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How To Master Screenplay Structure Using Sequences

A How-To Guide On How Sequences Underpin Traditional 3 Act Structure

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by Script Reader Pro in How To Write A Screenplay
May 29, 2015 9 comments
SCRIPT DIALOGUE WRITING

[The following post on screenplay structure is an extract from our book: Master Screenplay Sequences – Revolutionize Your Understanding Of Screenplay Structure.]

Traditional three-act screenplay structure basically goes like this: a protagonist is landed with a problem in Act 1, (the set up) attempts to solve it in Act 2, (the confrontation) and fails or succeeds in Act 3, (the resolution.)

What’s wrong with it? It’s too broad and it’s too vague. There’s actually much more going on in screenplay structure than just three big acts, and that’s what this ultimate guide is all about…

Screenplay Structure: The Boring Old Formula

You may be familiar with different terms regarding the structure of a screenplay depending on what books you’ve read, but the basic five major plot points generally go as follows:

  • Call to Action (Act 1, min 12 approx): This first plot point changes the protagonist’s world forever, and officially sets the story in motion. (In Mean Girls, Kady is invited to lunch for the rest of the week by the Plastics.)
  • Act 1 Turning Point (Act 1, min 25 approx): In this second major plot point, the protagonist makes a decision which launches them on their journey into Act 2. (In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel decides to have all of his memories of Clementine erased.)
  • Midpoint (Act 2, min 55 approx): This third major plot point midway through Act 2, cuts the film in half. The protagonist is forced to react from the biggest blow yet delivered by the antagonist. (In Die Hard, McClane throws a dead guy out the window and shoots up a police car.)
  • Act 2 Turning Point (Act 2, min 85 approx): In this scene we see how everything either goes horribly wrong, or comes up roses for the protagonist. (In Fargo, Jerry flees from Marge’s questioning — the game is officially up.)
  • “Climax” or “Final Resolution” (Act 3, min 110 approx): The protagonist either triumphs or fails in their goal established in Act 1. (In Paranormal Activity, Katie becomes possessed by the demon in her house and kills Micah.)

While this traditional screenwriting structure analysis is all well and good, the problem is it fails to mention the fact that each of these plot points also signify the Climax to a sequence.

It also ignores the fact that there are seven or eight sequences underlying three-act screenplay structure, meaning there are seven major plot points in a script, not just five.

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Screenplay Structure Hack: Sequences 

Before we discuss how each of the seven sequences underpins three-act screenplay structure and add two more major plot points, let’s first get to grips with what a sequence actually is.

THE SEQUENCE AS A “MINI-MOVIE” IN SCREENPLAY STRUCTURE

The easiest way to approach sequences is to think of them as self-contained “mini movies.” This is because they each give the protagonist a mini-story which builds through its own three-act structure toward a climax / major plot point.

Each of the seven or eight sequences last roughly ten to fifteen minutes long, and put together end-to-end make up the whole movie.

For example, at the start of the film we’re often shown the protagonist’s “ordinary world,” and this first sequence builds through its own little story until it reaches a Climax when this world is turned upside down by the Call to Action.

Then, the next sequence then builds in intensity as the protagonist reacts to this event, ending in its own Climax when they make a Big Decision at the Act 1 Turning Point. And so on, throughout the film.

Think of a random scene in any movie. That scene is not just floating freely about somewhere in one of three acts—it shows us the protagonist in the middle of a story specific to that sequence.

Say you just thought about the scene near the beginning of The 40 Year Old Virgin in which Andy is roped into playing poker with his work colleagues. This scene is not hanging in mid-air, it is the Midpoint of the first sequence, which will soon reach a Climax with Andy being outed as a virgin at the card game.

Just as in the overall film, the protagonist’s fortunes go from a positive to a negative, or vice-versa, from sequence to sequence as they traverse the screenplay.

It is this back and forth motion of each sequence ending alternately on a positive or a negative that gives a screenplay its feel of a “roller-coaster ride.” If a sequence begins on a high point, chances are it’ll end on a low point.

Also a sequence has its own three-act structure in which the protagonist has to traverse all the familiar plot points of a Call to Action, Big Decision, Midpoint, All is Lost and Climax, but we’ll look at this in more detail in Step 3.

HOW SEQUENCES UNDERPIN TRADITIONAL THREE-ACT SCREENPLAY STRUCTURE

screenplay structure
A big problem with the traditional screenplay structure model is that it lacks a solid base for the major plot points to be anchored to. And with only five plot points instead of seven, a script ends up a dauntingly vast expanse of “conflict,” that needs filling.

In reality, each of the five major plot points—the Call to Action, Big Decision, Midpoint, All is Lost/All is Joy and Climax—are anchored in place by the fact they’re also the Climax to five out of the seven sequences.

These big plot points, therefore, are not just moments that “have to appear” within the vicinity of a certain page number, but are the culmination of a conflict that’s been building for the past ten to fifteen pages within a sequence.

We give each of the seven sequences a letter from A to G and break them down like this:

Act 1 contains Sequences A and B

Act 2 contains Sequences C, D, E, and F

Act 3 contains Sequence G

Let’s check out the five Sequence Climaxes which share a Climax with the traditional five major plot points:

  • The Climax to Sequence A is also the Call to Action plot point in the overall screenplay. In Legally Blonde, Elle spends the first sequence excited about the possibility of being engaged to Warner. The end of the sequence is the same plot point as the Call to Action in the overall screenplay when instead of asking Elle to marry him, Warner dumps her.
  • The Climax to Sequence B is also the Big Decision plot point in the overall screenplay. In The Truman Show, Truman spends the second sequence reminiscing about Sylvia and growing increasingly suspicious of the world around him. The end of the sequence coincides with the screenplay’s Big Decision plot point, when Truman tells Marlon he wants to leave town.
  • The Climax to Sequence D is also the Midpoint in the overall screenplay. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy spends this sequence finding the Well of Souls and then the Ark itself. The end of the sequence coincides with the overall Midpoint of the film when Indy and Marion are thrown in the Well of Souls by the Nazis.
  • The Climax to Sequence F is also the All is Lost / All is Joy plot point in the overall screenplay. In Collateral, Max hits the gas in this sequence after being goaded by Vincent about his pathetic life. The sequence ends at the end of Act 2 when Max crashes the cab, but now Annie’s life is in danger.
  • The Climax to Sequence G is also the overall Climax in the screenplay. In The Shining, Jack spends this final sequence chasing Danny through the maze. The sequence ends with the Climax to the whole film when Jack is outfoxed by Danny who escapes with Wendy.

Dividing a screenplay up in terms of sequences like this, rather than just into three big acts, means conflict becomes that much easier to generate and sustain.

This is because you’re able to use each sequence to work toward another Climax every ten to fifteen pages. Each sequence becomes a “mini-movie” which either brings the protagonist nearer to or further away from their overall goal established at the end of Act 1.

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screenplay structureTo find out all about the Climaxes to the other two sequences, C and E, and how to master screenplay structure using sequences, check out our book on the subject by clicking the image to the left.

You can also see how your screenplay structure stacks up by getting us to review your script using one of our script coverage services. And feel free to contact us with any questions you may have about the book or screenplay coverage.

9 Comments
  1. Rico says:

    Wow. This is great info I feel like I understand structure so much better now. THANK YOU!

  2. Robert says:

    An excellent and completely thorough breakdown of sequences that imbues the screenplay with stronger narrative progression and character development. You should be commended for such a comprehensive analysis both in terms of intra-structure and scenework.

  3. Ashli says:

    WOW, this has really opened my eyes. I thought structure was just 3 acts haha. Thanks a lot guyz 🙂

  4. Len says:

    Super interesting- i had not thought about structure like this before. I wanted to by your book and will once I get paid. Thanks so much.

  5. Chris says:

    This is super-helpful and clear—thanks! But the headline is confusing: this article doesn’t seem to talk about NON-traditional screenplay structure at all. This is a great, thorough way of looking at TRADITIONAL screenplay structure, right?

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  7. Bird son bird says:

    Wow I understand now.thanks.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Great!

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