Sequences: What are they?

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Last post, I said I’d do a master storyteller post, or three, on Rhythm.  Well, I found that I needed more guidance. Determining page-by-page, scene, and overall-plot rhythms were easy enough, but determining that rolling mid-level rhythm, the one that spans 50 or so pages between crests/troughs–the one that seemed so important to The Bestseller Code–was hard. (The Bestseller Code authors used a computer algorithm to do it.) (It also didn’t help that, apparently, the only books with the perfect roll of FSoG and TDC are . . . FSoG and TDC.)

So, to get a little more guidance on what to look for and how to describe what I was finding, I did some more reading about sequences.  Here’s what the craft masters have to say.

What’s a Sequence?

Jule Selbo says, “A sequence is a block of scenes that . . . accomplishes a certain action and advances the story.”

Syd Field says, “A sequence is a series of scenes connected by one single idea, with a definite beginning, middle, and end.”

Shawn Coyne says, a “sequence is a collection of scenes (or even one) that adds up to more than the sum of their parts.”

Robert McKee says, “A sequence is a series of scenes–generally two to five–that culminates [in a scene] with greater impact than any previous scene.”

Chuck Wendig says, “A sequence is an agglomeration of scenes that smush together to form a larger common purpose. You can be more flexible with setting and location here–the different scenes in a sequence will jump location and include different characters. . . . Each sequence is built of scenes, fills a larger narrative purpose, and has is own rise and fall of tension.”

Why should I concern myself with Sequences?

Ms. Selbo says, “Thinking in sequences can help you organize and keep you from writing scenes that do not contribute to the best telling of your story.”

“Sequencing helps clarify character motivation and drive, and illuminate which scenes are dramatically necessary and which are irrelevant,” says Andrew W. Marlowe.

James Thomas says, “In drama as in literature, progressions [the playwright’s sequences] help to create interest, maintain suspense, develop the story logically, and bring everything to a satisfactory conclusion.”

“[I]f your Hero must pursue a new short-term physical goal (NOT merely an emotional one) every three to seven pages [in a movie script], your story will never languish or veer off onto some tangent,” says Eric Edson.

Joseph Paul Gulino says, “Sequences, by posing a series of dramatic questions within the overall dramatic tension, offer an opportunity to give the audience a glimpse of a great many possible outcomes to the picture before the actual resolution.”  This helps give the impression that any particular final outcome is possible and therefore unpredictable.

Last, Mr. Marlowe says, “[U]nlike other popular approaches to screenwriting, the sequence method focuses on how the audience will experience the story and what the writer can do to make that experience better. Sequencing gives writers the clarity to understand and manipulate dramatic tension to maximum effect, playing off the audience’s expectations and controlling its hops and fears.”

Cool, so what are the elements of a sequence?

1. CONTEXT: A sequence is about one thing, usually a goal.

The unifying aspect or context of each sequence is often a dramatic question–will character achieve this subgoal?–but the sequence’s unifying aspect could also be a time period or a setting or an event.

“The sequence is [about] a specific idea which can be expressed in a few words or less,” says Mr. Field.  “[I]t is the context, the space that holds the content.”

Ms. Selbo says, “Let a sequence accomplish one thing.  Concentrate on one goal at a time.”

“[E]ach sequence must contain a new action in pursuit of a short-term goal that has not been seen in the story before,” says Mr. Edson. “The Hero’s big, overall story goal remains the same throughout, of course, whether it’s finding true love, beating a powerful Adversary, or saving the world.  But each short-term smaller goal in pursuit of that ultimate big plot objective must be unique in some way.  A Goal Sequence might be similar to one that has gone before… But any time a comparable goal is pursued, some strong new element must be added.”

Mr. McKee, Ms. Selbo, and others say that that it’s useful to title each sequence.  This helps focus the sequence and the story, and it keeps you, the writer, clear about why the sequence is in the story and what you need to write to accomplish the sequence’s purpose.

Further, the context can often be stated as a yes-or-no, dramatic question: Will [something happen]?  More on dramatic questions when we get to scenes.

2. CONTENT: The scenes in a sequence all relate to that “one thing.”

Mr. Field says, “Once we establish the context of the sequence, we build it with content, or the specific details [scenes] needed to create the sequence.”

Ms. Selbo says, “The scenes you choose to write for the sequence should all be targeted to accomplish a certain goal.”  The goal you chose as your contextual goal.

3. BEGINNING, MIDDLE, END: The scenes are arranged and developed to build the sequence to a culmination.

Mr. Field says that every sequence, “has a definite beginning, middle, and end. . . . it builds . . . expands the action dramatically and . . . peaks with an emotional high.”

Mr. Gulino says, “[S]uccessfully realized sequences . . . have dramatic tension, and thus each has a ‘three act structure’: character wanting something, an obstacle, tension resulting from the conflict between the two, and a resolution, leading to a new tension.”

Mr. Edson says the same thing differently.  In a sequence, “Hero pursues one short-term physical goal as a step toward achieving ultimate victory in the story. Then the Hero discovers some form of new information [that Edson calls] Fresh News that brings the current goal to an end and presents a new short-term physical goal–thereby launching the next” sequence.

4. CHANGE: A sequence culminates in change for the character.

Mr. McKee says the sequence should create “meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a VALUE.”

“Story Values are the universal qualities of human experience that may shift from positive to negative, or negative to positive, from one moment to the next.” For more on McKee’s Values check out the shades of negativity section of the antagonists post.

Mr. McKee says, “Every true scene turns the value-charged condition of the character’s life, but from event to event the degree of change can differ greatly. Scenes cause relatively minor yet significant change. The capping scene of a sequence, however, delivers a more powerful, determinant change.”

This value shift is what we’re looking for in our rolling, mid-level rhythm.  The values of scenes within a sequence may (and should) go up and down, up and down, but if the sequence context is to Get A Job, then the character starts in the negative value of No Job and ends the sequence in the positive value of Has Job.  So the smoothed out movement of the scenes in this section of the story goes from negative to positive, trough to crest.

How negative and how positive–or how deep those troughs and how high those crests are–would depend on how negative and how positive the starting and ending circumstances feel to the character.

5. PROGRESS: Each sequence moves the story forward.

Ms. Selbo says, “A sequence should be designed to move the story forward.”

Mr. Thomas says, “The feeling of forward motion comes from the dramatist’s method of always making the next event more interesting and significant than the last. We are uncomfortable when our interest in the [story] flags or if there is a feeling of too much repetition. We are not even satisfied to maintain the same level of interest. Forward motion is a fundamental necessity of plot.”

How do I design my sequence?

Mr. Field says, to sketch out a sequence, “find the idea, create the context, add content, then design it focusing on beginning, middle, and end.”

Mr. Gulino says, “To a significant extent, each sequence has its own protagonist, tension, rising action, and resolution–just like a film [or novel] as a whole. The difference between a sequence and a stand-alone fifteen-minute film [or short story] is that the conflicts and issues raised in a sequence are only partially resolved within the sequence, and when they are resolved, the resolution often opens up new issues, which in turn become the subject of new sequences.”

Mr. Edson says, “The discovery of Fresh News plot information by the Hero at the end of each Goal Sequence always resolves the current short-term goal.  It also provides the Hero with his next goal, or occasionally sends him on a short search to find it.  This unbroken chain of Fresh News discoveries–each one driving dramatic intensity up another notch–is the key element that links together an entire screen story from beginning to end.”

Mr Thomas says, “What happens is this: a topic is introduced and developed to a peak tension, and then a new topic is introduced that begins to grow toward another peak.  Emotional intensity may suspend a little after the peak, but interest will not fade because a new topic will emerge almost immediately and begin moving toward another peak. This is how a play moves forward in progressions, which rise, crest, and fall away like waves at the seashore.”

Ms. Selbo says, “Working with a sequence sheet can help the writer keep his story on track.  Once you know the broad strokes, what needs to be accomplished in each sequence, you can play around with what scenes to use to fulfill each sequence’s goal.”

To that end, Pilar Alessandra says, “[D]escribe [each sequence] using three simple sentences. Each sentence will cover the GOAL [what the character wants], ACTIVITY [what the character does to get it], and COMPLICATION [the obstacle that gets in the way of the activity and prevents character from getting what she wants] of each sequence.”

Ms. Alessandra also provides the simplest overview of “a common pattern” of sequences that I’ve seen:

  2. CONFLICT triggers PROBLEM
  3. PROBLEM triggers STRATEGY
  7. MISSTEP triggers BATTLE

When should I worry about sequences?

The screenwriting gurus praise how breaking a screenplay into sequences can make it easier to write the first draft.  The only guru I came across who advised not starting with sequences is Shawn Coyne, an editor of novels.

Mr. Coyne “recommend[s] that writers focus on scenes in their first draft. Looking at and defining sequences is a great idea, once you have something in hand and you are evaluating how successfully you brought the Story to life. To obsess about them before you have a rough draft is very often a mistake.  Sequence analysis is an editorial craft, and as such, should be saved for editing, not initial creation.”

He further says, “The time to really look hard at sequences is in the third or fourth draft, after you’re convinced that your scene by scene, your act by act, your subplot by subplot and your global plot is sound.  After you have those marks checked off, it is a very good idea to go back yet again and define the sequences of your scenes.  You’ll undoubtedly find places to hone and cut.”

As with everything, do what works best for you.

How many sequences do I need?

Mr. Gulino says many movie stories have eight sequences, with few movies having less, but many stories having more. Adam Skelter and Ms. Alessandra promote the use of 8 sequences.

Mr. Edson says that every movie has 20 to 23 sequences.

Mr. Field says, “It should be noted that there are no specific number of sequences in a screenplay; you don’t need 12, 18, or 20 sequences. Your story will tell you how many sequences you need.”

Personally, I like starting with twelve sequences.  That gives each Act (assuming Act 2 is actually Act 2A and Act 2B) a beginning, middle, and ending sequence.

Again, do what works for you.

Last Tips

1. Something Feels Off

Mr. Coyne says, “If you get stuck and you have no idea where you Story went off track, chances are you are either missing or over delivering sequences in the Story. Over delivering on a sequence means that you have too many supporting scenes.  One or two can be eliminated entirely without losing any narrative consistency.”

2. Distinguishing Sequences

Mr. Edson says, “Remember–there can be other story surprises along the way in any single [sequence], but if those plot turns do not change the Hero’s current motivating physical goal, those story moments DO NOT qualify as Fresh News.”

3. The Sequence Sheet

Ms. Selbo says, “There is no need to go into great detail in a sequence sheet.  Consider it a list of notes that will help create the bones of the screen story.  As the writer thinks of other scenes or sequences that need to be included, she can add them (in their right place) to the sequence sheet.  Some scenes or sequences may get moved around; some will get tossed in the garbage.”

4. More Help

Check out Mr. Skelter’s website.  He offers several *free* videos on the craft, including two that talk about his process for structuring stories with sequences.

Top Books on Sequences

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The book cover links above are Affiliate Links, which means I get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links, at no cost to you.  In other words, if you’re thinking of buying a copy of one of these books for your home craft library anyway, buying said copy through this link is a no-brainer way to help support this site. And I appreciate it. Thank you!

Well, that’s it for me

What about you?  What elements do you think are essential to a sequence?  Tell us in the comments!

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Up Next

I still intend to do a rhythm example.  I’m thinking The Rosie Project,* because it’s fairly short.  =)  And maybe Harry Potter.*  I also picked up Patriot Games,* which was the best rhythm book on the list, after FSoG and TDC, but it’s something like 600 pages.  So yeah . . . we won’t be doing that one.

I’ve also been working on a “well told” post.  You can have a totally “good story” on your hands that’s crafted well, but if you can’t also tell it well . . . no one will care.  So yeah, a “well told” post.

Plus scenes.  We’ll get to scenes.  Not sure why I’m dragging my feet on this one, but . . . whatever. I’ll get to it eventually.

See you again soon!

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