In yesterday’s article I introduced the concept of sequels in classical scene structure. They act as a kind of transition, a moment of reflection, and (as I said at the end) they provide your protagonist with a critical opportunity to shine.
I described the sequel as a progression:
It starts with an emotional reaction to catastrophe, moves through a thoughtful processing of the new dilemma, and leads to a decision as to how the protagonist will forge ahead.
Each of those three elements is a valuable opportunity to build your characters.
The first reaction to any catastrophe is an emotional one, but which emotion says a lot about your character. His girlfriend walked out on him, or she just watched her best friend get turned into a vampire, or his mother just got shot by hunters.
How does your protagonist react? Shock? Outrage? Fear, frustration, or fury? The immediate, base emotions that rise up in response to a specific setback (as well as the cumulative impression built through emotional responses to an ongoing, escalating series of setbacks) shines a huge spotlight on who your character is.
After the protagonist’s immediate emotional response, he should move into considered reflection. He should review what happened and try to understand it and place it in context. Part of that is a service for the readers — helping them understand the complicated story you’re telling them — but while you’re at it you’re showing your character.
What does he pick up on? What does he overlook (again and again)? Which connections seem important to him? What are his biases and blind spots?
Those are all tools you’re used to seeing in stories, so they’re all tools you’re already using in your own. But if you use them consciously, if you take a moment to think about it, you’ll see how much those questions really say about who your character is.
It also helps explain his motivation and action. If you show your readers a scene, and then you show them in the sequel how your protagonist understood that scene (which won’t necessarily match how your readers understood it), it’ll be easier for them to understand why he reacts to that scene the way he does.
And that’s the final piece of the sequel: action. Based on his emotional response and his intellectual review of the situation, the protagonist is going to make a decision. He’s going to figure out what to do next, and then he’s going to do it.
That’s the moment where your protagonist becomes a hero. That’s the moment where he becomes active instead of reactive. Yes, something just hammered him down, but instead of running from it he’s going to figure out a way to fix the problem, and he’s going to put it in action.
Of course it won’t go well. That’s the next scene. Unless it’s the last one in the book, he’ll go (all active) to put his new plan in action, and then an antagonist will show up to oppose him. A catastrophe will bat him back down. That’s what scenes are for.
But in the sequel that hasn’t happened yet. During the sequel, during the planning and first steps of execution — right up until the moment when the antagonist starts the next scene’s conflict — you get to show your hero acting. You get to show him in fine form. He’s not crying in the gutter, he’s bringing the war to the enemy’s door.
And, yes, it hurts to do that to our characters. It hurts to knock them down again and again and again. That’s what stories are for, though. They’re a chance to show how your character responds to adversity. It’s a chance to show “true character” (as Professor Chester would say), by putting your character through the purifying fire of setback after setback after setback.
A hero isn’t somebody with a lot of power. A hero isn’t somebody who has it easy. A hero is someone who keeps going, through it all, and sees the story through to its gritty end.