Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Nanowrimo Prep: The Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure

Today we talk about maybe the most useful thing you can ever learn about story structure. If you read any post in this Nanowrimo Prep series, this is the one!

(If you're just joining us today, you'll want to read this post first:

Brainstorm Your Book with Index Cards
So last post I asked you to try brainstorming on index cards: writing down each scene you already know about your book on the cards, one scene per card. And if you did that, I bet you came up with all kinds of other scenes, right?

You'll probably want to keep brainstorming scenes. But now we can also go on to arranging these scenes into a story.

We're going to do that on a structure grid, like this:

Yikes! What the hell is THAT?

Well, there's a rhythm to dramatic storytelling, just as there’s a rhythm to every other pleasurable experience in life, and the technical requirements of film and television have codified this rhythm into a structure so specific that you actually already know what I’m about to say in this post, even if you’ve never heard it said this way before or consciously thought about it.

And what’s more, your reader or audience knows this rhythm, too, because of all the thousands of films and TV shows we've all seen in our lifetimes. Which means your reader unconsciously EXPECTS it. Which means whether you're writing film, TV or books, if you’re not delivering this rhythm, your reader or audience (or prospective agent or editor) is going to start worrying that something’s not right, and you have a real chance of losing them.
You don’t want to do that!

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So today we’re going get conscious, and talk about everyone’s favorite subject. You know it’s true! What’s not to like about a climax?
Early playwrights (and I’m talking really early, starting thousands of years ago in the Golden Age of Greece) were forced to develop the three-act structure of dramatic writing because of intermissions (or intervals). Think about it. If you’re going to let your audience out for a break a third of the way through your play, you need to make sure you get them back into the theater to see the rest of the play, right? After all, there are so many other things a person could be doing on a Saturday night….
So the three acts of theater are based on the idea of building each act to a CLIMAX: a cliffhanger scene that spins the action of the play in such an interesting direction that the audience is going to want to hurry back into the theater at the warning chime to see WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. Many plays have just one break, at the middle, so the Midpoint Climax is equally important.
This climactic rhythm was in operation for literally thousands of years before film and television came along and the need for story climaxes became even more, um, urgent. Not just because life was faster paced in the 20th century, but again, because of the technical requirements of film and television.
In a two-hour movie, you have not three climaxes, but seven, because film is based on an eight-sequence structure. And of course these days you'll need to factor in a teaser, something that happens in the first three minutes or so.
The eight-sequence structure evolved from the early days of film when movies were divided into reels (physical film reels), each holding about 10-15 minutes of film. The projectionist had to manually change each reel as it finished, so early screenwriters incorporated this rhythm into their writing, developing sequences that lasted exactly the length of a reel and built to a cliffhanger climax, so that in that short break that the projectionist was scrambling to get the new reel on, the audience was in breathless anticipation of “What happens next?” – instead of getting pissed off that the movie just stopped right in the middle of a crucial scene. (If you get hold of scripts for older movies, pre-1950’s, you can find SEQUENCE 1, SEQUENCE 2, etc, as headings at the start of each new sequence.)
Modern films still follow that same storytelling rhythm, because that rhythm was locked in by television – with its even more rigid technical requirements of having to break every fifteen minutes for a commercial. Which meant writers had to build to a climax every 15 minutes, to get audiences to tune back in to their show after the commercial instead of changing the channel.
So what does this mean to you, the novelist or screenwriter?
It means that you need to be aware that your reader or audience is going to expect a climax every 15 minutes in a movie – which translates to every 50 pages or so in a book. Books have more variation in length, obviously, so you can adjust proportionately, but for a 400-page book, you’re looking at climaxing every 50 pages, with the bigger climaxes coming around p. 100 (Act I Climax) p. 200 (Midpoint Climax), p. 300 (Act II Climax), and somewhere close to the end.

Also be aware that for a shorter movie or book, you may have only three acts and six sequences.
So again, if you put that structure on a grid, it looks like this:

Looking at that grid, you can see that what I started out in this article calling the three-act structure has evolved into something that is actually a four-act structure: four segments of approximately equal length (30 minutes or 100 pages), with Act II containing two segments (60 minutes or 200 pages, total). That’s because Act II is about conflict and complications. While plays tend to have a longer Act I, because Act I is about setting up character and relationships, the middle acts of films have become longer so that the movies can show off what film does best: action and conflict. And books have picked up on that rhythm and evolved along with movies and television, so that books also tend to have a long, two-part Act II as well.
You don’t have to be exact about this (unless you’re writing for network television, in which case you better be acutely aware of when you have to hit that climax!). But you do need to realize that if you’re not building to some kind of climax in approximately that rhythm, your reader or audience is going to start getting impatient, and you risk losing them.

Once you understand this basic structure, you can see how useful it is to think of each sequence of your story building to a climax. Your biggest scenes will tend to be these climaxes, and if you can fit those scenes onto the grid, then you already have a really solid set of tentpoles that you can build your story around.
So here’s a challenge: Start watching movies and television shows specifically looking for the climaxes. Use the clock on your phone or the counter on your DVD player to check where these climaxes are coming. It won’t take long at all for you to be able to identify climactic scenes, every 15 minutes or so.
Your next task is to figure out what makes them climactic!
I can give you a few hints. The most important thing is that the action of your story ASKS A QUESTION that the audience wants to know the answer to. But climaxes also tend to be SETPIECE scenes (think of the trailer scenes from movies, the big scenes that everyone talks about after the movie).
And what goes into a great setpiece scene?

That’s another post!
For today, try making yourself a structure grid. You can use a big piece of cardboard, or a white board or cork board, or Post-its on a blank wall. I particularly like trifold boards, like kids use for science projects - you can get them at any Office Depot or Staples for a few bucks.

Now take the index cards you've been brainstorming and start to stick them on the structure grid.

This is the fun part, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. If you know where a scene goes, or approximately where it goes, you can just pin it on your board in approximately the right place. You can always move the cards around. And just like with a puzzle, once you have some scenes in place, you will naturally start to build other scenes around them.

I love the cards because they are such an overview. You can stick a bunch of vaguely related scenes together in a clump, rearrange one or two, and suddenly see a perfect progression of an entire sequence. You can throw away cards that aren’t working or make several cards with the same scene and try them in different parts of your story board.
Can you pick out some scenes that are natural climaxes?

You will find it is often shockingly fast and simple to structure a whole story this way.

Give it a try! 

- Alex


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns, ten complete ones and lots of partials.


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Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.

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