The Sequence Approach

I don’t think most “screenplay” approaches work well for playwriting. My personal opinion is that plays have a two-act structure and films have a three-act structure. This is why many films don’t translate well when adapted to plays (The Lion King, I’m looking at you). But over at A Good Story Well Told, Allen O’Leary points to a sequence that I think could easily be adapted to the two-act structure. Here’s a hefty excerpt:

The idea of the sequence approach is that you think of the whole as a series of short scenes which must relate to each other in some useful way. Most typically, they relate through story and the general outline of the three act model — but they can also relate through theme or whatever you want… as long as you keep the whole thing moving forward!

A: Setup

Often starts with a hook – a puzzle, conundrum, question in the audiences mind – used to stimulate curiosity. Then a picture of the protagonist before the story proper begins, the kind of person and type of life they have now – what their life would be like if nothing further happened to them (North by Northwest‘s opening four minutes).

Ends with Catalyst (aka inciting incident, point of attack) which is the first intrusion of instability into the flow of normal events.

B: Development

The main tension — or central dramatic question — is set out. Usually the protagonist coming to terms with (making a plan for) the change in circumstance. This attempt fails and the predicament intensifies for the Protagonist.

At the send of the sequence there is some kind of Big Event (aka “first act turning point”) which signals a marked change and the point of no return for the protagonist.

C: Special world

The Protagonist tries to solve the problems posed at the end of the last sequence. Usually this is an easy fix attempt which invariably fails.

‘Special world’ because often the protagonist has to venture off their own known ground to make things better and they have to learn the rules of the new domain that they have entered before they can move forward. Classic example is in The Matrix there is an extended sequences of Neo learning – and mastering – the rules of the complicated world in which the audience learns as at the same time.

D: Game

The easy fix inevitably makes this worse, there is a desperate attempt to return to normality. This usually results in the midpoint culmination (aka second act turning point, twist) a revelation which makes everything more complicated and difficult for the protagonist. The protagonist may have a very real chance of winning only to have this feeling rapidly reversed. Often this will be a situation which is the mirror opposite of the final successful resolution (unhappy man wins career but loses girl – by the end he may have the girl back and have given up on the career)

E: Grace

Protagonist grapples with new situation in place after the midpoint culmination – often new characters or situations are shown here as things open out after the twist. Often the protagonist will begin on a new quest at this point too. In NbyNW it becomes about Eve at this point, for instance. At the end of this sequence there is another change and the stake go up — the antagonist often will collide headlong with the protagonist here leading to…

F: Intensification

At the end of this sequence the main dramatic question is often answered, the main tension is resolved.

Often it is a Big Blue, a period where the Protagonist is most down and out. Perhaps wrong to see it exclusively as a low point in a picture, but rather as a profound moment in the transit of the main tension by either resolving it or reframing it (i.e. in North by Northwest it becomes ‘save Eve’). It can be a Big Orange also, a high point before a tragic reversal.

G: Sprint

The apparent resolution in “F” is not the final word. Unexpected consequences occur, the stakes are raised and the Protagonist often will change objectives completely — often as the result of lessons they have learned in solving previous problems. So the bad man comes good but now must save the girl from the approaching train.

Pace is higher and often there will be a major twist in this section. We are now battling ‘mano a mano’ with the antagonist.

H: Resolution

After a climatic moment the equilibrium is restored and the protagonist can begin their new life. Usually there is a coda, or a ‘the end’ moment that closes off any loose ends and a chance for the audience to come down to earth.

So is it any good?

If you wanted to get more detailed you could say that each of those three acts in a sequence could itself be made of three scenes and each scene would exhibit a three-act shape. That is taking things quite far, but the key thing about this is that it is possible to actually write this way. The most common mire for screen writing is the the second act — it’s a lot of time, about 50-60 minutes of continual development which can be very very difficult to pull off indeed. If you look at it using the sequence approach then you start to write 4x15minutes stories instead – and suddenly things become workable. And here is the power of the Sequence Approach: it is useful for writing not just as an analytical tool.

Can you hear the penny dropping? This book is worth its weight in failed first drafts.

Sequence Approach as analytical tool

In the eleven film analyses that make up the rest of the book Gulino goes about applying the sequence approach as an analytical tool rather than a creative one, always clearly showing how the approach practically works and how flexible it can be.

In the selection of films there are clearly narrative driven, high-concept pieces (Toy Story, Air Force One) as well a very useful analysis of Being John Malkovich which shows Kauffman pushing fairly traditional means to their limits. That Guilini then takes on films which would ‘fail’ a three-act test such as Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Shop around the Corner shows just how confident he is of the method by trying it out on movies which could be said to be exceptions. And here, particularly with Cabiria, he shows how tying sequences together with theme works in the hands of a master.

He also takes time to (politely) show Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh how they could have improved The first Lord of the Rings movie. His analysis of North by Northwest is very good indeed, and he carefully shows how the momentum of ‘what happens next’ covers over some of the cracks in terms of logic.

The quality of the analysis is very good. At a stylistic level Gulino is very pragmatic and doesn’t spend any time showing off or working very hard to sell the idea to you – clearly he sees it as a useful tool that can be picked up as needed. As a whole, the book is calm and patient – on first read this seems slightly disappointing and underwritten (he really could have taken the first 20 pages and made it into 200 without much trouble) — but once you go through things a couple of times you really begin to appreciate the value. I have picked this book off the shelf every couple of months and found something new.

The flexibility is the best thing, you can hammer a film’s three-act structure down with it or open it out into something a little less manically narrative for a play.

I have also been re-reading a book called New Playwriting Strategies: a language-based approach to playwriting, by Paul Castagno, which is rigorously into polyvocality, juxtaposition, mixed-genre, split and multiple characters, and other such lovely things. Thinking some of his material through with a sequence approach also makes sense, and I can see how it could easily be used to drive overall shape in so-called physical theatre as well.


So, I am now a fan… This book joins my select list of absolute essentials. its been around long enough that there are cheap second hand copies on, but be nice to the author and buy a new one, he deserves every penny!

The Sequence Approach; The hidden structure of successful screenplays (Paul Gulino, Continuum press, 2004. Check it out!


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