So hopefully you took the last exercise seriously and are now armed with a Top Ten list and a hundred pages of all your story ideas, and woke up this morning with THE book that you want to write for NaNoWriMo. If not, keep working! It'll come.
What I'm going to talk about in the next few posts is the key to the story structuring technique I write about and that everyone's always asking me to teach. Those of you new to this blog are going to have to do a little catch up and review the concept of the Three Act Structure (in fact, everyone should go back and review.)
the real secret of film writing and filmmaking, that we are going to
steal for our novel writing, is that most movies are written in a
Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure. Yes, most movies can be broken up
into 8 discrete 12-15-minute sequences, each of which has a beginning,
middle and end.
eight-sequence structure evolved from the early days of film when movies
were divided into reels (physical film reels), each holding about ten
minutes of film (movies were also shorter, proportionately). The
projectionist had to manually change each reel as it finished. Early
screenwriters (who by the way, were mostly playwrights, well-schooled in
the three-act structure) incorporated this rhythm into their writing,
developing individual sequences that lasted exactly the length of a
reel, and modern films still follow that same storytelling rhythm. (As
movies got longer, sequences got slightly longer proportionately). I'm
not sure exactly how to explain this adherence, honestly, except that,
as you will see IF you do your homework - it WORKS.
the eight-sequence structure actually translates beautifully to novel
structuring, although we have much more flexibility with a novel and you might end up with a few more sequences in a book. So I want to get you familiar with the eight-sequence structure in
film first, and we’ll go on to talk about the application to novels.
you’re new to story breakdowns and analysis, then you'll want to check
out my sample breakdowns (links at end of this post, and full breakdowns
are included in the workbook)
and watch several, or all, of those movies, following along with my
notes, before you try to analyze a movie on your own. But if you want
to jump right in with your own breakdowns and analyses, this is how it
Take a film from the master list, the Top Ten list you've made, preferably the one that is most
similar in structure to your own WIP, and screen it, watching the time
clock on your DVD player (or your watch, or phone.). At about 15 minutes into the film, there will
be some sort of climax – an action scene, a revelation, a twist, a big
SET PIECE. It won’t be as big as the climax that comes 30 minutes into
the film, which would be the Act One climax, but it will be an
identifiable climax that will spin the action into the next sequence.)
through the movie, stopping to identify the beginning, middle, and end
of each sequence, approximately every 15 minutes. Also make note of the
bigger climaxes or turning points – Act One at 30 minutes, the Midpoint
at 60 minutes, Act Two at 90 minutes, and Act Three at whenever the
NOTE: You can also, and probably should,
say that a movie is really four acts, breaking the long Act Two into two
separate acts. Hollywood continues to use "Three Acts". Whichever
works best for you!
So how do you recognize a sequence?
generally a series of related scenes, tied together by location and/or
time and/or action and/or the overall intent of the hero/ine.
many movies a sequence will take place all in the same location, then
move to another location at the climax of the sequence. The protagonist
will generally be following just one line of action in a sequence, and
then when s/he gets that vital bit of information in the climax of a
sequence, s/he’ll move on to a completely different line of action,
based on the new information. A good exercise is to title each sequence
as you watch and analyze a movie – that gives you a great overall
picture of the progression of action.
But the biggest
clue to an Act or Sequence climax is a SETPIECE SCENE: there’s a
dazzling, thematic location, an action or suspense sequence, an
intricate set, a crowd scene, even a musical number (as in The Wizard of Oz and, more surprisingly, Jaws. And Casablanca, too.).
let's not forget - it can be a sex scene. In fact for my money ANY sex
scene in a book or film should be approached as a setpiece.
The setpiece is a fabulous lesson to take from filmmaking, one of the most valuable for novelists, and possibly the most crucial for screenwriters.
There are multiple definitions of a setpiece. It can be a huge action scene like, well, anything in The Dark Knight,
that takes weeks to shoot and costs millions, requiring multiple sets,
special effects and car crashes… or a meticulously planned suspense
scene with multiple cuts that takes place all in - a shower, for
instance, in Psycho.
you start watching movies specifically to pick out the setpiece scenes,
you’ll notice an interesting thing. They’re almost always used as act
or sequence climaxes. They are tentpoles holding the structure of the
movie up… or jewels in the necklace of the plotline. The scenes
featured in the trailers to entice people to see the movie. The scenes
everyone talks about after the credits roll.
That elaborate, booby-trapped cave in the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The crop-dusting plane chasing Cary Grant through the cornfield in North By Northwest. The goofy galactic bar in Star Wars. Munchkinland, the Scarecrow’s cornfield, the dark forest, the poppy field, the Emerald City, the witch’s castle in The Wizard of Oz. The dungeon – I mean prison – in Silence of the Lambs.
In fact you can look Raiders and Silence and see that every single
sequence contains a wonderful setpiece (The Nepalese bar, the
suspension bridge, the temple in Raiders…)
actually two great movies to use to compare setpieces, because one is so
big and action-oriented (Raiders) and one is so small, confined and
psychological (Silence), yet both are stunning examples of visual
A really great setpiece scene is a lot
more than just dazzling. It’s thematic, too, such as the prison
(dungeon for the criminally insane) in Silence of the Lambs.
That is much more than your garden variety prison. It’s a labyrinth
of twisty staircases and creepy corridors. And it’s hell: Clarice goes
through – count ‘em – seven gates, down, down, down under the ground to
get to Lecter. Because after all, she’s going to be dealing with the
devil, isn’t she? And the labyrinth is a classic symbol of an inner
psychological journey, just exactly what Clarice is about to go through.
And Lecter is a monster, like the Minotaur, so putting him smack in
the center of a labyrinth makes us unconsciously equate him with a
mythical beast, something both more and less than human. The visuals of
that setpiece express all of those themes perfectly (and others, too)
so the scene is working on all kinds of visceral, emotional,
Now, yes, that’s brilliant
filmmaking by director Jonathan Demme, and screenwriter Ted Talley and
production designer Kristi Zea and DP Tak Fujimoto… but it was all there
on Harris’s page, first, all that and more; the filmmakers had the good
sense to translate it to the screen. In fact, both Silence of the Lambs and Thomas Harris's Red Dragon
are so crammed full of thematic visual imagery you can catch something
new every time you reread those books, which made them slam dunks as
So here's another ASSIGNMENT for you: Bring me setpieces. What are some great ones? Check your watch. Are they act or sequence climaxes?
Another note about sequences: be advised that in big, sprawling movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,
sequences may be longer or there may be a few extras. It’s a formula
and it doesn’t always precisely fit, but as you work through your master
list of films, unless you are a surrealist at heart, you will be
shocked and amazed at how many movies precisely fit this eight-sequence
format. When you’re working with as rigid a form as a two-hour movie, on
the insane schedule that is film production, this kind of mathematical
precision is kind of a lifesaver.
Now, I could talk
about this for just about ever, but me talking is not going to get you
anywhere. You need to DO this. Watch the movies yourself. Do the
breakdowns yourself. Identify setpieces yourself. Ask as many
questions as you want here, but DO it - it's the only way you're really
going to learn this.
My advice is that you watch and
analyze all ten of your master list movies (and books). But not all at
once - screening one will get you far, three will lock it in, the rest
will open new worlds in your writing.
And every time
you see a movie now, for the rest of your life, look for the sequence
breaks and act climaxes, and setpieces. At first you will embarrass
yourself in theaters, shouting out things like "Hot damn!" Or "Holy
!@#$!!!"as you experience a climax. Uh... an Act Climax. But
eventually, it will be as natural to you as breathing, and you will find
yourself incorporating this rhythm into your storytelling without even
having to think about it. You may even be doing it already.
So go, go, watch some movies. It's WORK. (Don't you love this job?) And please, report your findings back here.
if you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, I
strongly recommend that you watch at least one and much better, three of
the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes.
I do full breakdowns of Chinatown, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Romancing the Stone, and The Mist, and act breakdowns of You've Got Mail, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Raiders of the Lost Ark in Screenwriting Tricks For Authors.
I do full breakdowns of The
Proposal, Groundhog Day, Sense and Sensibility, Romancing the Stone,
Leap Year, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, While
You Were Sleeping and New in Town in Writing Love.
Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.
- Amazon UK
- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)
- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)
- Barnes & Noble/Nook
- Amazon UK
- Amazon DE
Previous NaNoWriMo Posts
- October is NaNoWriMo PREP month
- What's your premise?