellow contestant. Your cover is awesome! The back of her flowy gown looks like wings - very cool!

Joe Vasicek said...

While interesting, this formula sounds a little too complicated and overthought to work for me. I think the most important thing with advice like this is to find the stuff that turns on your creative mind and disregard the stuff that sucks the joy out of writing. What doesn't work for me might work for someone else, though.

Shallee said...

It's interesting to see how some things work for some people and not for others.

Reece, I remember Newell talking about it as well, but it's funny how it didn't make sense to me until now. Maybe I just needed a bit more experience. :)

Ruth, I tend to write my first drafts a little crazy too. Even when I plan ahead, the first draft is where creativity really flows. I get some of my best ideas in the midst of writing.

Joe, you're definitely right about some things working for some people and not for others. This was a method that really clicked for me, and actually helped me pull the story together-- so I didn't actually find that it sucked the joy out of anything. It fascinated me to see how I could tie my existing pieces more tightly together. :) I love sharing what works for me, and reading about what works for others.

Mark Noce said...

Sounds like you've got some great rewrites under way! It's exciting when it all starts to come together. I'm sure that your hard work and diligence will pay off:)

Teralyn Rose Pilgrim said...

Oh my gosh, I LOVE that cover!!! I'm so glad you decided to sign on to my blogfest; I saw your last cover and thought, "Shallee better join my contest." Thanks for participating!

Angie said...

Love your cover! I haven't consciously used the action/reaction model, but I think it's there. That's a great thing to keep in mind.

cherie said...

Neat cover!

Melissa Hurst said...

I love your cover!

I've heard of this technique, but I'd forgotten about it until recently. I actually used it today to help with a scene that was giving me problems. Thanks for sharing!

David Powers King said...

Great stuff, Shallee! I always enjoy your informative posts.

That's a great model for keeping the tension alive, something I strive to add in every line.

Elizabeth Mueller said...

I believe it comes natural, you know? When I first heard of it, it was an a-ha moment for me. I didn't realize that there was a definition for it!


♥.•*¨Elizabeth¨*•.♥
Can Alex save Winter from the darkness that hunts her?
YA Paranormal Romance, Darkspell coming fall of 2011!

Small Town Shelly Brown said...

I TRY to do this but I am still editing and catching missing reactions here and there. I've also heard of it called the try/fail cycle or as mentioned the scene/sequel.

Thanks for the post. It's time for me to look at the book I'm outlining for clear scene/sequels.

ali cross said...

Ok, first, your cover is beautiful Shallee. What a great photo AND the title is AWESOME.

As for the scene/sequel. I plot according to the SAVE THE CAT method, which uses a +/- approach . . . always making sure you get a flow between up and down emotions, etc. Same thing as the scene/sequel thing. BUT your comments have made me think that I could probably do better. Thanks for this!

Margo Berendsen said...

What a procative cover. I voted! But wasn't there a recent book starting with the "Unbecoming of someone someone"? That's immediately what I thought of when I saw your title. Still, its intriguing.

Good point about an emotional response, reflexive action, and then rational action. Need to keep that in mind!

RaShelle said...

This is fabulous!

Jolene Perry said...

Whoa . . . Shallee . . . this is AH-mazing!
The title and cover totally gave me chills!!

Heidi Windmiller said...

I love, love, love your title! And a wonderful photo to go with it!

Ellie Garratt said...

The cover art is stunning - did you do it or Teralyn?

Your post on action/reaction scenes is excellent. I actually looked at the notes for my WIP scenes and seem to already be doing that without even knowing it. Just a few tweaks needed here and there to do.

Thank you!

The Red Angel said...

What an awesome book cover! The whiteness of everything looks so pure, and the way you arranged and capitalized the title is really interesting. Love the image, too. She looks like an angel.

~TRA

http://xtheredangelx.blogspot.com

Julie said...

Holy crap, this cover is BEAUTIFUL! And I love the title... everything about this is so intriguing. Definitely judging a book by its cover here... and I'd TOTALLY read it!

P.s. New stalker alert! ( ;

Hywela Lyn said...

This is my third visit to your blog and I thought I'd already left a comment, but it seems to have got lost in the ether!


What a striking cover, really different, and a very intresting and article too, I've never consciously applied this formula, although I think I tend to do it instinctively, but I'll certainly check it out with my WIP and see how it improves it.

Tanya Reimer said...

OMG Reece sent me over here. Genius idea this is. It should be what we are doing, but it never hurts to add it to the checklist, right???

Joel said...

I'd forgotten about this approach! Thanks for the details, I'll be book-marking this post.

 
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