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How to Use the 500 Days of Summer Script to Master Non-Linear Stories

Why Writing a Screenplay Using a Non-Linear Structure Isn't as Hard as It May Seem

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by Script Reader Pro in Screenplay Structure
February 4, 2011 4 comments
500 days of summer script

How to Use the 500 Days of Summer Script to Master Non-Linear Stories

Want to apply a non-linear structure to your screenplay, but unsure how to go about it? We get it. 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 stories like the one found in the 500 Days of Summer script are actually easier to write than you may think.

Some of the most lauded films of all time such as Memento, Pulp Fiction and Rashomon exploit this technique to give stories an original twist. And if ever there was a genre which needs an original twist, it’s the romantic comedy.

In this post, we’re going to take a look at how the 500 Days Of Summer script structure plays around with time and shook up the romantic comedy genre.

Is the 500 Days of Summer Screenplay Really That Groundbreaking?

On initial reading of the 500 Days Of Summer script, it feels we’re randomly jumping all over the place while tracking Tom and Summer’s relationship. 

We’re blown away by the “haphazard” structure and the fact it still manages to hold our attention and make perfect sense. On closer inspection, however, it follows exactly the same three-act, seven-sequence screenplay structure as any other romantic comedy.

Most of the sequences are actually linear, with just a few random scenes thrown in to give the illusion of non-linear structure.

Here’s a breakdown of the 500 Days Of Summer script to show you just how easy it is to write a non-linear screenplay. (Okay, nothing’s “easy” when it comes to screenwriting, so how about “not as hard as it seems?”)

(We recommend either watching the movie again or downloading this copy of the 500 Days of Summer screenplay as well to get more out of the analysis.)

500 Days of Summer Script Breakdown 

Our preferred method of breaking down movies is into sequences. Most feature films contain seven or eight sequences and each one underpins the 3-Act structure you’re already familiar with.

(You can read more about sequences and how they work in our screenplay structure book.)

Notes on the Breakdown

  We’ve added notes in bold alongside the scenes.

  The 500 days are indicated in brackets before the scene.

♦  The (- / +) symbol indicates that the sequence goes from a negative to a positive for the protagonist, and a (+ / ) that it goes from a positive to a negative.

  The symbols I, II and III indicate the “Acts” within each sequence.

500 Days of Summer
by Michael H. Weber & Scott Neustadter

Sequence A – Tom meets Summer (- / +)
I
(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 voice over says how Tom always felt he’d never be happy until he met “the One.” Tom as a kid watches The Graduate. (inciting incident)

Summer works. As a kid, she brushes her hair and the voice over says how she didn’t share this belief. Summer walks into Tom’s work and the voice over says how Tom knew the moment he saw her she was the one. But this is not a love story…

(290) A 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. Montage: Tom and Summer in love. Summer tells him she wants to break up. He leaves. He says he wants to get her back. (call to action)

II
(1) At work, McKenzie does a presentation. The boss introduces Summer to the group. Tom is smitten.

The voice over 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 she’s a bitch.

(4) Summer enters an elevator with Tom. She tells him she loves the Smiths and leaves. (midpoint)

(8) At a work party, Tom gives her 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. (big event + screenplay call to action)

III
(154) Tom tells Paul he’s officially in love with Summer. Montage: Summer is wonderful.

(11) At home, Tom waxes lyrical to Rachel about Summer. She says that liking the same stuff as him doesn’t make her the One. (denouement)

500 days of summer script

Sequence B – Tom & Summer get together (- / +)
I
(22) In a bar, Tom tells Paul and McKenzie it’s off. 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. (inciting incident)

(27) McKenzie invites Tom to karaoke but Tom doesn’t want to go until he learns Summer’s going. (call to action)

II
(28) Tom enters the bar and says hello to Summer. She 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)

Later, Tom sings a Pixies song. Later, at the bar, they discuss Knight Rider. McKenzie sings badly.

Outside, they put him in a cab and he says Tom likes her. They agree to be friends and she leaves.

(31) At work, Tom and Summer photocopy. She walks over and kisses him. She leaves. (big event + screenplay act 1 turning point)

III
Paul bursts into Tom’s apartment wondering what happened. Summer appears and meets Paul. He leaves. (denouement)

Sequence C – Summer starts to let her guard down (- / +)
I
(282) Tom and Summer in a furniture store. She seems really bored.

(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. (inciting incident)

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. (call to action)

II
The next morning, Tom leaves his apartment—the happiest man alive. He bops down the street saying hello to everyone and starts dancing. 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.

(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.  (midpoint)

(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.

(109) Tom enters Summer’s apartment. The voice over says this was the night everything changed—the wall was coming down. (big event + screenplay big event success)

III
They lie in bed talking. The voice over says how Summer’s stories were ones you had to earn. She says “she never told anyone that before.” (denouement)

Sequence D – Tom & Summer grow closer (- / +)
I
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)

II
Tom drives and asks Summer what they’re doing. She says she’s happy and doesn’t care.

(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.

At home, Tom thinks in bed / Summer lies awake. Tom wakes up and answers the door—it’s Summer. She apologizes. They kiss. (big event + screenplay midpoint)

III
In the morning, they discuss her exes. She lists them all.

On a park bench, they play a game and shout “penis.”

(191) In an art gallery, they look at exhibits. They laugh at the movies. (denouement)

500 days of summer script

Sequence E – Tom is depressed about Summer (+ / -)
I
(314) Tom sits alone in the movies watching a black and white arthouse film starring himself about grief. He wakes up when it’s over.

(321) A woman tells Tom the boss wants to see him.

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. (inciting incident)

(167) Tom tells different work colleagues how to write their cards.

(322) Tom talks about how he hates Summer.  (call to action)

II
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. (big event + screenplay midpoint failure)

III
He sings karaoke. She leaves. (denouement)

Sequence F – Tom realizes Summer’s engaged (+ / -)
I
(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 joins him. She’s going to Milly’s wedding too. He agrees to get coffee with her. (call to action)

II
They talk and laugh.

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 twenty-one years. Tom doesn’t know what to say.

Tom arrives Summer apartment. The voiceover says he believed that this time his expectations would align with reality. Screen Split—Expectations & Reality. It doesn’t work out as he planned. He sees she’s wearing a wedding ring and leaves. (big event + screenplay act 2 turning point)

III
(440) His alarm clock goes off. He turns it off.

(441) The same thing happens.

(441 ½) Tom buys orange juice and vodka.

He walks down the street in his robe. (denouement)

Sequence G – Tom & Summer say goodbye (+ / -)
I
(442) Tom’s woken up by the alarm again.

Tom arrives at work. McKenzie says they’re late for a meeting. 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)

II
(450) Tom talks to Rachel on the sports field. She says Summer wasn’t the One—he’s only remembering the good times. 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 mixtape properly. She doesn’t take his hand and they leave. Outside, she says she’s going home. 

(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. He rides on a bus. (midpoint)

(488) Tom arrives at the same bench he used to sit on with Summer. She’s sitting behind him and joins him. He congratulates her. He tells her he quit. She says she just woke up one day and she knew what she was never sure of with him.

He says she was right about love. She says he was right—how she met her husband—it was meant to be… (big event + screenplay act 3 turning point)

III
(500) Tom enters a building and the voice over says how most days are unremarkable. May 23rd was a Wednesday. Tom sits in the waiting area with a girl who asks him if he’s interviewing. They flirt.

The voiceover says everything is a coincidence—nothing is meant to be. He leaves for the interview but goes back to ask the girl out. She says “no” but then changes her mind. Her name’s Autumn… (denouement + screenplay denouement)

500 Days of Summer Script Analysis

When it comes to the breakdown of each sequence itself, here are some important points to remember:

Each Sequence Begins With a Problem That Tom Has to Solve

The problem is identified with the Inciting Incident at the start of each sequence. Then, at the Call to Action, Tom decides to do something about it.

For example, at the Inciting Incident in Sequence C, Summer tells Tom she doesn’t want anything serious. That’s his problem right there. Then, at the Call to Action, they sleep together for the first time.

Each Sequence Contains the Same Plot Points as in 3-Act Structure

The reason why the non-linear structure of the 500 Days of Summer script feels so seamless, is because it’s following the exact same 3-Act structure we’re all used to.

The seven sequences each contain plot points that correlate exactly to the major plot points in each act. For example:

♦ Act 1 contains Sequences A and B which end with the traditional screenplay call to action (12 min approx) and Act 1 turning point (25 min approx.)

 Act 2 contains Sequences C, D, E and F. Sequence D is the same beat as the traditional screenplay midpoint and Sequence F is the same one as the Act 2 turning point.

 Act 3 contains Sequence G. This ends on the exact same beat as the screenplay’s climax.

Each Sequence Changes its Emotional Charge

In other words, each one goes from either a postive to a negative (+ / -) or a negative to a positive (- / +).

For example, in Sequence A, Summer dumps Tom at the call to action which is definitely a negative. But, at the sequence’s end, they talk for the first time at a work party. A negative emotional charge for Tom has changed to a positive one.

Stick to a Traditional Structure, Then Change It Up

If you want to write a non-linear screenplay, we recommend you write it in a traditional linear fashion. Then mix up a few scenes or sequences in order to make it feel haphazard.

As we mentioned earlier, each sequence is more or less told in chronological order. Only a few scenes are out of sync in each one, but this gives the illusion that the whole screenplay contains a crazy non-linear structure.

To learn more about sequences and how they work in both non-linear and linear storytelling, check out our book Master Screenplay Sequences: How To Revolutionize Your Understanding of 3 Act Structure, below.

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What do you think of our breakdown of the 500 Days of Summer script? Are you in the middle of trying to write a screenplay with a non-linear structure? Let us know how it’s going in the comments section below.

500 days of summer script

Enjoyed This Post? Read More on Screenplay Structure…

12 Secret Script Beats You Should Include in Act 1 of Your Screenplay

Script Structure: What All Those Screenwriting Books Aren’t Telling You

How to Write a Screenplay: The Secret to Elevating It Above the Ordinary

[© Photo credits: Flickr / Flickr]

4 Comments
  1. Floyd Bridgeman says:

    This is an awesome post. Only Script Reader Pro is delivering the goods like this on structure as far as I can see anyway. Keep it up guys, love your work.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks so much, Floyd!

  2. Clare Rubin says:

    Hola! Awesome movie and the 500 Days Of Summer script is an awesome read. Thank you for talking about one of my favorite films of all time.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome, Clare 🙂

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