I'm looking at my project through the lens of the 'scene-sequel' model now. Scene=Goal/Conflict/Disaster, Sequel=Reaction/Dilemma/Decision.

My story has been through over a dozen various revisions and/or drafts. I'm happy with it but it can still use more improvement. This next revision (mapping to scene-sequel) is aimed at finding areas that can be formatted in a more reader-friendly, engaging way.

A main issue I'm coming up against, as I look through the scene-sequel lens, is that I could call many things a 'disaster.'


  1. Wanting to deep sea scuba dive and losing your oxygen tank in the deep ocean = disaster. But that's a big disaster. You could die. You probably don't reach your goal.

  2. Wanting to deep sea scuba dive and losing one of your fins when you jump off the boat, and so you need to get back onto the boat, that could be shoehorned into the disaster category too. Because - You still don't reach your goal.

Question: What constitutes a 'disaster' in the scene-sequel model of building the perfect scene?

  • 1
    While I approve of the creative use of tags, I'm pretty sure that "sequel" doesn't actually apply here. Mar 1, 2018 at 6:47
  • OK, I removed it.
    – SFWriter
    Mar 1, 2018 at 7:23

5 Answers 5


Scene sequel is a pretty generic concept, and nothing to be suspicious of. It is a way to format your pacing. Several authors choose something like scene-scene-sequel. Having the pair "scene-sequel" isn't important as long as you understand what it's doing; which is ramping up tension, and then letting out a bit of steam. The reason some authors vary is that it can feel formulaic, if done in an obvious way; but, it is a staple of thriller writing.

Disaster is not meant to be just an obstacle that your character has to walk around or avoid, though it can be. It's meant to be something that explicitly makes the story more interesting on any vector by introducing conflict that matters in respect to what a character wants. Disaster could be your protagonist seeing her boyfriend with another girl in a coffee shop or something else entirely. It shouldn't always be large or small, but it should be relevant to the plot or character are you are aiming for; and it should be proportional to how much tension you want to create (and how much your story can earn based on its current setup).

Another way of thinking about this is "yes-but" & "no-and". The character is after something. Do they get it? Yes, but something else happens! No, and something else happens!

The goal here is to make sure tension stacks up nicely and that it does so at a decent pace, keeping your reader hooked. It's not merely about something going wrong, it's about making things more interesting by having something of import going wrong.

If losing your flipper means you can't go look for treasure, then that night not be the disaster you want. But maybe it is ok if you can make something interesting happen. Like, because you could not go searching, you find out your loan shark is after you, so now you really need to find that treasure (no, and). Maybe what you really want is a hungry actual shark guarding the now located treasure (yes, but).

This is called many other things: chase your characters up a tree, then throw rocks at them; blow things up; hurt your characters; don't be boring; etc.

The point is largely to make your reader feel sympathy and an urge to read on. Sequel is about releasing the pressure. There's not really a right "disaster", but there are functional ones. The spectrum as you pointed out is anything from perceived or emotional disaster to something with a literal cost, be it physical or opportunity.

  • Thanks Kirk - This is helpful. If I'm understanding correctly - here and elsewhere - scenes (can be any length but) might ideally range from 1000 - 3000 words. The scene-sequel pairing (which you explain nicely does not need to be paired) would therefore be <6000 words. Thus, if 6000 words go by with only minor conflict, no disaster, no decisions, from a purely metrics point of view this may need some more analysis. Additionally, in a 100K novel, there might be a couple dozen 'goals' etc nested within the plot.
    – SFWriter
    Mar 1, 2018 at 3:06
  • 1
    Possibly, you can't boil a story down to metrics easily, but it may be a flag if your readers are reporting boredom. I like to think of tools like this as just that: tools. Pull them out when they are helpful. Leave then in chest when they aren't. You may also want to look up try-fail cycles. It's the same sort of tool for plotting/suspense.
    – Kirk
    Mar 1, 2018 at 3:26
  • Yes, this attention I'm giving to tension/reader interest/etc has to do with beta feedback. The learning curve is fun. I'll look up try - fail at some point - thanks for the pointer.
    – SFWriter
    Mar 1, 2018 at 3:35
  • In discussions of it, I usually see it treated as "that which ensures the character doesn't get what he wants." The problem is that, as everyone can tell, many scenes end with the character getting what he wants, even if it's not as good as he wants, because otherwise the story is stuck.
    – Mary
    May 17, 2022 at 1:01

The Disasters in your examples – losing an oxygen tank, losing a flipper, losing R2D2 – the way you state them there is actually no "disaster" there. These are just matter-of-fact things that happened. They are the same as "someone lost a handkerchief". We have no context that set up the Disaster: the Goal and Conflict. To put it bluntly, you have no disaster you just have a thing that happened.

The Scene-Sequel model is about character motivation, not so much plot points. For it to be a Disaster in the Scene-Sequel model, it needs to be directly related to the character's Goal and Conflict. The Goal is something intimately personal about your character. The Conflict is a dynamic that is interfering with the Goal. The Disaster is how the goal is not achieved, but it get worse.

Here's my goofy example:

Goal: Jon plans to ask Brenda to dance.

Conflict: Larry is headed in Linda's direction too. Larry is going to ask Linda to dance before Jon! Larry gets everything!

Disaster: Jon breaks into a run to get there ahead of Larry, but sends a tray of food all over Brenda. Oh, no! It's a disaster!

So when the scene starts we only know the goal. As the scene progresses we are introduced to the conflict. If Larry got to Brenda and asked her to dance first, there would have been no disaster at all, and Jon simply could have asked later. But because the Goal and the Conflict together directly lead to the Disaster, and the Disaster now makes the Goal impossible, the reader is (theoretically) hooked by our "perfect scene".

Eventually there will be another scene, the Sequel where Jon's Reaction is to beat himself up for being so clumsy, his Dilemma is how to get Brenda to ever speak to him again. Finally his Decision is to let the air out of Larry's tires.

But we don't have to wait for that scene in the parking lot with Jon. Instead our Sequel could be transferred to Brenda. After a tray of food has been dumped on her (the Disaster set up by Jon), Brenda's Reaction is to feel humiliated, and it was just as Larry was going to ask her to dance! Her Dilemma is whether to run to the bathroom crying or yell at that idiot Jon, and her Decision is now very important because it follows the disaster and now everyone is looking at her. This moment will make or break her reputation. She laughs, so convincingly she almost believes it. Everyone sympathizes with Brenda for being such a good sport while Jon is being thrown out.

I agree with Kirk's answer. If we take these methods too literally they stop being inspirational. It's fun to run a story through these filters to see if we can ring any emotional bells, but it should never feel mandatory. If the system isn't resonating, you shouldn't force it. In this case, I believe what you are misunderstanding is that the Disaster is more of a personal disaster. It's a situation that arrises out of the Goal and Conflict. In my scene with Jon and Brenda, any random person could have been hit with the tray of food and Jon would have been seen as a jerk and it still would have been embarrassing for him. But it's a true Disaster because it crushes Jon's Goal.


All that’s required to qualify as a “disaster” in the scene/sequel model is: Things get worse.


Scene-sequel is all about tension.

A scene ratchets up the tension, while the sequel relaxes it and gives the reader time to breathe. Tension can be caused by the creation of a problem, the worsening of a problem, or an attempt to resolve the problem, since any attempt to solve a problem has the chance of making it worse (or causing new and different problems). The sequel is space that the writer gives to readers during which the problems do not grow.

This scene from the final battle in The Avengers illustrates scene-sequel quite nicely. It contains two scenes and two sequels. Since it's part of a larger action sequence it's the sequels that stand out. The first is Black Widow and Captain America's conversation about solving the problem, and the second is when Hulk punches out Thor.

Humor relieves tension very quickly.


Well, not specific to the scene-sequel model (for which I would harbour deep suspicion) but in literary terms I would say as disaster is an irreparable loss. A loss you can recover from, from which you can be made whole, is not a disaster, it is an inconvenience. A disaster forces a permanent change on you.

A loss from which you can be made whole is a practical problem. You take certain steps and you get your stuff back. A disaster is a moral problem. No matter what you do, you cannot go on as you were before. You may come back stronger overall, but you will have lost something that you can never get back. Frodo is damaged permanently by the ring. He can never be made whole, can never return to the life he left. He has endured a disaster.

Now, this leads us to ask if it is feasible for every scene to have a disaster, however minor. Clearly the answer is no. In fact many scenes don't even include a recoverable loss. Some scenes merely portray the life of the character as it is (the real world) so that when the disaster comes, we are in a position to understand the loss, to appreciate the full depth of what has happened to the character.

But if we cheapen disaster so the we can work one into every scene, then the losses must necessarily be trivial (or else your protagonist will quickly lose everything, including his life). Trivializing disaster in this way must necessarily trivializes the protagonists arc, which is to say that it must trivialize the story. It may take many scenes to set up a disaster that has sufficient gravitas to give a story weight and power.

What you do want to do in a scene, though, is to sow the seeds of disaster. Show the things that matter to the hero, the things whose lose would constitute a disaster, and hit at their fragility, the peril that may overtake them. This builds tension through a sequence of scenes without having to pull the trigger on some minor disaster in ever scene. It is this sense of value in peril that pulls a reader along. The disaster, when it comes, is the payoff, and the payoff is all the more potent for having been painstakingly prepared for.

Begin in sunshine. Let clouds gather on the horizon. Let wind begin to blow and raindrops to fall. Only then unleash the thunder and lightning. And when the storm is over, make sure the landscape is forever changed.

  • None of this is wrong, but scene-sequel is a real literary tool, and not one to simply distrust. It would probably be worth finding out what the question is actually about and then editing your response to one that says what you said, but additionally incorporates the model the op was interested in.
    – Kirk
    Mar 1, 2018 at 2:04
  • 1
    This is my thinking - that it's not realistic to have 15 actual 'disasters' in a story. So, small things might be considered disasters in the scene-sequel model. R2D2 disappearing after Luke removes the restraining bolt may qualify as a disaster, leading to the reaction/dilemma/decision of taking the hovercraft to find him. But the real disaster is the death of his aunt/uncle, later.
    – SFWriter
    Mar 1, 2018 at 3:11

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.