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What Happens in a Screenplay Sequence?

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You’ve probably heard of the sequence structure method, or the idea that movies can be broken down into a series of sequences that make up the story as a whole. The common template is eight sequences, two sequences per quarter of the screenplay.

Not every movie fits this pattern, of course, but when we’re in the process of breaking and creating a story, sequences can be a useful tool.

Why use sequences in your screenplay?

Thinking in eight sequences gives you a little more guidance in shaping and structuring your story. It can be a good intermediary step on your way to a complete outline and writing your screenplay draft. (In fact, it’s one of the steps we use in the Idea to Outline workshop.) Sequences can help ensure there’s a nice progression in your plot, and create a sense of momentum.

It’s pretty easy to see how sequences work in the big picture. They break the larger whole into a series of eight smaller steps. (See an example of sequences in the movie Game Night here.)

But what happens within each of those smaller pieces? How do you construct a sequence? That’s what we’re talking about today.

What goes in a sequence?

A sequence tells its own story, so it should have all the elements you know any story needs.

There’s a beginning, middle, and end, aka the setup, escalation, resolution. There’s a line of action created by someone pursuing something. There’s opposition and obstacles.

And ideally you want your audience to get and stay invested so they don’t check out partway through. You want your audience to care. That means you have to let them know what they’re rooting for and give them enough information so they want to root for it.

Unlike a complete story (like a whole screenplay), a sequence benefits from the context created by other sequences that have come before. You’re building on what you’ve already established rather than starting from scratch. So in each new sequence you don’t have to re-establish what’s at stake. But you may need to remind the audience of the overall story stakes so it stays top of mind and maintains a certain degree of urgency.

So that’s what a sequence does – it tells its own story. Great theory. What does this look like in practice? Let’s separate one sequence out from the others to see how it’s built.

A sequence structure example

This is sequence #5 from the movie A Quiet Place. It comes right after Mom goes into labor at the midpoint.

In this sequence, Mom tries to alert the rest of the family to the situation and give birth without making any noise, which would likely mean getting killed by a creature.

Here it is, scene by scene:

  • Mom goes to basement. Steps on that darn nail and makes a noise. She manages to flip the switch to alert others of emergency.
  • We see there’s now a creature in the house (drawn by the noise). Mom tries to stay quiet as she endures contractions. She sets a timer.
  • Reaching the property, Dad and son see red lights. They put into motion their emergency plan – dad sends scared son to the “rockets”.
  • Mom tries to stay quiet with creature nearby, stalking her. The timer goes off, distracting the creature. She gets away.
  • Mom makes it to the bathtub in labor. The creature’s still in the house, hunting her.
  • Son sets off fireworks.
  • Daughter sees the fireworks and heads back. Dad gets his rifle.
  • Dad creeps through the house, seeing the destruction. He fears the worst but Mom and new baby are okay.

How does this sequence accomplish telling its story?

First, when we come into the sequence we already know (from the Midpoint) that Mom is in labor. And we know from everything that’s come before that the killer creatures in this world hunt by sound. We also know that the family already lost one child to the creatures and is still grieving that loss. That’s some of the context that we enter this sequence with, thanks to prior sequences.

Within this sequence, the story that’s set up is one about Mom trying to give birth safely, and the family doing their best to survive intact, and they’re up against those deadly creatures. That’s “who wants what,” the stakes, and the opposition.

We’re rooting for them to succeed because we know how much this family means to each member of it. Both in terms of survival, as well as their genuine love for each other and what they’ve already been through together.

The conflict and tension escalate as the young son has to go off on his own, and as Mom’s labor intensifies and the creature closes in. The sequence’s story resolves as we see Son successfully let off the fireworks (providing cover for Mom and Dad), Daughter sees them and is alerted to the emergency so she heads back (the family begins to reassemble), and Dad finally makes it inside to find Mom and baby safe. A new situation is created and we’re teed up for the next sequence.

How to work with screenplay sequences

When you’re working with sequences, start by breaking your bigger story (the screenplay) into smaller steps. When you know the story each sequence needs to tell, you can then plan how to tell that story – using the same principles of character, goal, opposition, stakes, and setup / escalation / resolution.

If you’re curious about incorporating sequences into your outlining process, join us in the Idea to Outline workshop — starting soon!

ADVANCE YOUR STORY

Write that screenplay - and make it great! Sign up to get a weekly dose of screenwriting info sent straight to your inbox, starting with my 15-page logline guide.

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