There is a lot a novelist can learn about storytelling from the movie industry. Stories in novels and movies differ only by the nature of the medium through which they are presented. The same story dynamics apply to both mediums.
In my previous two blogs I looked at two different variations of the Three-Act Structure used in the movie industry: Michael Hauge’s Six-Stage Plot Structure and Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey. In this blog, I look at another screenwriting model – The Sequence Method and a variant called The Mini-Movie Method (aka Eight Sequence Method).
The Three-Act Structure breaks down a story into three elements: the beginning (setup – 25%), middle (confrontation 50%), and end (resolution 25%). From a writer’s perspective this doesn’t give a great amount of guidance as to what to write in a 110 page script or a 400 page novel.
Michael Hauge’s structure splits each act into two using five key turning points to give six stages. Six stages and their general purpose is better guidance than three. However, the Act 2 stages III and IV are twice as large as stages I, V, VI.
An alternative is to break ACT 2 into four so each stage is approximately the same size. This is broadly what the sequence method or mini-movie method does. It creates a movie from eight sequences of approximately 10-15 mins each. Two in the first act, four in the second act, and two in the third.
The Sequence Method owes its origins to Frank Daniel, the inaugural dean of the American Film Institute, who taught at Colombia University and the University of Southern California in the early 1980s. Nowadays, the main texts on the method are Paul Gulino’s ‘Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach – The Hidden Structure of Successful Screenplays’ and Chris Soth’s ‘Million Dollar Screenwriting: The Mini-Movie Method’, both of which are great reads on the subject matter. But the publication I would suggest as the most detailed is David Howard’s ‘How to build a great screenplay’.
What is a sequence?
First a bit of confusion. The term ‘sequence’ is widely used in the movie industry to denote a series of scenes that form a distinctive narrative unit, which is usually connected by unity of location or unity of time. For example, a car chase may well be a sequence. This however is not what a sequence is under the sequence method. It is much larger self-contained segment of the story.
Howard explains a sequence “is a self-contained portion of the overall story with its own tension, its own beginning, middle and end”. It is a story within a story. Under this methodology a lot of focus is placed on ‘tension’ – the audience’s hopes and fears that the hero will achieve his goal. Every story has a Main Tension which is usually expressed as a question: eg – Will Katnis Evergreen survive the hunger games?
But each sequence has its own sequence goal and sequence tension. Howard explains: “..by deciding whose sequence it is, you dive into other aspects of creating story — what does he want? why is it difficult to achieve? what is the tension in the sequence?” The sequence ends when the tension of the sequence ends, even though the same event might lead to a new tension in a new sequence. For example, our hero maybe be searching for a map for the holy grail. The sequence ends when he finds it. But a new sequence and tension begins over whether the hero will find his way to the grail.
Above I’ve talked about an eight sequence structure by splitting Act 2 into four parts. But strictly speaking under the Sequence Method the number of sequences isn’t limited to eight. Eight is the most common among movies; but most movies range between 7-12.
Gulino in his book analysis a number of movies into their sequences. Air Force One has eight. But longer movies have more sequences: the Fellowship of the Ring has twelve; Lawrence of Arabia has sixteen. The number of sequences therefore depends on the length of the movie, genre, and the narrative structure.
For example, action movies, such as a Bond movie usually start with an introductory sequence showing the hero finishing a previous mission. Indiana Jones and the South American cave sequence is very similar (see below.)
The Mini-Movie Method, or Eight Sequence Method is a similar to the sequence method except it sticks to eight sequences or mini-movies. Each sequence has a purpose, and ends with a turning point or an important event.
1. Setup: the Hero’s status quo, ending with the inciting event.
2. Progress towards ‘lock in’ to the conflict (end of Act 1).
3. First attempt to deal with problem. Easy option fails.
4. A more grandiose, more extreme plan – goes horribly wrong (ends with the mid-point)
5. Hero retreats to lick his wounds, confronts his weakness.
6. New plan, hero prepared to change. All goes wrong, nearly destroyed, and new revelation. (end of Act 2)
7. Rejoins the battle. Succeeding until final twist where antagonist turns the tables.
8. Finally defeats antagonist. Wrap up.
So how does the method work?
The following example is based on Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Introductory hook sequence :
Indiana Jones recovers the idol from a cave in the South American jungle only to lose it to his rival, Belloq. Indiana Jones escapes the natives in a plane.
Indiana is teaching as Professor of Archaeology when he is approached by US army who have intercepted a Nazi cable indicating they have found the lost city of Tanis, where the Ark of covenant is buried. (Inciting event)
To find the Ark, Indiana needs the headpiece of the Staff of Ra . He goes to find his friend, Ravenwood in Nepal. He rescues Marion (Ravenwood’s daughter) from the Nazis and escapes with the head-piece. (End of Act 1)
Indiana goes to his friend, Sallah, in Egypt. While shopping in Cairo, Marion is taken by two arabs. Indy shoots the truck driver and the truck crashes and explodes. He thinks Marion is dead and drowns his sorrows in booze. Nazi agents capture him and Belloq brags about the prospect of finding the ark. Indy gets away with the help of children.
Indiana finds the Nazi are digging in the wrong place because their copy of the Ra headpiece is only one-sided (Toht’s burnt hand). Indiana is lowered into the Map room and with the staff and headpiece he locates the true location of the Ark. (Mid Point Climax)
Marion is alive and with Belloq. Indiana finds her but doesn’t set her free. Instead he pursues the Ark, digging in the right place. Indy secures the Ark only to lose it to the Nazis. Indiana and Marion are sealed inside the Well of Souls.
Marion and Indiana escape the Well of Souls. Indiana fights a fist battle on the airfield, chases after the truck on horseback and recovers the Ark. (End of Act 2)
Indiana and Marion sale on a ship from Cairo with the Ark. A Nazi submarine capture the ship and takes the Ark and Marion. Indiana escapes, riding the submarine topside until it reaches a Greek island. Indiana points a rocket launcher at the Ark threatening to destroy it unless Marion is freed. Belloq calls his bluff. (Third Act Twist)
Indiana and Marion are tied to a pole while Belloq opens the ark. Indiana tell Marion to close her eyes. Spirits appear from the ark and destroy the Nazis. The Ark is stored in a huge government warehouse, while Indiana goes back to his life as a professor but this time with Marion.
Several different sequence analyses of this movie are on the internet. The version here is close to one of them, but is not exactly the same. Techncially I have shown nine sequences. The introductory sequence would otherwise be part of the set-up sequence one.
The precise start and finish of each sequence will always involve an element of subjectivity and different people may come to different views. Some might argue that this is a weakness of the methodology, but I would disagree. The only view of the sequence structure that really matters is the one the writer is using to design his story. To the audience the sequence structure is invisibe and should remain so. The acid test is therefore whether as a writer knowing your eight of so sequences of your story is helpful in planning out your story.