Bier de Stone ( wrote,
Bier de Stone

Understanding what a screenplay sequence is all about

Sequences help solve one of the basic problems in all dramatic writing: the fact that a drama is a contrivance, but that it will not work if it seems like a contrivance. The action in drama unfolds before the audience's eyes, and the extent to which it seems spontaneous -- the extent to which it seems that anything might happen -- is the extent to which it will persuade an audience that whatever outcome that eventually transpires is inevitable and therefore satisfying. In this vein, coincidences that hurt a protagonist tend to work in drama, and are viewed suspiciously if they help.

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. Screenwriters are sometimes counseled to keep in mind that the characters do not know what the movie is about -- in order to create compelling drama, it must seem as though the movie is what happens despite what the characters want or expect. Conceiving a story in sequences is a means of achieving this. For example, a writer may invent a story in which, in the setup, a married man becomes obsessed with a woman and decides he's willing to risk everything to have her. Instead of the writer posing the question "how do I make a pursuit of this woman fill up sixty or ninety minutes of screen time?" it is much more fruitful for him or her to ask "what is the quickest and easiest way for this character to get the girl?" Human nature being what it is, chances are the man will do the easiest thing first, and only if that fails will he try a more difficult course of action. The "easiest thing" may only take fifteen minutes of screen time. In developing a story, a writer needs to have the courage to let the second act end after only fifteen pages, if the protagonist is able to achieve his objective in that amount of screen time. It is then easy enough to brainstorm and come up with developments that foil this outcome.

After the first thirty-five minutes of Being John Malkovish (1999; see chapt 11), Craig has figured out how to get Maxine, the woman of his dreams: he's planning to work nights alone with her in the "Malkovich portal" business, and a positive outcome to his quest for her seems readily at hand. Yet fifteen minutes of screen time later his wife has decided she's a transsexual and is in love with Maxine. The next three sequences detail his rejection by Maxine in favor of his wife, his successful abduction of his wife (which then becomes threatened by Malkovich himself), and finally his success in "getting" Maxine by figuring out how to control Malkovich. The means by which he finally achieves her love is hardly something he could have conceived of after first going into business with her, but carefully worked out circumstances have, in the end, forced him to push himself to the limit.

Over the course of a typical two-hour movie, the eight-sequence structure works out as follows. This is, of course, a paradigm -- an ideal layout -- and variations have been done, very effectively. But it will serve as a starting point.


The first fifteen minutes of a picture answer the questions of who, what, when, where, and under what conditions the picture will take place -- the exposition. Before such exposition, though, it is crucial to "hook" the audience and get them interested in watching further. The most common technique for achieving this in the first sequence is through the use of curiosity. Most successful movies begin by posing a puzzle to the audience, raising questions in their minds, and promising an answer. Chinatown (1974) opens with a puzzling series of photographs showing a couple have sex, accompanied by offscreen groaning. Sunset Boulevard (1950) starts with the frantic arrival of police cars, whose officers quickly converge on a man lying face down in a swimming pool.

Once curiosity is used to draw an audience into the picture, there will be a chance to suppoly exposition -- background material -- answering the crucial questions so that the story proper can begin.

Almost always, but not invariably, the audience is introduced to the main character, or protagonist, in the first sequence, and is given a glimpse of the flow of life of the protagonist before the story itself begins -- in medias res. An effective first sequence can give us a sense of what the protagonist's life would have been like if the events that lead to story hadn't interfered. In fact, the stronger the sense of flow of life at the beginning of the picture, the bigger the impact of the destabilizing events that intrude to make the story happen. North by Northwest exemplary of this in the extent to which the storytellers cram a full evening and day's worth of appointments for the protagonist, Roger Thornhill, in the opening four minutes; having thus given us a glimpse of the flow of his life, none of these appointments is ever actually realized.

Usually by the end of the first sequence, there arises a moment in the picture called the point of attack, or inciting incident. This is the first intrusion of instability on the initial flow of life, forcing the protagonist to respond in some way. For Roger Thornhill, it is his abduction; for Jake Gittes in Chinatown, it is his realization that he's been duped.


The second fifteen minutes of a film, ending approximately 25% of the way into a typical two-hour picture, tend almost invariably to focus on setting up the main tension, of posing the dramatic question that will shape the rest of the picture. As such, the end of the second sequence tends to mark the end of the first act.

Most commonly, the protagonist introduced in the first sequence spends the second sequence attempting to grapple with the destabilizing element introduced into his or her life during the first fifteen minutes of the picture. The character may have every expectation that the problem will be solved and the story finished, but life itself has other plans. Whatever solutions the protagonist attempts during the second sequence lead only to a bigger problem, or predicament, marking the end of the first act and setting up the main tension, which occupies the second. In the Chinatown example, Gittes tries to get to the bottom of who hired him and why, and winds up being hired by the real Mrs. Mulwray after her husband turns up dead.


The third fifteen-minute sequence of a picture allows the protagonist a first attempt at solving the problem posed at the end of the first act. As mentioned previously, people being what they are, characters tend to choose the easiest solution to the problem, hoping it will be resolved immediately. The character may indeed solve an immediate problem in the third sequence (as in any of the sequences), but the resolution of one problem can lead to much bigger and deeper problems. In Midnight Run (1988), Jack Walsh, unable to bring his prisoner from New York to California by plane, opts for a train ride. This is soon thwarted by a rival, and he winds up instead taking a bus, which in turn is attacked by the mob and the FBI, forcing him to borrow a car. The choices of transportation are progressively less desirable, reflecting Jack's increasing difficulty.


The fourth fifteen-minute sequence finds the first attempt at resolution failing, and sees the protagonist try one or more desperate measures to return his or her life to stability.

The end of the fourth sequence very often leads to the First Culmination or Midpoint Culmination of a film. This may be a revelation or some reversal of fortune that makes the protagonist's task more difficult. Successfully realized scripts at this juncture often give the audience a very clear glimpse of an answer to the dramatic question -- the hope that the protagonist will actually succeed at resolving his or her problem -- only to see circumstances turn the story the other way. In this sense, the first culmination may be a glimpse at the actual resolution of the picture, or its mirror opposite.

Midway through Tootsie (1982), Michael Dorsey reaches a pinnacle of career success, but he is living a lie and doesn't have a romantic relationship with Julie; in the resolution at the end of the picture, his situation is the mirror opposite: he has lost his career but is no longer living a lie, and has a tentative romantic relationship with Julie.


During the next fifteen or so minutes, the protagonist works on whatever new complication arose in at the first culmination. Again, successfully realized scripts can give a glimpse of apparent success or failure, though usually not as profound as the first culmination. Sometimes this is a place in the story in which new characters are introduced and new opportunities present themselves. This, and Sequence F, are sometimes occupied primarily by subplots, if there are any.

In some pictures, the experience of the first culmination may be so profound as to provide a complete reversal of the protagonist's objective. During the first half of the second act of Sunset Boulvard, Gillis works on Norma's script with the aim of escaping her despite her efforts to keep him; after she attempts suicide at the midpoint, he spends the second half of the second act trying to stay with Norma despite Betty's efforts to pull him away.

As with the other sequences, the resolution of the tension in this sequence does not resolve the main tension (i.e., solve the protagonist's problem), it merely creates new complications, usually more difficult with stakes that are higher still.


During this, the last sequence of the second act, the character, having eliminated all the easy potential solutions and finding the going most difficult, works at last toward a resolution of the main tension, and the dramatic question is answered. The end of the sixth sequence thus marks the end of the second act, also known as the Second Culmination. As such, it gives the audience yet another glimpse of a possible outcome of the picture.

The second culmination, like the first, can be a glimpse of the actual resolution of the picture, or, more typically, its mirror opposite. In Sunset Boulvard, Gillis and Betty kiss, marking the high point of their relationship, which is the mirror opposite of the resolution, when he loses everything and winds up face down in the swimming pool. In Midnight Run, Jack is under arrest and has lost John Mardukas to his rival, the mirror opposite of the resolution, when he makes it to L.A. in time and winds up a free man with $300,000.

It is a common misconception that the end of the second act needs to be a "low point" in the story. In studying many films, I have not found this to be the case; only three films in this volume -- Toy Story, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Graduate -- could be said to follow this pattern. In developing a story, I have found it to be far more useful for the writer to conceive of this moment in the story in relationship to the main tension in some profound way -- either by completely resolving it or by reframing it significantyly. Seeing it as a "low point" cuts off a writer from a great many story possibilities.


As with the resolutions of tension in sequences A through E, the apparent or actual resolution of the main tension in the sequence F is not the final word. Unexpected consequences of that resolution can come forth, and other story lines and dangling causes previously established bring forth new and even more difficult problems, sometimes forcing the character to work against his or her previous objectives. In effect, the story is sometimes turned upside down and we glimpse it from a very new angle. The seventh sequence is often characterized by still higher stakes and a more frenzied pace, and its resolution is often characterized by a major twist. In Bullets Over Broadway (1994), David's play is success -- solving the main tension -- and he turns to deal with one of the unexpected consequences -- Cheech's obsession with Olive, which results in her murder. In The Apartment (1960), Baxter, having achieved success in the corporate world, abandons that ambition and decides to pursue Kubelic, only to have this thwarted by his boss.


The eighth and final sequence almost invariably contains the resolution of a picture -- the point at last where, for better or for worse, the instability created in the point of attack is settled. Having been given a glimpse of the resolution at the First and Second Culminations and to a lesser extent at the end of each sequence, tension is at last fully and completely resolved. Depending on the picture, the guy winds up with the girl (Tootsie) or is doomed never to get her (Chinatown).

Sequence H also almost invariably contains an epilogue or coda, a brief scene or series of scenes tying up any loose ends, closing off any remaining dangling causes or subplots, and generally giving the audience a chance to catch its breath and come down emotionally from the intensity of their experience.


It's easy to tell when a film begins and ends; it's harder to judge when, exactly, an act begins and ends, particularly the end of the second act. A further subdivision into more than three parts can naturally lead to some disagreement as to where, exactly, one subdivision ends and another begins, even with a precise notion of what defines these subdivisions. In some movies, the sequence structure as defined in this volume is readily apparent; these include films that involve journeys (Lawrence of Arabia and Fellowship of the Ring among those analyzed herin) and those with few if any subplots. Films with subplots (in this volume The Shop Around the Corner and Being John Malkovich) tend to be more open to interpretation, but the patterns remain. I invite the reader to do their own analyses and compare notes.

A further challenge to this type of analysis is in the variance between classical scripts that were written explicitly by sequence (in this volume, these include The Shop Around the Corner and Double Indemnity) and my own analysis. Based on my examination of screenplays written from the 1930s through 1950s, it seems that sequences by this time had a variety of definitions, sometimes corresponding to length, sometimes subject matter, and sometimes location. A comparison between how the sequences were divided in the written screenplays of these two films and my own analysis, is provided in the appropriate chapters. Further, it is important to bear in mind that, with the exception of The Shop Around the Corner, Double Indemnity, and Air Force One, the films analyzed in this volume were not written consciously in sequences. My analyses seek to uncover the seqence structure that exists in these films nonetheless.

In my experience as a writer and teacher, shared with colleagues at Chapman University and the University of Southern California, the sequence approach can be very valuable as a tool for students to develop their screenplays. The charts included in this volume contain exact timings and percentages, which can lend a sense that the technique is more precise than it is. The inclusion of the minute/second timings and percentages is intended as a basis for comparison of patterns across a range of films, and is not intended to give the impression that a writer needs to adhere so precisely to these patterns in the development of his or her screenplays.

With the exception of Toy Story, the films are presented in this volume in chronological order. The films were chosen because they represent a variety of storytelling styles, patterns and subject matter.

Tags: screenwriting

  • Trials and tribune rations

    Let's take a look at Harvey involved Hollywood films that I've seen, enjoyed and frankly would watch again and again. There are many other…

  • Stuff of interest for Saturday 2 Oct.

    Anybody remember my screenwriting prompt focusing on capitalization? Prolly no seeing as nobody participated. Here's Reddit's version The Edge…

  • The hot pink uniform reform idea

    I already managed to established the idea of adolescents giving their school project a personal touch by promoting it with a controversial campaign…

  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened