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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Structure and Sequence Writing

This from the RW mailbag:

Understanding that the first act breaks into two around page 25, how does one still write in 10 page sequences? Does the first act break into 2 halfway through the third sequence? While also understanding that these aren't hard and fast rules, I am confused how sequences 'overlay' or 'interwork' with the 3 act narrative.

You'll see from the question that I'm a total newbie, but I'm also totally confused.
-David in Dunkirk

Nothing wrong with being a newbie and nothing wrong with asking great questions, David.

The sequence method is something that I tout a lot because I love it and it really, really works for me. So here is an overview of that methodology:

The 12 Sequence Outline:

Imagine that each sequence in your script describes approximately 10 pages of material (ten minutes of screen time) and that your script is about 100 to 115 pages long (work with me people; I am quite loathe to set down rigid numbers on topics like these as there are always variants by story and by writer. So these numbers are flexible and approximate):

ACT ONE: 25 to 30 pages-ISH
Sequence One: 1-10 - the inciting incident
Sequence Two: 10-20
Sequence Three: 20-30 – first plot point, act break or pinch*

*so in other words, somewhere between pages 25 and 30 is your first act break. But in the macro, your first act break falls within the 3rd sequence.

ACT TWO: 50 pages-ISH
Sequence Four: 30-40
Sequence Five: 40-50
Sequence Six: 50-60 – the midpoint somewhere around page 50-ish
Sequence Seven: pages 60 to 70
Sequence Eight: pages 70 to 75
Sequence Nine: pages 75 to 80 – the second plot point, act break or pinch*

ACT THREE: 15 to 20 pages- ISH
Sequence Ten: pages 80 to 85
Sequence Eleven: pages 85 -90 – climax/battle scene
Sequence Twelve: pages 90 -95 - the resolution and aftermath

And - look at that - this sequential narrative template doesn't EVEN go to page 100. That's okay. We're not going to worry about math as much as we are about ratios. Further, you’ll notice that not all sequences have ten pages; here is a good place to note that while generally each sequence will have about ten pages, the further you go along in your script, the more compressed each sequence becomes. Because remember, in a script, events escalate furiously as we near the end. Because tension is rising and things have snowballed into bigger and bigger stakes and entertainment. Also we know that third acts are not as lengthy as the first or second act in your script; the material is not evenly divided by dint of the job that the third act has to do.

The sequence method is a guideline. What is crucial is that you think of each sequence as a unit. I like to use the image of the Jacob's Ladder - you know, that wooden toy for kids? Each unit has a beginning, a middle and and end - which forces the next sequence to click forward. Set up, complication, resolution. Complication, resolution, reversal. So each sequence contains conflict which clicks the whole story forward into the next sequence. Now, that said, some sequences bear more dramatic weight than others, due to where they fall in the structure template. Ergo the bold-faced bits above.

Now personally, I don't like to put any more labels or constraints on my sequences than knowing approximately where the big structural beats should fall. Over time, this becomes second nature anyway. I know that the Save the Cat beat sheet has specific Save the Cat moments which get slotted in. I've seen other labels and templates put over the sequential narrative as well, the Heroes Journey and whatnot. I prefer to use a more free form method because I personally get hung up when I look at sequence, I don't know, five and it says: the hero unties his shoelaces here and finds the elixir in the cave and saves a cat. That doesn't exactly apply to my story and I don't like using anyone else's terminology with which to frame MY story. I might have a metaphoric cat-saving in my first sequence - make your main character likeable - I get it, thank you very much. But beyond that, since each story is so utterly unique, framing and reframing and labeling and relabeling basic story beats to me just adds confusion. Of course your story will contain an archetypal template but that's in your bone marrow - you don't need to be told that. I have a problem, in general, with over intellectualizing screenwriting. Many writers (including myself in the early years) can become enslaved by that.

I hope this answers your question, David. I know meander and use mixed metaphors but my main goal is to SIMPLIFY screenwriting, not make it more confusing. I hope I have not just made it more confusing. Many a writer spends part of their evolution getting really locked down into PAGE NUMBERS and other academic constraints. But if you keep writing and keep at this, eventually all of this becomes second nature and you begin to jump off of it and use what works for you.

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1 comment:

Luzid said...

Interesting. I use Gulino's 8-sequence approach (Pilar Alessandra works with eight sequences as well) blended with Blake's beat sheet. I outline each sequence with its own four acts (1/2A/2B/3), and each sequence is about 12.5 pages (to make math eaiser regarding the 100-page goal I shoot for in every script).

Once I discovered the sequence approach and used it on a rewrite, the formerly-156 page monster came in at 99 pages -- and it placed in the first contest I've ever entered. So it works!

I guess the lesson is, have a firm structure -- but not one rock-solid to the point of slavish adherence -- and the story has a chance to come into its own. I especially like the sculpture analogy in that regard.