Q & A

I've decided to create a Q & A page to respond to your questions in one place.

 I always ask people to post questions in the Comments section of posts rather than email me directly, so that everyone who reads the blog can get the benefit of the responses.

But I've found that people tend to ask questions on old posts and it can be months (or never!) before I actually find them.

So maybe having a dedicated page for Q & A will make questions easier to ask and answer. We'll give it a try!

For example, in my classes and on my blog, I often get a variation of this question:

What is a sequence, exactly?

“I don't completely understand what a sequence is. I can tell you its climax will have a setpiece; will deliver on the premise; will be a genre scene; has a beginning, middle, and end; there are eight of them in a movie . . . But I don't understand EXACTLY what is a sequence. I understand an Act; I understand a scene. Can you help me understand the difference between sequence and scene (besides that a sequence is series of scenes)?”

Great question! The confusion is because we're talking about two different kinds of sequences.

1. When I talk about the Eight Sequence Structure, that's a term very specific to movies (that I think is useful to understand and work with when writing novels).


2. The term "sequence" actually is more often used to mean something different, which is: "A collection of scenes focused on a single central action (and sometimes taking place in the same location, in real time) with a beginning, middle, and end."

Really, when I'm talking about the eight sequences of a movie, a better term would be SEGMENT. Because Sequence One, or Segment One, of a movie might be just one sequence as I defined in #2 above, but more often it will be composed of two or three sequences as defined in #2.

For example, Sequence One (or Segment One) of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which you could call the South America sequence, or the Cave sequence, is also a complete sequence unto itself. It is composed of several scenes all focused on one central action (stealing the gold idol), taking place in approximately the same location and in a discrete time frame. (That is, there is unity of time, space, and action. If you're not familiar with this dramatic concept of unities, Google “the unities” and check out what Aristotle had to say about it.) There's the approach to the cave, finding the cave, the perils inside the cave, the snatching of the idol, the escape from the cave, the reversal that rival Belloq and the warriors take the idol away from Indy, and the escape from the warriors and departure in the plane. It's all continuous action with one particular goal (that turns to simple survival in the end).  

But more often, what is called Sequence One of a movie (or book), that is, the first segment, will not be as unified and cohesive as that. Instead of being one unified sequence, as in the example from Raiders above, it will ramble through different scenes you could loosely call the SET UP, which will usually end with a twist or revelation that will take the action in another direction.

In fact, I would just start calling the eight sequences eight SEGMENTS for clarity, but it's never a good idea to mess around with such an entrenched vocabulary.

There are very few movies or books in which each of the eight Sequences (or Segments) are actually discrete sequences, but some come close. Classic movies tend to have more defined sequences partly because they were shot almost entirely on sets, rather than on location. A set goes a long way toward imposing unity of action.

A more modern example, Four Weddings and a Funeral, has very clear sequences, with each Act actually marked off by the wedding invitation cards announcing the bride and groom of each wedding. (As you start to look more critically at films, you'll see that filmmakers love to find that kind of visual act curtain; you see it at work in all kinds of movies: The Sting, Chinatown, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Professional, Collateral and that's just off the top of my head.) In Four Weddings each quarter of the movie (Act I, Act II:1, Act II:2, Act III) takes place at a different wedding, and each wedding is divided into the same basic parts: The wedding itself, the reception, then the love plot between Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell as they leave the reception to go tryst. This is a great structural pattern to follow because it's so like real life. A wedding ceremony is a completely different experience than the reception/party that follows the ceremony, and the party after the party is even better, a lot of the time. Although sometimes not!

You'll see that three-part pattern happens twice in that movie, in Act I and Act II:1. Then Act II:2 is divided into a wedding and a reception in which a death occurs, then a funeral and its aftermath, and Act III is divided into pre-wedding, the interrupted wedding, and the aftermath (and the wonderful wrap-up in the closing credits).

It's great if you can find that clear of a structure in your own story, but you don’t have to be that precise!!  Please don't kill yourself trying to find a perfect mathematical structure for your story; we writers have enough OCD issues already. However, as you get more attuned to how other storytellers use sequences, you will find that especially when you do rewrites, you will be able to craft scenes into more coherent sequences that give more of a flow and urgency to your story. And the idea of the eight-sequence structure can help you find the logical breaking points for sequences.

If you're struggling with the idea of sequences, in either sense of the word, my suggestion, as always, is to take several of your favorite movies and watch them specifically looking for how the filmmakers are using sequences. You'll soon catch on to how sequences keep the action flowing and the interest high, and that will keep you on the lookout for ways to combine more of your scenes into sequences.

You can post your own question in the Comments section here!


Anonymous said...

Just arrived here, Glad to find this. The trouble with all the screenwriting books/blogs and such is that they use different names for the SAME thing. That drives me nuts.

Re: Act 2. I understand the Midpoint Climax (thanks to you :) BUT what is the other plot point called before Act 3 begins? Is this plot point the one that is the "No" to the dramatic question? Does it have a name?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey there Anon - great question. The plot point before Act 3 is the Act II Climax. That seems confusing because Act II usually has two distinct parts, Act II:1 and Act II:2. But that three-quarter climax you're talking about is the Act II Climax, and almost always consists of the double-punch ALL IS LOST moment and the NEW REVELATION that propels the protagonist into Act III. And yes, it's the one that is usually the "no" to the dramatic question.

Does that makes sense?

Unknown said...

Just finished The Unseen which I really enjoyed. I was very interested in the 'Folger House'. Is it really as you described as I would be interested in seeing a picture of the real house. I live in the UK and dividing a house in half and moving it is something unheard of. Many thanks.

Unknown said...

Hi Alexandra, I'm taking your advice and turning one of my scripts into a novel but when I tried to transfer it into a word doc double-spaced like you said from my final draft it didn't really work. What am I doing wrong? Thanks, Rick

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Karen - I'm so glad you liked the book! There's a photo of the Weymouth House in this blog post - you can definitely see the different styles of house in the photo. http://axsokoloff.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/writing-unseen.html

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Rick - unfortunately I'm the last person to ask about formatting questions like this! I'm sure there's a Final Draft forum online where someone more tech savvy can help you. Good luck!

Yves Fey said...

Hi Alexandra,
I was just watching The Accountant, which has a good big secret/enemy who turns out to be an ally twist. And I thought of a couple of others. For the ultimate in irony, there is the totally atypical Charles Bronson movie, From Noon Till Three, a romantic, tragic, black comedy western. And my #1 favorite movie, Performance, which I can best describe as a metaphysical thriller, with the ultimate metaphysical twist.

Anonymous said...

This one's been bugging me for several weeks: What according to you is the thing that sets mystery and suspense apart?

Yves Fey said...

Here are some of my favorite set piece scenes:
Transformation of Chas/followed by Memo From Turner in Performance (actually, just about every scene is a set piece—stripping the car, the attack on Chas, etc.)
Love scene from Phaedra
Swinging in the Church from The English Patient
Meeting of Lawrence and Ali in Lawrence of Arabia
The ball in Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet.
Seasonal musical walk through Notting Hill
Ballet of The Red Shoes from the same.
First mime scene from Children of Paradise.
Casting the Spell/Breaking the Spell in Bell, Book and Candle
The “Talent” water glasses scene from Miss Congeniality
The ending of Casablanca.