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8 Sequence Structure In Narrative Feature Films

There is a school of thought that states that screenplays can be divided not just into three acts, but further broken down into 8 distinct sequences. On average, one page of screenwriting equals one minute of screen-time. So, a two-hour movie will be about 120 pages long. In shorter scripts, the three-act structure and 8 sequences still exist, and are truncated accordingly. For the sake of ease, we will use 120 pages as an example length. Act I contains two sequences, Act II contains four sequences, and Act III contains two sequences.

Act I

Act I encompasses pages 1-30. The First Sequence in Act I include pages 1-15. Within the first Act, the audience experiences the undisturbed status quo of the character and the world. It answers the questions of exposition: who, when, where, and under what conditions. This section also establishes the genre and style of the movie. However, before the exposition is complete, it is necessary to “hook” an audience and get them interested in watching further. For example, “Chinatown” (Roman Polanski, 1974) opens with a puzzling series of photographs showing a couple having sex accompanied by off-screen groaning. “Sunset Blvd” (Billy Wilder, 1950) starts with the frantic arrival of police cars, whose officers quickly converge on a man lying face down in a swimming pool. Almost always, the audience is introduced to the character and given a glimpse of the flow of life of the character before the story begins. The stronger the sense of flow of life at the beginning of the picture, the bigger the impact of the destabilizing events that intrude to make the real story happen. This intrusion is known as the ‘point of attack’ or ‘inciting incident’ and arises at the end of the first sequence. In “North by Northwest,” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) we see the protagonist experience a full evening and day’s worth of appointments in the first four minutes. This is the establishment of the status quo. The point of attack occurs when the protagonist, Roger Thornhill is abducted.

The Second Sequence takes place from pages 15-30. This sequence builds the real story and progresses towards the creation of the main tension. Essentially, it focuses the main tension and poses the dramatic question that will shape the rest of the film. The protagonist comes to a point where they say, “I am going to do __,” and the dramatic question is whether or not they will achieve that goal. The main character attempts to wrestle with the destabilizing element that was introduced in the first sequence. The main character attempts to implement a solution, but their actions only lead to a bigger problem or a more complex predicament. For example, In Chinatown, the main character, Jake Gittes, tries to get to the bottom of who hired him and winds up being hired by the real Ms. Mulray after her husband turns up dead. The last turning point before Act II should turn the story in a new direction and it should set up what Act II is going to be about. Additionally, this turning point should increase the stakes.

Act II

Act II of a script involves pages 30 through 90. There are a total of four sequences in Act II. It begins with the Third Sequence of the film. This third sequence runs from page 30-45. It is very heavy on exposition. It explains why achieving the main character’s goal is going to be different, and it introduces new characters. This sequence allows the character to attempt to solve the problem posed at the end of the first act. Again, an escalation occurs as the character may solve an immediate problem, but the resolution of one problem will only lead to much deeper and bigger problems.

The Fourth Sequence runs from pages 45-60. This sequence shows how the previous attempt to solve the main tension has failed. This protagonist must make one or more desperate measure to return his or her life to stability. The end of this fourth sequence often leads to a major plot point known as the “midpoint.” It’s called the midpoint because it occurs about halfway through the script on page 60. The midpoint serves to focus the main tension as the character makes a clearer commitment to the goal. Here, the audience is given a very clear glimpse of an answer to the dramatic question – the hope that the protagonist will actually succeed at resolving his or her problem – only to see circumstances turn the other way. In this sense, the first culmination may be a glimpse at the actual resolution of the picture, or its mirror opposite. For example, midway through “Tootsie” (Sydney Pollack , 1982), the protagonist Michael Dorsey reaches a pinnacle of career success, but he is living a lie and doesn’t have a romantic relationship with Julie he desires. In the resolution his situation is the opposite: he has lost his career and is no longer living a lie and has a tentative romantic relationship with Julie.

The Fifth Sequence takes place from pages 60-75. This sequence most commonly belongs to a secondary character as the major subplot kicks into high gear. This subplot usually has to do with the secondary character’s relationship to the protagonist. In some stories, the midpoint may be so intense that it actually serves to turn the protagonist’s original objective on its head. For example, during the first half of the second act of “Sunset Blvd,” Joe Gillis works on Norma Desmond’s script with the aim of escaping her despite her efforts to keep him; after she attempts suicide at the midpoint, he spends the second half of the second act trying it stay with Norma despite Betty Schaefer’s efforts to pull him away. As with other sequences, the resolution in this sequence does not resolve the main tension, meaning it does not solve the protagonist’s ultimate problem. It simply incites new complications, presumably more difficult with stakes that are even more amplified.

The Sixth Sequence is the last movement of Act II and covers pages 75-90. At the beginning of this sequence, it seems that all is lost, but some event makes the character want to achieve their goal all the more. This leads to the most concerted effort to overcome the biggest obstacles leading to the culmination. It is essentially the most focused pursuit of the main tension goal and results in a yes or no answer to the dramatic question that has driven the entire second Act. This sequence belongs to the protagonist. At this point, the character has eliminated all easy potential solutions and with greatest difficulty, works toward the resolution. Like the midpoint, the culmination that occurs at the end of Act II (the end of the Sixth Sequence) can be either a suggestion of the actual resolution or its mirror opposite. Looking again at “Sunset Blvd,” we see Gillis and Betty kiss, marking the high point of their relationship - which is the opposite of the resolution in which he loses everything and winds up face down in the swimming pool. In the film, “Midnight Run” (Martin Brest, 1988), Jack Walsh is under arrest, and has lost his bounty, Jonathan Mardukas, to his competitor. This is the opposite of the resolution, which sees him arriving in Los Angeles under his deadline and winding up a free man with $300,000 in his pocket. It is commonly believed that the end of the Second Act must be a low point in the story. However, it serves a writer best to view this significant plot point in the film in relationship to the main tension in some deep or far reaching way - that either totally resolves the tension or somehow reframes it. No matter what, at the end of this Act, the stakes must be elevated. If possible, use the device of a “ticking clock” – some serious impending deadline - that propels us into the third and final Act and towards the climax with heightened dynamism.

Act III

Act III includes pages 90-120 and is comprised of the last two sequences of the movie. Sequence Seven covers pages 90-105. Sequence seven leads us to a “false resolution.” A False resolution is an apparently simple or straightforward answer or conclusion of the current life of the character as a result of having gone after the main tension goal. However, this straightforward resolution is not the true answer of the main tension. Unforeseen effects of the resolution can appear and other storylines and loose-ends previously established catalyze new and even more challenging obstacles, sometimes compelling the character to work against his or her initial objectives. Essentially, the story is shaken up so that when the dust settles, we now see it from a different perspective. Overall, Sequence Seven is characterized by higher stakes, an increase in pace, and a resolution that is actually a major twist. A twist is when an expectation has been set up, but the results of the circumstance reverse that expectation. The twist leads to the true resolution. For example, in the classic film, “The Apartment,” (Billy Wilder, 1960), C.C. Baxter, has finally achieved success in the corporate world, but abandons that ambition and decides to pursue Fran Kubelik, only to have this greater pursuit thwarted by his boss.

Finally, in Sequence Eight, lasting from pages 105-120, the true resolution is achieved through the climax – the completion of the final conflict. The climax of a film is the moment in which the central question is answered. The instability that was created at the point of attack has been settled. More often than not, there is some type of coda or epilogue. A brief scene or series of scenes might tie up loose ends, resolve any subplots, and allow the audience an opportunity to take a breath and decompress emotionally from the intensity of the story experience.

Films Referenced

Chinatown (1974) Director: Roman Polanski Writer: Robert Towne Stars: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston

Sunset Blvd (1950) Director: Billy Wilder Writers: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, 1 more credit » Stars: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim

North by Northwest (1959) Director: Alfred Hitchcock Writer: Ernest Lehman Stars: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason

Tootsie (1982) Director: Sydney Pollack Writers: Larry Gelbart (screenplay), Murray Schisgal (screenplay Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr

Midnight Run (1988) Director: Martin Brest Writer: George Gallo Stars: Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto

The Apartment (1960) Director: Billy Wilder Writers: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond Stars: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray

Eight Sequence Structure Summarized

  • Act I (pgs. 1-30)

Sequence 1 (pgs. 1-15) Undisturbed status quo. Exposition. Point of Attack.
Sequence 2 (pgs. 15-30) Sets up Main Tension and poses Dramatic Question.

  • Act II (pgs. 30-90)

Sequence 3 (pgs. 30-45) Intro new characters. Elaborate on Goal. Allows first attempt to solve problem.
Sequence 4 (pgs. 45-60) First attempt to solve problem fails. Character takes more desperate measures.

  • Midpoint Narrows focus of the Main Tension

Sequence 5 (pg. 60-75) Major subplot kicked into high gear. Stakes raised with new complications.
Sequence 6 (pgs. 75-90) Most focused pursuit of Main Tension Goal. Main Tension resolved or reframed as Dramatic Question is answered. Stakes raised on reframed problem.

  • Act III (pgs. 90-120)

Sequence 7 (pgs. 90-105) False Resolution.
Sequence 8 (pgs. 105-120) Climax. True Resolution.

Film Screenwriting Screenplay Structure


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