For those who have been following my blog you may have rightly surmised that I have a fascination with story structure and story patterns. I believe fiction writers can learn a lot from studying the story telling techniques of the movie industry where story telling has almost become a science. And while novels and movies are obviously different media, the success of both depends on discovering a good story and finding the techniques to tell it well.
In my blogs I have looked at various structural aspects of stories: the three-act structure, the sequence method, the mythic structure and some of the technical aspects of structure such as plot points and pinch points.
Recently, I was toying with the idea of bringing together some of my many blogs on the subject into a free ebook to help new writers deal with these concepts. That is, until I discovered Paul Tomlinson’s ebook on the subject – Plot Basics, Plot Your Novel or Screenplay in Eight Sequences. It seems to deal with all the aspects that I have covered and more. And at just £2.99 (less than $4) it’s a small price to pay from bringing together what would otherwise involve reading a small library of books on the subject.
If you have already read all the important screenwriting books by writers such as Syd Field, Michael Hauge, Christopher Vogler, Robert McKee, John Truby, David Howard, Paul Joseph Guilino, Linda Seger, Chris Soth, and many others, then you won’t need this book. But if you’re looking for a quick overview about how these related concepts can work together in one eight-sequence, three-act structure then look no further. In his Sources and Bibliography Tomlinson identifies some 45 sources that are quoted in the text and another 52 sources that he has used to broaden his understanding.
So what is the Eight-Sequence Structure? Most writers know a story has a beginning, middle and end. That is broadly a three-step or three-Act structure. Syd Field explained the narrative structure of each act as: setup, confrontation, and resolution. However, this still leaves a lot to understand about what goes into each Act. The Eight-Sequence Method breaks down the story pattern into eight segments: two in the first act, four in the second act and two in the third act. Tomlinson describes them as follows:
Act 1 (Setting up and setting in motion)
Sequence 1: Set-up, Foreshadowing & Challenge
Sequence 2: Responding to the challenge
Act 2 (the middle)
Sequence 3: Responding to the ‘Strange New World’
Sequence 4: First Attempt, First Failure & Consequences
Sequence 5: Reacting to the Midpoint & Raising the Stakes
Sequence 6: The Second Attempt, The Fall, & The Crisis
Act 3 (The end – Climax & resolution)
Sequence 7: The Climax
Sequence 8: Resolution and Denouement
Different writers have used different labels to describe the eight sequences but the their purpose is very much the same. In my recent blog on Story Structure I described the Sequence Structure I like to use for my own planning purposes. It’s very similar to that proposed by Tomlinson (which might explain why I like it). But the terminology is also similar to that used by a number of writers including Chris Soth’s Mini-Movie Method and Mary Lyn Mercer’s Story Bones. There must be something about the eight sequences that follows the organic pattern of a story.
Tomlinson suggests that it might have something to do with the rule of three. The first serious attempt to solve the story problem is in sequence 4, which ends in failure. The second attempt is sequence 6 and ends in an even worse crisis. And finally Sequence 7 leads to the final climax of the story. He may have a point. In comparison, sequences 2, 3 and 5 are all reactive sequences following key turning points: the catalyst/inciting incident (what Tomlinson calls the ‘challenge’), plot point 1 (or Act 1 break) and the Mid Point.
What I like about Tomlinson’s book is that he gives a lot of guidance as to what kind of things occur in each sequence. He’s not the first to do this, but the lists and explanations are comprehensive and helpful and draw from a wide range of guidance. My only gripe about the book is that I wish it had been published seven years ago. It would have provided an easier starting point for me and a more than adequate reading list of publications for further research.