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Scene Structure for Your Antagonist?

Posted by Meredith in Writing Advice (September 29, 2010 at 9:59 am)
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I was out of town at a writers conference and then coordinating a retreat the last two weeks, so I’m going to try to get caught up on some Q&As that have come in from the Advanced Fiction Writing Blog during that time.

Today’s question is from Tom, who wants to know if the antagonist in the story needs to follow the same Dwight Swain pattern of “Scenes and Sequels” as the protagonist does. If that just made NO sense to you at all, you might want to check out a good overview article about Scene Structure over at Randy’s AFW site and then come back and read the rest of this post.

Tom asks:

When a story tells the storyline of the protagonist and a separate storyline for the antagonist which eventually meet, does a “perfect” story alternate Scene and Sequel for the antagonist’s storyline?

Does the “perfect” story need the antagonist to pause and decide after and action scene?

I’m going to preface my response by pointing out that in modern novels (Dwight Swain wrote his Techniques of the Selling Writer about 50 years ago), “Scenes” (action sequences) are not always followed by “Sequels” (decision sequences) every time. Especially in the case of suspense or thrillers, mysteries, action adventures, science fiction, etc. it is perfectly acceptable to put several “Scenes” in a row with little or no deliberation in between.

The purpose of “Sequels” in my opinion is to maintain reader connection with the inner life of the character. If your protagonist is always “go, go, go” then we end up with a more shallow, external understanding of the protagonist, which is not as satisfying as being able to enter the internal, more complex world of the character. Sequels give us a chance to enter that internal world and see how the story is affecting the character. But you don’t have to be rigid about the pattern if you just keep in mind what the purpose and goal is, and strive to accomplish that in whatever way is best for the story.

So, to return to Tom’s question–do we need to have Scenes and Sequels for the Antagonist? My opinion is no, not necessarily. First of all, you don’t have to have a rigid Scene/Sequel pattern at all, as I’ve just explained. But you especially do not have to have this pattern for the antagonist since the story actually belongs to the protagonist. The protagonist is the one who is supposed to be driving the story forward, so we want his efforts and actions, his dilemmas and decisions, to be the primary focus of the story. The antagonist’s efforts to thwart the hero should fit into and against the hero’s storyline, but we don’t usually need or want to go as deeply into the inner world of the antagonist or shift the story to focus on him. I’m not saying that there would never be a story where you would want to do this–because there might be. But in general, it’s better to keep the protagonist as the focus and have the antagonist adding to the conflict and drama for the hero instead of also trying to follow the antagonist’s storyline in equal depth.

Tom went on in his email to explain that his antagonist is probably more of a doer than a thinker, and that his novel is in the thriller genre. These two facts combined make it even more unnecessary to show his antagonist in a decision-making mode very often.

It’s good to remember that whether it’s Scene/Sequels, Donald Maass, Snowflake, Hero’s Journey, or any other way of looking at story technique, these are tools to be used at your discretion. They shouldn’t become walls that block you into one way of writing or one way of looking at the art form of fiction. Every writing teacher or theory will approach it in a slightly different way, and you have the freedom to use and adapt those ideas to what fits best for your writing style and your story.

Best luck to you, Tom!

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