The Screenwriter's Column

The Sequence of Story

By Linda Cowgill

Many of us approach outlining and writing a screenplay as a process of connecting 60 or so scenes in a line from beginning to end. We see the story as a series of individual incidents that together convey the action and conflict. They take us from a beginning and leave us at an end. (This number "60" comes from an old screenwriting standard that takes the average scene as two pages, and it will take 60 scenes to come up with 120 pages. The reality today is that the average scene is about 1 3/4 pages, but it's just too hard to double that and add some so we round the number off at two.) 

The problem with this idea is that writers tend to view these separate scenes as separate ideas. These 60 or more scenes all contain important information. Screenplays are jammed and over-complicated because of it. With so much going on there isn't time to develop any of it properly in terms of the characters and what the events mean to them. Stories feel rushed. Often stories jump from scene to scene and the connections between them aren't clear. This means the significance of the ideas in the scenes is lost on the reader who complains the script feels flat, complicated and uninteresting. 

I once had a student who conceived an intriguing psychological horror story but the end product didn't work. You couldn't sense or feel the characters, motivations were fuzzy, and so much was happening the story got lost. When faced with my comments, the writer bristled. She pointed to scenes in the script that were there specifically to show different sides of the character. To her the protagonist was real and fleshed out, and the story moved.

Why these scenes didn't resonate and leave the effect she wanted on the reader was because they weren't dramatically connected in terms of specific cause and effect actions. She didn't dramatize the particular characteristics in terms of actions and responses. We were thrown into events that ended and new events took their place. We couldn't understand the character's motivations, or track the important clues of the story. The scenes didn't build in a chain of events to make the important points. She had conceived a story in her mind but hadn't found a way to illustrate it in terms of cause and effect actions for the character.

She is not unique. Many new writers don't understand that film stories are best told in terms of sequences or segments, not in individual scenes that convey the point and then move on. When writers work in the "separate scene" modus, they often have too much action and event. What results is too little in terms of real characterization. Their scripts are often criticized as flat and/or confusing, even though the writer may point to scenes readers miss that do precisely what the reader is complaining about.

Feature Films are Structured in Groups of Scenes

Though feature films have as many as 60 to 70 scenes (give or take a few) in an outline, often the outline contains too much information to effectively dramatize. A writer might describe action in the outline that seems to take place in one location and have a beginning, middle and end, but to be effective the action should move through several locales and take more time. For instance a writer once opened his outline with the main character who while on a seaplane gets stoned, lands, grabs a cab and rushes home feeling like a failure. To effectively write this in the screenplay is going to require more than one scene so that we understand what's really going on. Unfortunately, the screenplay rushed through all this action, as with the rest of the scenes, and readers had a hard time connecting her character and keeping track of what was important to the story.

I have found that feature films have between 18 and 25 main ideas that develop into as many as 60 to 70 scenes (give or take a few). The basis of most stories is relatively simple but well developed. These ideas are organized into groups of scenes that build and develop the important information. This allows the writer to give a main idea enough time and weight for the audience to track and understand its importance to the story.

Great films effectively manage information by breaking down the plot into well-formed segments or sequences. These segments focus the line of action for the viewer/reader so he can see and follow the progression in the plot as conflict escalates and characters respond. There are strong cause and effect relationships between them; a segment builds upon the one preceding it, and leads directly to the following segment. Each segment has a specific bearing on the main plot of the film. Even if the segment appears to veer off in a different direction, picking up a subplot or focusing on characterization, its meaning will become apparent by the end of a great film.

Think of Segments like Chapters in a Book

You can think of a film segment the way you might think of a chapter in a book. It covers an aspect of the story, building from a beginning point through the development of the problems/conflict, to a culmination of this section of the story, and moves us into the next. Master and Commander succeeds on the basis of how each well-developed segment leads into the next. Look carefully and you can see clearly where each episode begins, how it builds and finally climaxes, leaving a specific aspect of the story fully dramatized. The film's first segment is a chase that ends in disaster. The next section is about repairing the ship, and so on. With a little imagination you can even come up with your own chapter headings.

There are between 7 and 12 story segments or sequences that make up a feature film, depending on its length. We find the first act is usually made up of two important segments, from opening to inciting incident and from inciting incident to act one climax, though sometimes it breaks down into three. Act two becomes more complex. The first half of act two is often made up of two to four segments and the same is true of the second half. Act three might have one, two or three segments that lead to the climax and resolution. It all depends upon the film. A segment has a specific focus or objective. It is generally to move the characters in one direction or another with regard to the overall plot goal and the theme of the film.

Segments Keep Story Momentum Mounting

Structuring a plot into segments of film time strengthens the causal relationships between the scenes, and therefore builds a film's momentum. It helps the audience stay focused on the action, pushing the plot ahead even as the story tracks the characters' emotions, motivations and reactions to what they encounter in the story. Audiences understand stories in terms of cause and effect; this happened and so that happened. Segments lead your audience from one important point to the next. They add emotional power by making a story point an emotional point, too, and they help the audience better follow along by keeping the cause and effect relationships clear. 

Don't confuse a film segment with a scene or action sequence. Though an action or scene sequence can make up a film segment, they are most often a part of the longer installment. A scene sequence is a group of scenes linked around a single idea or action, becoming a mini-plot line within a movie. Scene sequences play a major role in the construction of a film segment because they keep the plot focused on the action, what's happening, as the characters work to achieve their goals. In the second half of a film, scene sequences tend to make up larger and larger portions of each segment, until in many films the entire third act is one long scene sequence that builds to the climax.

The clearest form of scene sequence is the action sequence. Action sequences utilize obstacles and crises. In action sequences, the obstacles generally present a direct threat to the protagonist and his goals. This gives the hero something specific he's trying to accomplish, and the obstacles are there to prevent him. These sequences use physical action and peril, with violent confrontation. The choreography of the action is clear cause and effect, where we are dramatizing a specific action, confrontation, that builds to a climax and resolution of this particular beat. Car chases, shoot-outs, or any other daring feats in action movies are clear examples.

An action sequence can be short or long, depending on their purpose within the whole structure of the story. If they're short, they're generally part of a larger segment, and if they are the segment and maybe even a whole act. The last act of Witness is essentially a long action sequence leading to the final climax.

Scene sequences are similar to action sequences but don't as a rule involve violent confrontation. They generally do not put the protagonist in direct conflict with the antagonist. But there is still a problem that must be faced. The scenes are structured in cause and effect relationships that show the protagonist of the sequence trying to accomplish something. Scenes are structured around the meeting of an obstacle, complication or problem that the character has to deal with in the course of the plot, and then show how he deals with it.

An example of an expertly crafted scene sequence is in Dinerwhen Boogie bets he can get Carol Heathrow to 'go for his pecker' at the movies. The sequence begins in the theater with the film Summer Place rolling. Boogie sits next to Carol sharing a box of popcorn. A few seats over are Fenwick and Eddie. Boogie unzips his pants and opens the bottom of the popcorn box to stick his penis inside the box. Fenwick sees and when he catches Boogie's eyes, shakes his head and mouths "Bet's off. Not fair." Boogie nods "Yes." As the film continues, Carol reaches into the popcorn box and suddenly screams. She bolts from her seat and races up the aisle with Boogie going after her. Boogie catches up with Carol in the girls bathroom where he succeeds in settling her down a little. The scene proceeds in the lobby where Boogie concocts this story, turning a bad joke into flattery. The two return to the theater to watch the end of the movie.

The set-up for this sequence actually is established several scenes before it starts, at the diner when Boogie takes bets from the boys on Carol. The sequence then establishes they are in the theater waiting. The inciting incident is Boogie's action of slipping his penis into the popcorn box. The response comes from Fenwick who tries to call the bet off. Suspense builds as Carol unknowingly keeps dipping her hand into the popcorn box. When is she going to make contact? Finally, she screams and runs off, Boogie following: her response and the climax. The sequence resolves when Boogie follows and convinces her what happened was an accident and makes it all sound flattering to her. The sequence ends when they return to watch the end of the film.

Scene sequences enlarge the scope of the main conflict as well as contribute to a film's momentum and suspense by actively playing out how the characters deal with problems. The end of a scene sequence sometimes leads to the character taking new actions, though not in every case. Often scene sequences serve to complete an entertaining section of the plot that helps the audience empathize with the character.