Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Nanowrimo Prep: The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

by Alexandra Sokoloff

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.)

But 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.

I swear.

The eight-sequence structure evolved from the early days of film when movies were divided into reels (physical film reels), each holding about ten to fifteen 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).

You can read older film scripts and see the sequence designations typed into the script: Sequence One, Sequence Two, Sequence Three, etc.

Obviously these days we have digital projection and no one is up in that projection booth scrambling to change reels, but modern films still follow that same storytelling rhythm. Because what storytelling form came along mid-twentieth century that really locked that cliffhanger rhythm into place?

Right! Television! Network TV writers always end a sequence on a cliffhanger before the station cuts away to a commercial break. It’s just too easy to change channels, otherwise

And 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.

If you’re new to story breakdowns and analysis, then you'll want to check out my sample breakdowns (full breakdowns are included in the workbooks) 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 works:

        ASSIGNMENT: 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 SETPIECE. 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.)

Proceed 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 movie ends.

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?

It's 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.

In 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.).

Or, 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 (or set piece; the words are used interchangeably).  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.

If 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…)

Those are 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 storytelling.

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, subconscious levels.

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 movies.

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. 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.

And I may regret saying this, but I'll take suggestions of movies for me to break down here. I may not have the time this month, but no harm in asking!



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.

 Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT

If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


Angry Wombat said...

heh, you asked for it!
I would love to see a breakdown from you about one of the movies I'm keeping an eye on. "Pan's Labyrinth" or "Up!".

I'm going to try to take my hand at Last Samurai and Wreck it Ralph (if i get enough time):)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I've taught "Up" to my film classes so I'm sure I'll get around to that one... maybe sooner rather than later!

Wreck It Ralph is a good one. I've still never seen Last Samurai!

Angry Wombat said...

Well, finally managed to just list out all the scenes and whats happening in each one.

Was a fascinating experience!

The scenes are really short - mostly around the 1:10-1:40 mark, with a couple of extra long ones that act more like a series of blurred scenes (I think).

The big "set piece" action scenes were pretty spot on:
24m (captured),
67m (assassination attempt),
96m (escape from tokyo),
115m (Big battle starts 20 mins!)

It was easy to understand the why of all the scenes in 1st act. Setting up our troubled hero, day in the life, his problem, setting the stakes(couple of times actually), introducing a few characters - especially the 2 "antagonists" - obvious dark mirror, and the "big bad".

from the 2nd act (3rd seq) its going to take some more time, as we have 2 "main characters" it seems. ALgren (american seeking self-purpose) and Katsumoto (japanese wanting influence). We are repeatedly told they are practically the same - the old vs new that is the heart of this film.

I need to find more vocab for character types and structure so I can explain this better I think.

Also might need some help in identifying a "scene". I have been taking it to be everything that happens at a single well defined spot in time. - Although the director plays havok with this a few times with his motages (although the voiceover is a uniting element there to define scenes) and his cross cutting between two lines of action - seems like two boring (or one good and one boring) scenes are jammed together to make it more interesting.

The Algren/Katsumoto twin stories is fascinating to try to unpack. They play off each other, and change positions of power as they continue, with periodic "conversation scenes" which seem to highlight the themes of the movie. Starts as Katsumoto basically chastising and teaching Algren. But after the midpoint Algren is acting more as a confidant/buddy. And in the 3rd act Algren is teaching/chastising Katsumoto.

The third act is, basically, one big battle. There is a great feeling of a tug of war that changes just about every 60-90 seconds - Traditionals winning, Modernist winning, back and forth... without that too and fro, this is basically rapid jumping around between characters in a chaotic battle, but the too and fro defines things much better - even the music follows. Half way through the 3rd act you get a rest point. A Pyrrhic victory by the traditionalists - they won the battle, but know they will loose as more regiments will come. SO they decide to mount a suicide charge.

The resolution is the longest scene in the movie - 7 minutes! Where Algren presents the sword of the dead Katsumoto to the Emperor. It has a lot of callbacks to lines from earlier in the movie, and here we see Algren has basically become Katsumoto (even going to repeat a line said by Katsumoto to the Emperor earlier). The "big bad" industrialists Japanese guy gets "killed" (told to go away, and all his stuff taken by the emperor) declares how Japan will decide between the "new and old" - thanks to Katsumoto's influence.

Angry Wombat said...


I'm going to need a day or so more to work out the specifics of what every scene does, but the basics are:

Main character: Algren, disheartened and looking for meaning in his life.

Conflict or movie: Tradition vs Modern, also Honour vs Selfishness. Personified by Katsumoto vs Omura.

Colonel Vagley is the "other american soldier - basically Algren if he had sided with Omura from the start.

1st act: Modern world: Set the stakes, show Algren and initiate conflict (framed as Civilized vs Savages)

1pp - algren captured.

2.1 act: Traditional world. Meet Katsumoto, process of Algren choosing a side (Traditionalists)

midpoint - Assassin attempt - Algren realises he's chosen and helps.

2.2 act Modern World. Raise stakes - No longer just choice - Algren is forced to act against old friends.

2pp - algren breaks Katsumoto out from house arrest.

3rd act - basically big fight. Physical fight is distraction, this is a fight for the "soul of Japan" that cant be won with swords..
Katsumoto self-sacrifice to "win" the real battle.

Finale - Shows impact of Katsumoto - finally makes the Emperor act when all previous words failed. Omura (and modernists) are symbolically killed, Emperor takes up the sword - "soul" of Katsumoto.

Angry Wombat said...

ok. hard question (maybe do next blog on this) - What defines a scene?

Started doing Wreck-It Ralph, and Im getting a problem with scenes in a very different way from Last Samurai.

Samurai tended to "mix different places" into single scenes, which confused me a lot.
Ralph is mixing emotional themes into places. Example of when Ralph has escaped King Candy and finds Venelope wiht her little car - we see the other Racers come and tease her about being the Glitch and trash her car. That feels like a scene. But Ralph runs in and chases them away, and then we get the whole why they both want the medal, and the deal to help each other out - that feels like a 2nd scene.
But its all in the same place and the characters and camera smoothly move between the two - there doesn't seem to be a break at all...


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I haven't seen it, but It sounds like Last Samurai may have a dual character structure, which is sometimes used especially to demonstrate a theme, as you're saying. Sense and Sensibility is a totally different genre, but uses that structure.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Epics and action movies often have multiple locations within the same scene - film is very flexible that way. And the montages I would really call sequences rather than scenes (or just - montages!) - again, often used in epics and action to show passage of time and a cumulative training, for example.

In the example you give from Wreck-It Ralph, yes, you're right, those are two different scenes, even though they take place in the same location and are continuous in time. In theater there is a designation called "French scenes." Basically whenever a new character comes on stage, a new scene begins. You wouldn't want to take that literally in analyzing a movie! But in the case of the scenes you're talking about, and probably in UP, too, as I remember it, that's what's happening.

You happen to be choosing movies are breaking the more traditional format of a scene taking place pretty much in one location. But it sounds like you're figuring it out just fine!

Teresa Walker said...

A couple of movies I'd like to try this with are The Lego Movie, and American Hustle.

Angry Wombat said...

OK, well, seems I'm getting a few things right :)

anitaDK said...

Dear Alex - remember me? Anita from Denmark with the Magical Realism project from a couple of years back. I am looking through my files from back then and also, at the moment taking an Oxford online fiction writing course - I just needed to thank you and tell you that you are WAY WAY better at teaching writing than they are at Oxford. I hope you will take this as a big compliment and I recall our fantastically inspiring course with you. My project has been running low but I have been working hard for the past few months - hoping to succeed. Love and all the best in Scotland, Anita in DK

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Teresa. I liked American Hustle a lot. I'm not sure you could pay me to see the Lego movie. :)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Well, hi, Anita - how nice to see you here again! Thanks so much for the compliment. The trouble with so many online teachers is that they're not really working writers. Talking about these concepts in the abstract is not the same as learning them in the trenches.

I hope you power down on your writing this fall!