When it comes to screenplay structure, aspiring screenwriters are usually told by tutors and books, like Syd Field’s Screenplay, to focus on three acts.
What they’re not told about so often is how these three acts are underpinned by seven or eight sequences.
So, in this post we are going to show you how sequences work within three act structure, and serve to break it down into a series of more manageable “mini-movies.”
How Sequences Work Within Most Films
Mary (Meryl Streep) and Isaac (Woody Allen) in Manhattan
A screenplay starts (often, but not always) with an Inciting Incident to get it rolling—either a major change in the protagonist’s life, such as just getting out of prison, or arriving in a new town, or an event unknown to them, such as a murder the detective is yet to hear about.
Then, characters and world are introduced followed by a crisis around pages ten to fifteen. This is the hero’s Call to Action which sets into motion the main conflict for the overall screenplay and ends the sequence.
(In Romancing the Stone, Joan hears that her sister has been kidnapped. In Manhattan, Isaac meets Mary).
The protagonist struggles to get to grips with the Call to Action crisis established at the end of Sequence A.
But soon after there’s another shock in store—a Big Event which signifies what they’re up against. This is what the film’s really about: the main conflict they’ll have to tackle.
From this they must make a Big Decision to embark on a new and potentially life-changing adventure.
When they make this Decision we know they’re committed to solving the crisis established at the Call to Action and then the Big Event, and this signals the end of Act One.
(Neo takes the blue pill in The Matrix and enters “the real world.” In American Pie, the guys make a pact to lose their virginity).
The start of the strange and often scary new world in which the protagonist is often a “fish out of water.”
This sequence contains, what Blake Snyder calls, The Promise of the Premise—the trailer moments in which the hero struggles to adapt to the new world.
Note that the end of this sequence doesn’t determine the end of an act, but is still a definite step forward or backwards in the protagonist’s main goal established at the end of Act One.
(Truman gets stuck on the bus and fails to leave the island in The Truman Show. Tor is humiliated by rival cheerleaders, The Clovers, in Bring It On).
Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) in Jaws
Having failed or succeeded at the end of the last sequence, the protagonist pushes on, invariably trying a different tack in order to achieve their overall goal.
The end of this sequence ends on either an “up” or a “down” and signals the script’s Midpoint—usually a surprising twist of some kind.
Here, the protagonist feels the full power of the antagonist but, conversely, is now fully committed to the goal, or a new variation of the goal.
The stakes are raised as the protagonist turns a corner and a “new self” is born.
(In Jaws, Chief Brody realizes they’ve caught the wrong shark. Charles returns home to find the killer, LaRoche, in his house chatting to his wife and kids in Derailed).
This sequence marks the beginning of the “changed hero.”
They begin to understand what they really want, but also to further realize the power of their adversary.
The stakes are raised as they react to whatever new crisis occurred at the Midpoint.
This is sometimes known as the “Gain” section of the script in which everything seems to be going well for the protagonist, but in reality it’s not.
For example, in Romantic Comedies this is often where the protagonist falls in love; but there is a sting in the tail at the end of the sequence in which love is hindered and the protagonist faces an unexpected setback.
(In Boogie Nights, Dirk rises to the top, but becomes too cocky and gets fired. In Sideways, Miles finally gets his act together and goes to see Maya at the restaurant, but she’s not working that night).
Heather’s famous video confession in The Blair Witch Project
The end of this sequence also corresponds to the end of Act Two; again either an “up” or “down” ending depending on the climax to the overall film.
The end of Sequence F can be viewed as either a “false victory” or “false defeat.” Either the hero seemingly wins the day—All is Joy—but it’s a temporary victory, or they wind up in a worst place than at the start of the film—All is Lost—but it’s a fleeting defeat.
However, often in Horror, things reach a low point at the end of this sequence and then get even worse at the Climax.
(A high point is reached in the film In Search of a Midnight Kiss, when Wilson and Vivian kiss at midnight. A low point occurs in The Blair Witch Project, when Heather makes a direct-to-camera apology to her parents, realizing she’s going to die).
This is often the shortest sequence of the screenplay as it’s all about urgency and motion—the Race for the Prize, as The Flaming Lips once sang.
The protagonist has finally realized what needs to be done to crack the mystery / get the girl / catch the killer etc.
The climax to Sequence G corresponds directly to the Climax to the whole film, wrapping up the A story on either an “up” or “down” beat, and tying up any loose ends.
In Drama and Comedy the protagonist has usually learned a great lesson. They are not the same person they were at the beginning of the film.
In fact, they have performed a complete u-turn and now want the exact opposite thing from what they wanted at the start.
In Action / Adventure the transformation is sometimes great, (Wanted) and sometimes insignificant (James Bond).
In Thrillers, the arc is usually minimal, as it is in Horror, where the protagonist’s primary concern is escape and survival.
Alternatively, this sequence can be an All is Lost (or All is Joy) success or failure, in exactly the same way as the new goal established at the Midpoint ended in a success or failure at the end of Sequence E.
(In The Godfather, Michael becomes head of the family. Benjamin dies at the end of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).
The composition of this sequence depends on how the previous one ended.
Obviously, if Sequence G ended with the Screenplay Climax, the movie’s over, but if it ended with an All is Lost / All is Joy success / failure, then this sequence becomes in effect Sequence G—the protagonist’s sprint to solve the screenplay’s main goal before it’s too late.
(In The Heartbreak Kid remake (2007), there are eight sequences ending on Sequence H. Sequence G ends with an All is Lost failure when Eddie fails to win back Miranda. An eighth Sequence H then begins with him packing up and leaving town, before we jump a year and a half in time when Miranda turns up to provide the film’s neat ending).
We hope this has helped! For a fully comprehensive look at just how sequences work within three act structure making screenplays that much easier to write, check out our website ScriptReaderPro.com: http://www.scriptreaderpro.com/
Thanks for reading!
Alex, Scott, Rebecca, and David