How to Write a Screenplay: Structuring with Sequences

How to Write a Screenplay

How to Write a Screenplay is our new blog series about the fundamentals of screenwriting

Screenplay frameworks exist to guide and support your existing story. The concept and rough story must come before the application of a framework. Remember, story first! Frameworks exist to help and support a story, and you’re always encouraged to break rules if it strengthens your script.

The Sequence Method originated from the era when multiple film reels made up a single movie. In order to keep the audience from getting up and leaving while the next reel was set up, filmmakers and screenwriters wrote in cliffhangers at the end of each reel. It exists as an alternative (or supplement!) to the basic three act structure.

Today, you can break up nearly any film into sequences, and I find the method to be especially helpful for navigating the vast desert that is act two.

How it Works

Films are divided into eight sequences. This method works best if there is a minigoal ending in a cliffhanger in each sequence. You can also look at each sequence like a “chapter” comprising of a collection of scenes and punctuated with a reversal at the end.

Here they are:

  1. Status Quo/Inciting Incident. Establish ordinary world and the hero’s problem or unease with the ordinary world. Ends with the inciting incident that threatens to change everything.
  2. Locked In. The hero may refuse the call to action, but by the end of the sequence they are locked in to the adventure and have passed the point of no return. In this sequence, they try and solve the problem the easy way, but fail.
  3. Raising the Stakes. Now that the character is locked in, they face their first challenge in the new world. The stakes have been raised now that they are locked in. The exploration of the new world occurs here, and the new minor characters of the new world are introduced here as well. This sequence is about exploration and playing out the concept. This is the first time the hero tries in earnest to solve the problem. 
  4. Midpoint. Unlike Save the Cat, this framework considers the midpoint a collection of scenes (including preparation and aftermath), and is a huge event that is either a false defeat or false victory.
  5. Rising Action. The stakes are raised as the villains close in on our hero. The character finally begins to grow in this sequence, play out subplots and have the minor characters arc. At the end of this sequence, there’s a new way to solve the problem.
  6. All is Lost. This sequence reframes the entire movie with a twist that changes everything. Hope is crushed, the bad guys move in, and the hero faces their greatest fear.
  7. New Tension and Twist.The inciting incident is resolved, the hero defeats the enemy, gets the girl, and sometimes an additional twist can be placed here.
  8. Resolution. This is the closing image, where the character resolves the final conflict. This is usually 1-2 scenes long and can be shortened.

Strengths of the Sequence Method

  • Breaks your screenplay into manageable chunks
  • Works well in conjunction with the three-act structure and the beat structure (although it’s recommended that you only apply one framework at a time)
  • Helps fight against meandering, pointless plots
  • Breaking up short films into sequences can provided needed structure (example: four sequences for a twenty minute short film works quite well)

 

The sequence method is one of my favorites, and we’ve designed the Page 85 software to help you outline fluidly in sequence mode as well as the traditional beat structure.

Good luck, writers!

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