Perhaps no area of screenwriting is subject to more debate and competing theories as the number of steps in plot structure. While there is more or less general agreement on elements within screenplays, the number of steps screenplay elements take to tell stories has been under dispute for years. Partly, the dispute is caused by branding and the attempts by various screenwriting “gurus” to distinguish their “product” from other screenplay “how to” products by owning a particular number of steps in plot structure. Owning a particular number of steps is an important element of what marketing terms product differentiation, a key element in the creation of product brands.
Today, plot-step theories move from the traditional three-step paradigm to twenty-two steps. The three-step plot structure has ancient roots going back to the beginning of storytelling. In modern times it was popularized by Syd Field in his books and particular his Foundations of Screenwriting. Moving behind the three steps the next major plot structure theory is based around eight steps and knows as the “sequence approach.” The next popular plot step approach is twelve steps centered around mythologist Joseph Campbell’s famous book A Hero With A Thousand Faces and popularized in screenwriting by Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. (Although, interestingly, Campbell actually had seventeen steps in his system). After the twelve-step plot structure approach, the next theory is based around the fifteen-step structure of of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat book. Finally, after the fifteen steps of Snyder, are the twenty-two steps of John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. (There are actually theories with even higher number of steps such as Eric Edson’s twenty-three step Story Solution.)
Within the extremes between the minimal three-step method to the maximum twenty-two-step method, the eight-step sequence approach holds a moderate, middle ground. Unlike the other approaches, it has an interesting background in early films. In the early days of cinema, movies started as one-reeler stories with a maximum playtime of about 15 minutes. When films stories expanded beyond one-reelers, each reel still maintained the same narrative structure because the viewing experience. But the narrative flow was interrupted every time the projectionist had to swap reels. Each sequence/reel was designed to be a mini-story within a larger story to pique viewer interest so that they would anxiously wait in the dark for the reels to change to find out what happened next. Until the 1950s, most screenplays were formatted with sequences explicitly identified. For example, screenwriter Billy Wilder labeled five sequences (from A to E) in his famous screenplay Hollywood Boulevard.
In the modern era, the sequence approach has been rediscovered and used effectively at such film schools as the University of Southern California, Columbia University and Chapman University. Frank Daniel at AFI, Columbia and USC popularized the breakdown of movie and screenplay plot into eight steps or sequences.
Yet even after technology made it possible for theaters to show a full-length film without interruption, the time frame and dramatic dynamics of the sequence persisted. In his book The Sequence Approach, Paul Gulino suggests that there are likely psychological factors at play in the viewing experience. “The notion of a feature film having eight parts (sequences) is, like all else in dramatic theory, tied to human physiology. The division of two hours into sequences of ten to fifteen minutes each also most likely speaks to the limits of human attention. In other words, without the variation in intensity that sequences provide, an audience may find itself fatigued or numbed rather than by what is on screen. In our age of short attention spans, this is a theory that needs more study.
Today, the leading popularizers of the sequence approach are Paul Gulino and Chris Soth. Gulino is a Chapman University screenwriting professor and author of the best-known book on the eight-step plot method called The Sequence Approach. Soth conducts seminars and is author of a number of Kindle eBooks on what he called the “mini-movie method.”
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Now, a new explanation of the sequence method has joined the discussion in the form of an eBook called Master Screenplay Sequences by Script Reader Pro, a collective of authors on the website Script Reader Pro. It is an excellent addition to material on the sequence approach and makes the sequence approach easier to understand in its highly packed 79 pages. Perhaps the main contribution the new book makes is that it applies the approach to various film genres such as action, comedy, drama, thriller and horror using the movies Raiders of the Lost Ark, Bridesmaids, The Virgin Suicides, Collateral and Wolf Creek.
Like Paul Gulino’s book, Master Screenplay Sequences shows how the sequence approach fits into the traditional three-act structure of screenplays of Act I, Act II and Act III. Act I contains the first two sequences while Act II contains the next four sequences and Act III the final two sequences.
The collective authors of the book do not want to toss out the three-act structure but rather clarify other things going on. As they note, the three-act structure is “All well and good, but we think this approach is a little random. Free-floating, even. Maybe there’s something else? Something going on under the broad strokes of three act structure that anchors the plot points and makes it easier to create continuous conflict in the protagonist’s journey?” This something, they argue, are sequences.
The Script Pro collective notes that each sequence can be viewed as a “mini-movie” with a specific goal for the protagonist, and a resolution that takes him or her further or nearer to achieving the overall goal for the screenplay. Each sequence, therefore, has the same three-act structure as the overall screenplay, with the climax to each equally a major turning point in the screenplay.
The authors of Master Screenplay Sequences observe screenwriters are admonished with phrases like “throw obstacles in the way of your protagonist” or “stick them in a hole and then try and get them out of it,” they note that sequences provide a solid structure to this conflict, making it easier to write. In effect, rather than randomly throwing things at your protagonist in free-floating plot points, sequences provide a series of “mini-movies,” each with rising conflict and resolution.
In this sense, each sequence has a beginning, middle and end that can be viewed as individual “acts.” The authors call these “segments” and they work in exactly the same way as regular acts in a screenplay.
- Segment 1: Raises a dramatic question/crisis that the protagonist attempts to solve during the sequence.
- Segment II: A series of strategies are followed, ending with a final chosen ploy and/or event, either an “up” or a “down” moment.
- Segment III: This new strategy is followed and the sequence goal is either achieved or fails.
The authors point out that It is important to grasp how closely these segments enable sequences to match the structure of the overall screenplay by using these same six major beats within a screenplay:
- Inciting Incident
- Call to Action
- Big Event Decision
- All is Lost / Joy
While each of the eight sequences of a film are similar by having the three segments and containing key beats of the story, the sequences are different in that each one performs a different function based on their order in the screenplay. The Script Pro writers define the key purposes of the sequences as 1) Call to Action 2) Big Event Decision 3) Decision Success or Failure D) Midpoint E) Midpoint Success or Failure F) All is Lost/All is Joy G) Climax Or All is Lost/All is Joy and H) Denouement or Climax. Placed into traditional three-act structure, these sequences appear like below.
Sequence 1: Call to Action
Sequence 2: Big Event Decision
Sequence 3: Decision Success / Failure
Sequence 4: Midpoint
Sequence 5: Midpoint Success / Failure
Sequence 6: All is Lost / All is Joy
Sequence 7: Climax OR All is Lost / All is Joy Success / Failure
Sequence 8: Denouement OR Climax
Adding the Segments and the plot points to a sequence creates the following structure. For example, viewing the structure of Sequence A above with the three segments and six plot points, it would look like the below.
Sequence A: Call to Action
Call to Action
Big Event Decision
All is Lost
The above segment structure should be applied to each of the eight sequences in the screenplay. As the authors note, just as in the overall film, the protagonist’s fortunes in a particular sequence go from a positive to a negative or vice-versa. It is this back-and-forth motion of each sequence ending alternately on a positive or a negative that gives a screenplay its feel of a roller-coaster ride.
For instance, the Script Pro writers observe the roller-coaster ride might be carried out by Sequence E ending on a high point followed by Sequence F ending on a low point at the end of Act Two. This sets up the grand finale of Sequence G, a high point and the climax to the script. Similarly, the protagonist’s fortunes change within the sequence itself, from a positive to a negative, or vice-versa, also helping to create a sense of motion and change. So, if the sequence begins on a high point — Indiana Jones enters the Well of Souls having found the location of the ark; chances are it’ll end on a low point — the Nazis steal the ark and lock him in the Well of Souls with Marion.
In the section of the book called “Anatomy of a Sequence,” the authors provide more detail about what is transpiring in each sequence. The purpose of each of the major sequences closely matches that listed by Paul Galino and Chris Soth.
- First, a hook to excite the viewer’s curiosity. Then, the exposition answering who, what, when, and where. Show a glimpse of the life of the protagonist before the story gets under way. This first sequence ends with the inciting incident.
- Protagonist tries to reestablish the status quo disrupted by the inciting incident, fails, and is faced with a worse predicament. Gulino says that this sequence poses “the dramatic question that will shape the rest of the picture.” This is the end of the first act.
- The protagonist attempts to solve the problem presented at the end of the first act.
- The solution from the last sequence is seen to fail, and the protagonist tries one or more desperate measures to restore the status quo. The end of this sequence is the midpoint/first culmination/crisis, which brings a major revelation or reversal. The audience should be tempted to guess the outcome of the story.
- The protagonist deals with the ramifications of the first culmination. Sometimes new characters are introduced, or new opportunities discovered in the fifth segment. This segment may also deal heavily with subplots.
- Last sequence of the second act, and the second culmination. The protagonist has exhausted all the easy courses of action, and directly addresses the central dramatic question. The audience should be tempted to guess the outcome of the story, although the obvious answer may often be a mirror opposite of how the film actually ends.
- The apparent solution of the central dramatic question in sequence F shows its problems here. The stakes are raised. The effect of a long dangling cause may occur. The story is seen in a new light, and the protagonist might need to reverse his goals.
- The tension created by the inciting incident is truly resolved. Consider this resolution in light of the hints from the first and second culminations. Any remaining subplots are resolved. There may be a brief epilogue. The last sequence may in some way (visually?) recall the first sequence.
In a basic manner, the sequence approach highlights the back and forth struggles of the hero throughout the story perhaps better than other plot methods. One gets the feeling that one is on a linear path through the story by the other methods but the sequence approach highlights that the hero fights a number of battles through the story, winning some and losing others. Always starting with a new goal at the beginning of each sequence. At the same time, those using the sequence approach need to realize that there is a progression towards a final goal through the screenplay and that it is more than just a number of winning and losing battles.
Approaching screenplays from sequences offers one of the most enlightening ways to grasp screenplay structure and write screenplays. However, it has remained largely misunderstood or not understood at all even after its resurrection at USC with the work of Frank Daniels. The short new book Master Screenplay Sequences should help screenwriters understand this important part of screenwriting. It is not meant to be the definitive book on the subject, only a short but very useable method for applying the method to screenplays. Those interested in making this plot structure method their main way of plotting screenplays are well-advised to check out Paul Gulino’s larger, academic book, The Sequence Approach. Or, look at some of Chris Soth’s eBooks or seminars on the subject.
To purchase Master Screenplay Sequences go to http://www.scriptreaderpro.com/screenwriting-books. It comes as a PDF which you can download to your desktop or laptop. For chart of the various sequence approaches discussed see Screenplay Structure Sequence – Updated.
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Finding the number of steps or sequences in a screenplay seems to be somewhat a search for a screenwriting Holy Grail. Much of the creation of various steps in screenplays has been, as we observe, the creation of gurus, authors and teachers who want to differentiate their product “brand” from others and the steps in structure offer the best way to do this.
In order to begin to understand the number and nature of the steps in a story, there is still much work to do and much research into areas outside of the craft and art of screenwriting.
In this sense, much of the area of sequence is associated with the symbolism of cycles and finds symbolic correspondence to a number of other areas such as mythology, religion, drama, astrology, alchemy, media and psychology. For example, psychological sequence has been explored in important books like Jung’s great disciple Eric Neumann’s Origin & History of Consciousness, Sigmund Freud’s sexual stages, Erick Erickson in The Life Cycle Completed, Jung’s Symbols of Transformation and Stanislov Grof’s Beyond the Brain.
Religions sequence has been explored in a number of books but particular in Edward Edinger’s The New God Image and The Christian Archetype. Drama sequence explored in Gilbert Murray’s Ritual Forms Preserved in Greek Tragedy. Astrological sequences in Jung’s Aion and Planetary Sequence, alchemical sequence in Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis and media sequence in Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media.
For more information on sequences outside screenplay sequence see a PDF of the author’s work in progress titled Sequence (PDF).
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John Fraim grew up in Los Angeles, California. His parents were friends of many people in the film business. He is a graduate of UCLA and Loyola Law School and currently President of Desert Screenwriters Group and GreatHouse Stories.
His sites are http://www.desertscreenwritersgroup.com and http://www.greathousestories.com. He is a screenwriter and has written a regular column for Script Magazine. He is author of the book Spirit Catcher on John Coltrane and Battle of Symbols about the global dynamics of symbols. He has also had numerous articles and essays published online and in print. He is considered a leading authority of symbolism and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.