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Idea to Outline Step #4

Springboards + Sequences

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by Naomi in pre-writing, screenwriting
screenplay outline blog sequences

A lot of writers feel overwhelmed trying to go from the big-picture story shape to the more granular outline. And that makes sense, right? It can feel like a big distance to cover in one step. Sometimes it’s easier to aim for something not quite so far out, to break the distance into more manageable parts. So today we’re going to talk about a helpful intermediary step.

Springboards + Sequences

Not every movie fits into this pattern, but when we’re working out the flow of our stories it’s a good starting point. Begin here, but hold it loosely.

So, the basic template is eight sequences, or two sequences per quarter of the screenplay. Each sequence ends in a springboard – an event or turning point — which launches the next sequence. (Except the final sequence, which ends the movie.)

In list form it would look like this:

  • ACT 1
    • Sequence 1
      • Springboard 1 / Inciting Incident
    • Sequence 2
      •  Springboard 2 / Break into 2
  • ACT 2A
    • Sequence 3
      • Springboard 3
    • Sequence 4
      • Springboard 4 / Midpoint
  • ACT 2B
    • Sequence 5
      • Springboard 5
    • Sequence 6
      • Springboard 6 / Break into 3
  • ACT 3
    • Sequence 7
      • Springboard 7
    • Sequence 8

You can see that some of these springboards are plot points you’ve already figured out in earlier development steps. You can fill in those blanks quite easily.

The sequences are the bridges that take us from one springboard to the next.

Case study: Game Night

By way of example, let’s say we’re developing the story that will become the Game Night screenplay. Our sequences and springboards might look like this:

  • ACT 1
    • Sequence 1: Game Night hosts Max and Annie want to have a baby but the stress of Max’s rivalry with his brother Brooks is destroying Max’s sperm.
      • Springboard 1 / Inciting Incident: Brooks arrives, driving Max’s dream car.
    • Sequence 2: There’s genuine brotherly love there, but Brooks undermines Max in every way.
      • Springboard 2 / Break into 2: Max knows he must finally beat Brooks at game night.
  • ACT 2A
    • Sequence 3: The Game Night crew convenes at Brooks’s fancy rented home. Brooks announces he’s arranged an epic new game: a staged kidnapping that they’ll have to solve. As that gets underway…
      • Springboard 3: Actual kidnappers arrive, brawl with Brooks, and kidnap him.
    • Sequence 4: Max, Annie, and friends break into couples and begin to play, pursuing different leads and trying to solve the “case”, which they still think is all a game.
      • Springboard 4 / Midpoint: The crew learns the kidnapping was real. Max, Annie, and Brooks narrowly escape the kidnappers.
  • ACT 2B
    • Sequence 5: Brooks explains what he’s mixed up in, sacrifices himself to the kidnappers and the crew comes up with a new plan to save him.
      • Springboard 5: The crew convinces neighbor Gary, a cop, to have an impromptu game night.
    •  Sequence 6: They get info from Gary’s police computer, infiltrate the house, and steal the needed Faberge egg.
      • Springboard 6 / Break into 3: The crew arrives to the rendezvous just under the wire, but the kidnappers plan to kill them all.
  • ACT 3
    • Sequence 7: Gary arrives to help and a shootout ensues. A twist: he reveals he staged the second kidnapping as part of a game. A double twist: actual bad guys arrive – the ones Brooks was really mixed up with.
      • Springboard 7: The real bad guys take Brooks with plans to kill him.
    • Sequence 8: Max and Annie race to the airfield to save Brooks before the bad guys can escape. Months later, everyone’s together again for Game Night and Annie is pregnant.

At this step, we’re looking for a simple description of the action that occurs in the 10-15 pages of each sequence. What the character is trying to do, or the mini-goal they’re trying to achieve, is a good prompt if you’re feeling lost.

You might look at this sequence list and think – that’s not the whole story. There are important characters and plants and payoffs that aren’t even mentioned. And you’re right – but that’s why this is an intermediary step. We’re not all the way there yet. With each step we’re growing the story a little more.

What happens in the first sequence

How do you start the movie if there’s no springboard at the beginning?

Remember, last session we talked about your character’s inner drive. That’s an essential piece of your main character, and you can use it as a guide to find what your character is doing in this early part of the script (before the plot really kicks in).

In Game Night there’s a lot of character and relationship stuff that needs to be established early on. But specifically, a big component is setting up Max’s feelings of inadequacy and need to measure up to his brother (his inner drive).

Taking character and relationships one step further

Once you have the sequence skeleton, you can return to your character arc and relationship arc brainstorms and find more details to flesh out the story.

With the relationships you’ve identified, can you brainstorm a list of steps that will demonstrate how they’ll play out? Can you plot those into the sequences? (No need to cement them in, just see if you can guess where these points will fall).

In Game Night, there are a lot of relationships (and characters) to track so I’ll focus on the one between Max and Annie for our example here. They’re dealing with the issue of whether they’ll have kids. So I might first come up with a list of beats in this arc:

  • Max and Annie are having trouble getting pregnant.
  • Max’s feelings of inferiority are killing their chances. He needs to beat Brooks to solve this problem.
  • Annie gets first hint Max is worried about losing freedom to do what they want if they have a kid.
  • Annie realizes the stress wasn’t from Brooks, it was from the idea of having a baby.
  • Max learns Brooks has been lying because he felt like he couldn’t measure up to Max.
  • Max tells Annie he wants to have a baby. No longer wants to be like Brooks.
  • Annie reveals she’s pregnant.

So then you might take your list of sequences and see where those beats fit in (some are already there, that’s okay). In this step, I’ll also make notes to myself of things to establish. That way when I’m teasing this out into a full outline I can draw scenes from those notes. This is what my work in progress might look like (with what I’ve just added in bold):

  • ACT 1
    • Sequence 1: Game Night hosts Max and Annie want to have a baby but the stress of Max’s rivalry with his brother Brooks is destroying Max’s sperm.
      • Max and Annie are having trouble getting pregnant.
      • Springboard 1 / Inciting Incident: Brooks arrives, driving Max’s dream car.
    • Sequence 2: There’s genuine brotherly love there, but Brooks undermines Max in every way.
      • Springboard 2 / Break into 2: Max knows he must finally beat Brooks at game night.
      • Max’s feelings of inferiority are killing their chances. He needs to beat Brooks. (Make sure to show Max feeling inferior to Brooks in set up.)
  • ACT 2A
    • Sequence 3: The Game Night crew convenes at Brooks’s fancy rented home. Brooks announces he’s arranged an epic new game: a staged kidnapping that they’ll have to solve. As that gets underway…
      • Springboard 3: Actual kidnappers arrive, brawl with Brooks, and kidnap him.
    • Sequence 4: Max, Annie, and friends break into couples and begin to play, pursuing different leads and trying to solve the “case”, which they still think is all a game.
      • Annie gets first hint from Max he’s worried about losing their freedom if they have a kid.
      • Springboard 4 / Midpoint: The crew learns the kidnapping was real. Max, Annie, and Brooks narrowly escape the kidnappers.
  • ACT 2B
    • Sequence 5: Brooks explains what he’s mixed up in, sacrifices himself to the kidnappers and the crew comes up with a new plan to save him.
      • Springboard 5: The crew convinces neighbor Gary, a cop, to have an impromptu game night.
    • Sequence 6: They get info from Gary’s police computer, infiltrate the house, and steal the Faberge egg.
      • Annie realizes Max’s stress wasn’t from Brooks, it was from having a baby.
      • Springboard 6 / Break into 3: The crew arrives to the rendezvous just under the wire, but the kidnappers plan to kill them all.
  • ACT 3
    • Sequence 7: Neighbor Gary arrives to help and a shootout ensues. A twist: he reveals he staged the second kidnapping as part of a game. A double twist: actual bad guys arrive – the ones Brooks was really mixed up with.
      • Max learns Brooks has been lying because he felt like he couldn’t measure up to Max. They both thought the grass was greener.
      • Springboard 7: The real bad guys take Brooks with plans to kill him.
    • Sequence 8: Max and Annie race to the airfield to save Brooks before the bad guys can escape. Months later, everyone’s together again for Game Night and Annie is pregnant.
      • Max tells Annie he wants to have a baby. No longer wants to be like Brooks.
      • Annie reveals she’s pregnant.

When you feel good about how that relationship arc is playing out, you can move onto the next one. And you can do this for each story thread.

Again, at this point this is all rough and subject to change. That’s okay — it’s not a linear process. Right now we’re simply trying to organize the things we want or need to happen. Adding details to fill in the characters, relationships, and plot, and growing the story step by step. Soon we’ll be ready to tighten and whip this outline into shape.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe