Thinking of shaking up your screenwriting and tackling a non-linear screenplay?Well, if you are, there’s an important screenwriting lesson to be learned from the screenplay to the film (500) Days of Summer…
Non-linear screenplays are easier to write than they look while watching them on screen.
(500) Days of Summer was written by newbies Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter while living on opposite sides of the United States.
The initial writing process was equally quirky — writing down every bad relationship experience that had ever happened to them. (They claim that 99% of the script actually happened in one form or another.)
This haphazard approach to the script’s conception fuels its execution — a seemingly haphazard non-linear take on a young couple’s doomed romance.
Writing a script can be hard enough without playing around with time-frames and trying to still make it all make sense. The good news is, though, that non-linear screenplays are actually easier to write than they look while watching them on screen.
Writing a screenplay out of sequence can be extremely effective if executed properly. Some exceptional films such as Memento, Irreversible and Rashomon exploit this technique to give a sometimes formulaic story an original twist. And if ever there was a genre which needed an original twist it’s the romantic comedy!
On initial viewing it seems although (500) Days of Summer randomly jumps all over the place whilst tracking the various stages of Tom and Summer’s relationship. We are blown away by the haphazard structure and the fact it still manages to hold our attention while making perfect sense.
On closer inspection, though, when you actually break down the script, you find it follows exactly the same three act / eight sequence structure as any other romantic comedy.
Also, most of the sequences are actually linear, with just a few random scenes thrown in to mix it up and give the illusion of a haphazard structure.
Apart from the less common “down” ending, (500) Days of Summer follows the romantic comedy conventions perfectly.
Boy meets girl at the Call to Action at the end of Sequence A, but there’s a problem… In this case Summer’s not looking for love, while Tom is.
They get together right on cue at the end of Sequence B and grow closer at the Midpoint. In a switch from convention, Sequence E is all about Tom being out of love rather than in love, and the Climax ends on a “down” note when they part as friends.
As with many “down” ending films, though, happier times ahead are implied by Tom meeting Autumn in the screenplay Dénouement.
So, let’s take a closer look at the sequence breakdown… For a detailed explanation of how sequences work and the terms included in this post, check out our eBook “Master Screenplay Sequences” which you can get for a limited time only FOR FREE by Liking our Facebook page.
(*The movie’s ”Days” are shown in brackets at the beginning of each scene.)
Sequence A – Tom meets Summer (- / +)
(488) Tom and Summer sit on a bench, smiling at each other. She’s wearing a wedding ring.
(1) Tom sits at a board meeting at work. A narrator says how Tom always felt he’d never be happy until he met “The One.” Tom as a kid watches The Graduate. Summer works. As a kid, she brushes her hair and the narrator says how she didn’t share this belief. Summer walks into Tom’s work and the narrator says how Tom knew the moment he saw her she was the one. But this is not a love story… (inciting incident)
(290) A twelve-year-old girl, Rachel, cycles. She arrives at Tom’s apartment. He’s upset. With his friends, McKenzie and Paul, she makes him tell them what happened. (call to action)
Montage: Tom and Summer in love.
Summer tells him she wants to break up. He leaves. (negative big event)
(1) At work, McKenzie does a presentation. The boss introduces Summer to the group. Tom is smitten. (midpoint)
The narrator describes Summer as “just another girl” as she rides a bike. But she isn’t… Everything Summer touches turns to gold. Everyone looks at her as she gets on the bus. He says it’s fate that Tom met her.
(3) At work, McKenzie tells Tom Summer’s a bitch.
(4) Summer enters an elevator with Tom. She tells him she digs The Smiths and leaves. He’s in love…
(8) At a work party, Tom gives Summer a drink and asks her what she’s doing. Downstairs he tells her he studied to be an architect. She reads one of his greeting cards. He nearly chokes when she says she used to be called “anal girl.” She leaves and he draws a picture of a building but screws it up. (all is joy / screenplay call to action)
(154) Tom tells Paul he’s officially in love with Summer. (positive climax)
Montage: Summer being wonderful.
(11) At home, Tom gushes about Summer to Rachael. She says that liking the same stuff as him doesn’t make her The One.
Sequence B – Tom & Summer get together (- / +)
(22) In a bar, Tom tells Paul and McKenzie it’s off. (inciting incident)
Flashback: Tom and Summer in an elevator. She says her weekend was “good.” Tom says she’s not interested. Summer asks Tom if he needs anything from the supply room and he answers awkwardly. He plays The Smiths loudly in the office. She walks straight past without looking. In the bar, Tom says he’s not going to ask her out. (call to action)
(27) McKenzie invites Tom to a karaoke bar Summer’s going to, but Tom doesn’t want to go. (negative big event)
(28) Tom enters the bar and says hello to Summer. She seems glad he came. Summer gets up and sings a cute song.
Later, Tom joins her and McKenzie at a table. She says she’s not comfortable being anyone’s girlfriend. Tom asks her what happens if she falls in love. They argue about love and agree to disagree. (midpoint / screenplay big event)
Later, Tom sings a Pixies song.
Later, at the bar, they discuss Knight Rider. McKenzie sings badly.
Outside, Tom and Summer put McKenzie in a cab. Tom says he likes her. They agree to be friends and she leaves. (all is lost)
(31) At work, Tom and Summer photocopy. She walks over and kisses him. She leaves. (positive climax / screenplay big decision)
Paul bursts into Tom’s apartment wondering what happened. Summer appears and meets Paul, embarrassing him.
Sequence C – Summer lets her guard down (+ / + +)
(282) Tom and Summer in a furniture store. She seems really bored. (inciting incident)
(34) They walk through the same store, joking around with the TV and pretend to have dinner. They run to the bed. She calls him “fun” and says she’s not looking for anything serious. He agrees. (call to action)
They arrive back at his place making out. Tom leaves for the bathroom and talks to himself about her keeping it casual. He goes back in and she’s naked. (positive big event)
The next morning, Tom leaves his apartment — the happiest man in the world. He bops down the street saying hello to everyone. A street parade follows him and they all dance. He enters his work elevator.
(303) Tom leaves the elevator the most depressed man in the world. Upstairs he talks to McKenzie and says he hasn’t won her back yet. He receives an email from her asking if he’s ready to be friends. (midpoint)
(45) At work, Summer sings the Knight Rider theme tune down the phone to Tom.
(87) In a record store, Summer says Octopus’s Garden is her favorite Beatles song. She drags him into the adult section.
At home they watch a dirty movie. They take a shower together.
(95) Tom shows Summer buildings around LA.
On a park bench, he tells her this is his favorite spot. He points out more buildings. He draws on her arm. (all is joy)
(109) Tom enters Summer’s apartment. The narrator says this was the night everything changed — the wall was coming down. (positive climax / screenplay big decision success)
They lie in bed talking. The narrator says how Summer’s stories were ones you had to earn. She says she’s never told anyone that before.
Sequence D – Tom & Summer grow closer (- / +)
At work, Tom discusses Summer with his friends. He says he doesn’t know if they’re dating or not. (inciting incident)
(118) At a sports game at school, Tom asks Rachel what he should do. She tells him to ask her where he stands. (call to action)
Tom drives and asks Summer what they’re “doing.” She says she’s happy and doesn’t care. (negative big event)
(259) In a bar, Tom complains to Summer about how women dress nowadays. He tells her not to get a tattoo. An idiot guy starts hitting on her. She tells him to get lost and Tom hits him. (midpoint)
They arrive home, and Summer’s angry. She says she doesn’t need his help and he argues with her about being friends. He leaves, angrily saying they’re a couple, not “friends.” (all is lost)
At home, Tom thinks in bed / Summer lies awake. Tom wakes up and answers the door — it’s Summer. She apologizes. They kiss. (positive climax / screenplay midpoint)
In the morning, they discuss her ex’s. She lists them all.
On a park bench, they play a game, shouting “penis!”
Sequence E – Tom’s depressed about Summer (- / — -)
(191) In an art gallery they look at exhibits. (inciting incident)
They laugh at the movies.
(314) Tom sits alone in the movies watching B&W art films starring himself about grief. He wakes up when it’s over.
(321) A woman tells Tom the boss wants to see him. (call to action)
Tom enters the office and the boss asks if he’s okay. He says everyone knows about Summer. His work’s been “off.” He asks him to channel his energies into funeral cards instead. (negative big event)
(167) Tom tells different work colleagues how to write their cards.
(322) Tom talks about how he hates Summer.
He shouts on the bus and gets kicked off.
(345) Tom walks with a date. He tells her it’s not going anywhere. (midpoint)
Later in a diner, he complains about Summer to her. He says he messed up. He replays all the times they had together looking for signs of trouble. (all is lost)
He sings karaoke, full of pain. She leaves. (negative climax / screenplay midpoint failure)
Sequence F – Tom realizes Summer’s engaged (+ / -)
(402) Tom gets on a train. He calls McKenzie who tells him he’s not going. Tom passes Summer and sits down. (inciting incident)
She sees him and comes over. She’s going to Milly’s wedding too. (call to action)
They get coffee. They talk and share a laugh. (positive big event)
At the venue, he meets her and they sit down. Milly gets married.
Later, they laugh at the table.
Milly throws the bouquet and Summer catches it. They dance and she invites him to a party. (midpoint)
Tom sits awake on the train with Summer asleep on his shoulder.
Paul talks about how he met his wife. McKenzie says he’s easy. The boss says he’s been married 21 years. Tom doesn’t know what to say.
Tom arrives at Summer’s apartment. The narrator says Tom believed that this time his expectations would align with reality. (all is joy)
Screen Split Montage: Tom arrives at the party. Summer kisses him / Summer hugs him. She opens his present and they hug / She thanks him and they enter. Tom talks to Summer alone / Tom talks to Summer in a group. Summer leads Tom away / Tom watches Summer with her boyfriend. Tom and Summer kiss / Tom sees Summer’s engagement ring and leaves. (negative climax / screenplay all is lost)
(440) Tom’s alarm clock goes off. He turns it off.
(441) Same thing happens.
(441 ½) Tom buys orange juice and vodka.
He walks down the street in his robe.
Sequence G – Tom & Summer part ways (+ / -)
(442) Tom’s woken up by the alarm again.
Tom arrives at work. McKenzie says they’re late. They leave. (inciting incident)
In a meeting, Tom is called up to contribute. Tom says they’re all liars. He says they should tell the truth. He says he doesn’t know what love means and they cards, movies and pop songs are to blame for all the lies. He quits and walks out. (call to action)
Tom leaves the building.
(450) Tom talks to Rachel on the sports field. She says Summer wasn’t The One — he’s only remembering the good times. (positive big event)
Tom thinks back about his times with Summer:
In a diner, she says she wants to see the movie.
They watch The Graduate. She cries.
Outside, he asks her what the matter is.
In the record shop, he realizes she hasn’t listened to his mix tape. She doesn’t take his hand and they leave.
Outside, she says she’s going home. (midpoint)
(456 — 476) Montage: Tom lies on his bed / He gets to work on an architecture design in his apartment / He reads architecture books / He draws / He sketches outside / Summer gets married / Tom rides on a bus.
(488) Tom arrives at the same bench he used to sit on with Summer. She happens to be nearby and joins him. He congratulates her on her marriage and says she was right about love. She says he was right — how she met her husband was meant to be. (all is lost / screenplay climax)
(500) Tom enters a building and the narrator says how most days are unremarkable. Tom sits in the waiting area with a girl who’s also interviewing. They flirt. The narrator says everything is coincidence — nothing is meant to be. Tom leaves for the interview, but goes back to ask the girl out. She says “no” but then changes her mind. Her name’s Autumn… (screenplay dénouement)
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For more information on how to write a screenplay using sequences, please check out our eBook “Master Screenplay Sequences” which you can get for a limited time only FOR FREE by Liking our Facebook page.
Thanks for reading and happy writing!