This is the basic structure of every story ever written ever: Something happens. The main character in that story arc reacts with a plan. Something else happens. The character reacts again.

Every. Story. Ever.

Let’s go to the oldest story, the Garden of Eden. God creates a beautiful home for his new creation mankind. “But,” he says, “thou shalt not eat of the Tree, for if thou dost thou shalt surely die.” (action)

“No problem,” says Adam, and Eve – does not answer. (reaction)

So the snake says “Hmm.” He slithers over to Eve. “You know he didn’t want you to eat that fruit because he’s selfish and doesn’t want you to become like him, right?” (action)

“No kidding?” says Eve – and eats the apple. (reaction)

“Hey, pretty good!” She goes to Adam. “Try this.” (action)

Adam argues, but finally bites. Because he’s a dude, and he knows on which side his daily bread is buttered, and who does the buttering. (reaction)

Suddenly, they realize they are nekkid (that’s the naughty version of nude) AAAAAHH! (action)

They seek to hide their nakedness. (reaction)

Then God comes along. (action)

They hide in the bushes and don’t answer him. (reaction)

“Olly-olly oxen free!” hollers God. (action)

“Uh, over here?” They wave from behind a bush. (reaction)

“Why do you hide?” says the big dude. (action)

“Because we don’t have any clothes!” (reaction)

So God, understanding what they did and pained that they didn’t tell him the truth, bars them from the Garden. (action) He also curses the serpent. (action – when the story reaches its peak, there are often several actions tying up all the loose threads from all the story arcs.) And he curses humanity. (action)

In fiction, you won’t build a scene around every action and reaction; that would get tedious really quickly as your characters dramatically drink water, ponder life while walking to the bathroom, etc. You will, however, build a scene around every major turn. The movie Star Wars is a great example. The Imperials, knowing that the rebel ship has stolen important information, chases them down, kills the crew, and takes Princess Leia hostage. However, during the battle, two droids escape, landing on desolate Tatooine – and of course, one droid has the information, hidden there by the Princess. The droids set out to look for civilization – and instead find the Jawas. Meanwhile, the Empire has dispatched troops to find the escape pod’s inhabitants – and find part of a droid instead.

That’s four scenes: the capture, the escape, the search for civilization, the hunt for the droids. Inside each scene, you find rising and falling action, and at the end a hook pulls the plot along to the next scene. Action – reaction.

You also see a pattern of activity/planning. The capture – a problem, the ship is taken. So, the plan is to escape. The droids, upon escaping, find themselves in the middle of nowhere (activity) – so they decide to look for civilization, or Threepio does, while R2D2 has a different plan. (planning) The empire is looking for them (activity).

Check this out for yourself. Use a chapter from a story you love. Plot out, first, action/reaction – then divide it into the scenes used in the book. Then divide it into activity/planning. Observe where your notes are similar – and where they are different.

Rising Plot Action and the Call to Adventure

You should notice several things. First, the stakes rise for the main character with every scene/sequel pair. Back to Star Wars – the main character is clearly Luke. He has no stake at all in the first scene; it is the setup and will be the driving force behind the rest of the story. The second scene takes place on Tatooine, his home, and not far from his uncle’s farm. The third scene brings Imperial Stormtroopers to Tatooine. Gradually, the scenes drive closer – his uncle purchases the robots being hunted. Luke discovers the hologram of Leia. The robot with the hologram runs away. On seeking out the bot, Luke is attacked by sandpeople, and rescued by Ben Kenobi. Ben gives him a lightsaber and they see the entire hologram, which is specifically addressed to Obi-Wan – Ben’s real name. Ben tells Luke that they need to find a ship to rescue her – and Luke, critically, refuses.

I say “critically” because this is Luke’s call to adventure – a sequel/planning point in the plot in which the hero is confronted with the main quest. Bad things always happen each time the hero refuses the call.

In Luke’s case, his aunt and uncle suffer the results – they are murdered by the Stormtroopers looking for Artoo and Threepio. He can’t refuse the call again. He is now on the Empire’s wanted list, and he has nothing to lose by going out on adventure. Essentially, the barrier he had between himself and adventure is now gone.

You can draw this out further, at least in a longer work like a novella or novel. It is not unusual for a hero to refuse the call several times, and each time disaster ensues shortly thereafter.

By combining this pattern with the standard story structure, you can create the core of an effective story. You do need to vary this a bit; the easiest way is to intersperse your hero’s plot with secondary character sub-plots, which can simply be action-action-action until the subplot meets the main plot. For instance, in Leia’s case she is captured, she is tortured and questioned, she is forced to watch her planet meaninglessly destroyed, and she is then – off-screen – scheduled for execution. Only when the main plot line arrives with her rescue by Luke does she have the opportunity for a sequel/planning scene.

One More Thing

There was another scene earlier in the movie, though I can’t recall exactly where, introducing Luke on Tatooine at about the same time as the space battle in which Leia was captured. It has essentially no action – Luke is shown as loyal and loving to his aunt and uncle, but desperate to matter in the world, to have adventures and do things. It’s here to create conflict between Luke’s life and his call to adventure. These sorts of scenes don’t really follow scene/sequel pattern because the adventure has not yet been introduced. If your story needs one, by all means use it – and make it do as much work as possible. In Luke’s case, it shows that he has friends, that he’s a competent farmer, that he chafes against his small world, that he loves his family and is too loyal to simply desert them (hence they had to die) and that he has no living parents. It also introduces part of the world – the Empire and its need for military men.

Any time a scene does not show action or planning, pack it with background information in the smallest possible package and keep it short. Make it matter.

Exercise: Plot out at least a portion of your plot using the scene/sequel method. Make sure action rises from scene to scene. If you have difficulty weaving in any secondary plots, create them separately for later insertion. You will quickly discover that sometimes sequel blends seamlessly into the next action (though rarely the other way around), and that the scene/sequel pattern isn’t perfect. That’s just fine. It’s only a framework to help you move the plot forward evenly. When the pattern breaks, go with the break, and then return to the pattern.



Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure – The author talks about action and reaction – the same thing as scene and sequel – but goes into greater detail. And as I write, it is only $1.20 at Amazon Kindle.

The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing – This book also has a workbook. DO NOT BUY IT. Only purchase the main book. (The workbook helps you write a kind of generic structure.) Rather than using his main book as a step-by-step guide, check his tips on how to write scenes and sequels after you have written them to ensure you have included all the elements, and look at his suggestions for beginnings, ends and turning points. There’s a lot of good stuff in here; it’s just a bad idea to use it as a template.


Part 1: Point of View: Whose Story Is It?

Part 2: Healing Wordiness and Making Yourself Clear

Part 3: Political Writing 101: Start With Theme

Part 4: Political Writing 101: Creating Compelling Epic Heroes

Part 5: Writing Stealthcon 101: Plots That Don’t Preach

Part 6: Characterizing Through Appearance

Part 7: Nine-and-Sixty Ways: When Writing Advice Conflicts

Part 8: Characterization 101: Characterizing Through Dialog

Part 9: Doing Dialect Right

Part 10: Beats, Said, and Quipped: Who’s Talking?