Sequence not Sequins


I’ve mentioned the paradigms of deconstructing your screenplay into bite-sized sequences as expounded upon by Paul Gulino and Chris Soth. I recently stumbled upon succinct explanations and examples of this information, divided into eight tasty pizza slices, complete with film examples. It’s screenwriters gold.

A feature film script has been broken down to eight components which naturally I had to share with you. Most of it’s a rehash, but you can never be exposed to this too many times.

Sequence 1: Homeostasis – The Ordinary World

The first act of the film is always extremely important. You have to grab the audience’s attention, and thrust them into this new world of your story as quickly as possible, immersing them into the adventure that they will be experiencing over the next one-and-a-half to two hours (or sometimes more, if trends continue). You also need to help the audience isolate the main conflict that will dominate the tension in the film, so that by the end of the first act, all of the main players (especially the main character) will have been introduced, the main problem is identified, and the second act can start the audience on their way to figuring out how things are going to be resolved.

The first sequence involves the audience being thrown right into the story without any prior knowledge. There should not be any explanation required, and we shouldn’t need any real narration. The story should just plain start.

We need to give the audience a taste of what to expect from the rest of the film, the kind of tone or “flavor” that they should be ready for. We need to show at least the main character, and possibly the main villain (if applicable), and identify some of the traits of each of these characters. We need to establish the setting of the film, the time, setting, place, environment, and cultural situation. Each of these parts are essential to a successful first sequence, and a quality story will address them.

A key problem with many scripts is that they start too early and the reader cannot readily identify the main character and the source of conflict. A bunch of inconsequential things just happen.

Sequence 2: Excuse Me, But I Have a Concern

Just at the end of the first sequence, we are introduced to the first point of attack, where the main characters are faced with a problem that they didn’t really have before. No matter how hectic their daily lives might have been up to that point, this new problem was not part of their plan. They are initially unwilling to leave their homeostatic world. Instead, it’s something unique, a problem that they hadn’t anticipated, but which presents an extremely large thorn in their side, or possibly a huge possible reward or goal for our hero to obtain.

Sequence 3: Well, Let’s Give It a Try

Now that we’ve got all of the main story groundwork laid out, we’re ready for the protagonist to take a first shot at achieving his goal.  However, this sequence is often called the “naive attempt”, simply because it consists of a somewhat half-hearted attempt at achieving the goal that the characters already know that they need to achieve.

This first attempt is something of a knee-jerk reaction to getting what the character thinks he wants.  Usually, it’s not fully thought-through, and often, the audience will know instinctively that this is probably not the best course of action.

The key to the “failure” of this first attempt, is that it can’t be too great. It’s more of a setback. The protagonist is not exactly putting his whole soul into this effort, but is just being naive, believing that something this simple could be the solution to his problems.  The third sequence is often one of fun, where we can feel alright laughing at the foolishness of the protagonist, and don’t have to take things too seriously.  But, of course, that always depends on the story that’s being told.

The most important thing to remember in the third sequence is that it is designed to be a vehicle to get the protagonist actually working on the problem in earnest.  Since he finally knows what he “wants” (as opposed to what he needs), he’s going to try and get it, and he’s got to try and fail at first, or the goal wasn’t all that difficult to obtain to begin with.

Sequence 4: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

But at the beginning of the fourth sequence, he knows what he should be doing.  The antagonist has become clear, and by the end of the sequence, he knows where he should be heading.  This sequence is all about making a more determined, thoughtful, educated, sophisticated, and all around difficult attempt, where he’s willing to put himself on the line.  He’s not just playing around anymore, and it will show in his demeanor.

However, despite how heart-felt this attempt may be, and despite the sheer determination in our hero’s actions, this attempt is going to end in failure, and the failure is going to be grand.  The end of this sequence will bring the protagonist to the lowest point of the story – which is to say, he is going to have a deep sense of hopelessness, of despair, and he may even question whether he should go on.

Just remember that this sequence must end with the character hitting his lowest point. He has to suffer an irreversible and powerful failure, loss, struggle, or whatever you want to call it.  This will also act as a catalyst for the next sequence.  We see that this is where the story has taken a more “serious” turn, where things aren’t necessarily just fun and games anymore.  Even in a comedy, you’ll get a sense that the film is more sombre, and while you may still be laughing, you can feel “weightier” subject matter in the dialog and pacing to give the film a sense of substance.

Sequence 5: The Calm Before the Storm

After pushing the protagonist to his or her limits at the end of the fourth sequence, there needs to be a moment of calm where our hero can rebuild his strength. Often times, this is the part in the story where the hero is at his lowest. He’s lost something tantamount. He feels like he can’t go on, but knows that he must. Very often, there is someone at his side who is there to remind him not only of his duty, but also of what he must do.

This scene is essential, because it allows us to empathize with the characters in a way that helps us to feel like we truly know them.  We’ve seen them through several highs and lows, but now we’re seeing them handling their greatest failure.  Do they force through it reluctantly? Or are they unflinching?  If you want to deepen the audience understanding of the character, you must show what happens when they are at their lowest.

This sequence is often short, but unbelievably powerful, and memorable if written correctly; straight for the jugular.

The fifth sequence is about the protagonist gathering his forces.  It’s a point in the film that is often called the “False Ending”.  It looks like the antagonist has won, and that all hope is lost.  If the hero were to give up right now, the story would be complete, and the ending would be such that the villain had won. Now, of course, that would leave some questions unanswered, but the audience at this point should get a sense of calm, and the action should take a lull.

But, of course, it’s not going to stay that way for long.

Sequence 6: The Final Test

Of all the different sequences, this one is probably the easiest to explain, as well as the easiest to identify during a story. This is the epic battle, the last great struggle, and the final showdown where there’s no holding back, no escape, and no giving up. Only one person is getting out of this event on top, and we hope against hope that it’s going to be the protagonist.

Now, while there often isn’t a direct cut between the fifth and sixth sequences, the Climax of the film is almost always recognizable, and often is the part that the audience remembers best. It’s the big bang, the last hurrah, the super struggle that forces the protagonist to face down and defeat (or lose to) the antagonist.  It can be serious, it can be horrifying, or it can be hilarious, but it’s the huge, epic, high point of the film where everything depends on the outcome of this fight for both the protagonist and the antagonist.

And often, it’s not even about a fight to the death. Sometimes it’s about the fight for the truth, or to overcome an internal struggle. Sometimes it has nothing to with defeating something, but instead the hero’s goal is simply to survive.  While there are many different examples of very traditional climaxes, (ie Hero vs Villain), it would be beneficial to recognize the less-understood climaxes, or those without an easily discernible beginning and end to the actual “sixth sequence.”

Some films are less traditional as far as having a personified antagonist, especially in films like romantic comedies, or even many comedies in general in which the antagonist is the protagonist’s inner demons. Quite often, these stories revolve around a single protagonist or two, both of whom often act as antagonists for one another throughout the story as their relationships change. Because of these shifting in relationships, often the sixth sequence, or the climax, involves the two of them finally being honest with each other, and finally making a clear choice about the relationship.

Now, the climax does NOT include the final resolution, or even the consequences of the final showdown. Instead, it leads up to and ends at the choice. When the choice is made, the momentum shifts down, over the hill. The climax is the road up, and the peak, but the next sequence begins as that decision is made.

Sequence 7: You Live With the Consequences

If you were to imagine story structure as a mountain, and the protagonist as the climber who must conquer it, then the seventh sequence would be that part of the journey just after cresting the peak. The final climax has been brought to its end, and we often see a few moments of calm. The protagonist has conquered the antagonist, and the final choice has been made. The internal struggle, and the external one have, for the most part, been resolved. Now, we see what that choice has brought about.

Often times, the seventh and eighth sequences are some of the shortest, encompassing very little of a film’s viewing time, but pack a mighty thematic punch. The purpose of the seventh sequence is simply to show what the consequences of that final action were, and then to tie up whatever loose ends may still be floating about. The sense of urgency that is present in the sixth sequence is virtually gone, replaced instead with an often distinct lack of tension. This is why the seventh sequence can often be encapsulated in a montage, or even a brief conversation.

The only exception comes during a “twist” ending, which is created when the writer reveals that, in the mist at the top of the mountain, there is, in fact, one more hill yet to climb. A twist ending’s structure is accomplished in a fashion similar to the fifth and sixth sequences, often mirroring the original storyline’s conflict, but in a different way.

The key to creating a successful twist is that this final part of the story must be necessary. It must be crucial to the story, to the point that, if it was missing, the audience would feel like there is definitely something else that should be there.

All the loose ends are tied up, and while there is still some things to ponder, the story itself is now complete. The seventh sequence is a tricky one to “nail down” in a story, simply because it, along with the eighth, are usually short, and sometimes even barely present in a film. However, they are present, and that makes them important to recognize.

Sequence 8: Riding Off Into the Sunset

So, the story has reached its end. Every little thing that should happen, has happened, and hopefully we’ve resolved all, or at least most, of the questions surrounding the particular tale that we’re telling. No, we don’t have to know every little detail about every single person that we’ve mentioned in the story, but the story should feel complete and satisfying at this point.

So what’s the point of the eighth sequence, then?

The eighth sequence shows the protagonist(s) in a restful state, again in homeostasis (albeit a new one), with no immediate, pressing concerns. The hero has survived the adventure, and so he has a chance to rest. Usually it’s a time of peace, of contemplation, of catharsis, and often a little humor.

This is usually the shortest sequence in any film. It shows the audience what the new “normal” is for the protagonist, but ends before a new journey starts. Often, though, there is the promise of more, but the audience is meant to feel that all is right again in the world.

As you can see, there are a number of different ways to accomplish the eighth sequence, and every film has its own quirks, all depending on the story involved. What is important to note, however, is that the eighth sequence doesn’t have to be long. It doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it’s very simple, and often involves just a few moments for the audience to be “at peace” with the story that they’ve just been told.

It’s the last scene that people are going to see, so so your best to make it memorable.

The beauty of dissecting the sequences in your story is that it aids in non-linear story structure. However, it is wise to bookend the first and last sequences to orientate your audience by giving them a beginning and ending anchor. It’s usually the second to sixth sequences that can be scrambled.

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Mark says:

    Very helpful way of getting a birds-eye view of the “big picture”.

    Insightful blog as usual…

  2. Scott says:

    Thanks. This is great.

    1. JG Sarantinos says:

      always happy to help the writing cause.

  3. JG Sarantinos says:

    I’m so sorry about this. I always to it to others and you’ve somehow slipped through the net. Can you give me link to your site and I’ll include it?

  4. JG Sarantinos says:

    If you click on the word explanations, there was a link to your site. It appears to be a changed link to your front page.

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