Sequence - the "Secret" Structure of Movies

I knew there was something I was forgetting. When Malvin Wald died recently, I tried to remember what I actually learned in his class...but that was so long ago. I only remembered that he didn't know how to use a VCR, wrote the script for the most popular documentary of Marilyn Monroe, and the guy who wrote a Crossroads won the Nissan FOCUS award.

What I was missing, and so desperately needed to remember, was Sequence. I was reminded of this when someone on Triggerstreet asked if anyone used the Sequence approach. Ding-ding! Bells went off, and I Googled it. Turns out there's a book on the subject now.

Now, you read a lot about the Three Act Structure, which is the most common (though certainly not only) dramatic structure for plays in Western literature. Screenplays, in many ways, evolved from stage plays...but there was one physical element of early movies that was a stronger determining factor than drama in how a film was put together: the reel.

Reels were ten minutes long. Each reel typically was a self-contained mini-movie, or sequence. The sequences still hold together in the context of a larger narrative, build on one another and move the overall story forward - but by making each ten-minute section it's own piece of narrative, you keep the movie, well, moving.

An average movie would have eight or nine sequences. Each one focuses on a character, leads up to a complication, and has a resolution (if only a partial one, that leads to further complications - and thus further sequences.) These sequences can blend well with a three-act structure, the mini-resolutions falling around the turning points, or they can be seen as following their own rhythm. Shorter sequences, interspersed, can be used to develop sub-plots.

As a screenwriter, it's less intimidating to approach ten- to twelve-page sections. As a film-goer, it's more interesting to watch a film that has smaller sequences with rising action, conflict and resolution in each of them. It's also closer to the approach used by TV writers (each section between commercials is sometimes called an "act" but is really a sequence.)

By focusing on sequences, it becomes much easier to keep the story moving through the dreaded middle-of-the-second-act doldrums.

I've been stuck on a screenplay for months. Starting it, stopping, looking at my outline, re-evaluating my characters - because I couldn't find a way to get through the middle to the end. I had my beginning and ending down, and was on the verge of letting this one go...but remembering Sequences has let me work out an outline for the entire main plot of my screenplay, and I'm going through now and fine-tuning it. But it's all there. And my "second act" has not four Sequences, but five. And if I feel that I need to break them down further, I can - keeping in mind that each one needs to have rising action and a resolution.


Spent this evening browsing blogs I hadn't read before (and now am subscribed to far too many, but I will thin out the crop after I watch then for a while), and in doing so found a couple of quotes I love. I'll be using these in my signatures.

One script. One feature. One pilot. One credit. No one in or out of this Guild is more than 120 pages away from the A-list. - Josh Friedman

Cinema and storytelling is there to smash the jail that we've put ourselves in.
- Anthony Minghella

Ones I have already been rotating for my signatures include:

Screenwriting and filmmaking is the most money you can make writing poetry - Gordy Hoffman

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass... - Anton Chekhov

Script Frenzy

I do well with deadlines, so something like Script Frenzy is perfect for me. A complete screenplay in 30 days (or less.)

Also -
I used to direct those seeking a quick summary of screenwriting format to the Nicholl's page on the subject, but Script Frenzy's is more complete, plus they have worksheets for character, setting and such. So this is my new go-to.

Mystery Man Does It Again

This is why I have a massive intellectual crush on Mystery Man,
and why he has respect from many as one of the most interesting and informative bloggers on screenwriting on the web.


Feeling very optimistic.
Have been stuck on a screenplay that I wrote the first draft of a few years ago and am doing a page one re-write on. Last night as I was falling asleep, I had a huge breakthrough - that what's needed is to take the idea back to the original.

I'd made some changes to the main character as I developed it, and in retrospect, those changes weakened her, resulting in a stronger secondary character and too little external conflict.

If I take the character back to what my original concept of her was, while keeping those elements of conflict that have been added as I've gone along, then I think it will work.

Write What You Know

Imagination is a powerful tool. It can carry us into areas that no one before has ever conceived of, it can solve problems, it can pull beauty from nearly nothing. Imagination is essential to a writer. So why then, are new writers so often admonished to "write what you know?"

The truth is, for a writer who knows themselves, there is no contradiction.

Our imaginings are the product, just as everything else about us, of a combination of genetics and instinct with experience. It serves a function in our personal cognitive and social development (and in our development as a society, allowing humanity the diversity and adaptability that makes us so distinct from other species...even our ability to communicate with one another through language involves a level of abstraction that's greater than most species and thus an imagination to interpret - but that's another topic.)

In short, even the most grandiose or unusual imaginings are founded on things we know. But for most writers, imagination is not a problem. Those of us who are driven to create are more likely to have an active imagination that tends to wheel off in its own direction, that becomes it's own incentive to create. Thus, the admonition "write what you know" is a way to help ground our work.

It can function in the basic sense of knowing your material. Do research, character background studies, and know the reality behind the story.

It can function to encourage writers to experience life, to have a broader range to draw from.

But I think that the most useful and powerful function of writing what you know is specificity. The more specific and personal a work, the greater the likelihood that it will transcend itself and become universal.

It becomes "real" in ways we can't anticipate when we know that a brand of tennis shoes that were popular in a time a place our characters occupy, when we know that a certain carpet color is common to cheap motels built in the 80's, when we know how you hold a fishing line and how much room you need to cast a fly. Because when we know these things, our audience has a point of reference, and it becomes real to them.

Humans are social. We desire belonging, we are constantly (usually unconsciously) searching for connection. When a writer provides points of connection by giving specific, clear details, then the audience will join them.

It becomes "real" in ways that are surprising when we talk about our bi-racial friend who buys giant dubs to prove he's black while bragging about "sounding" white on the phone. Or about the dweeb who tells us for weeks how beautiful and sexy we are, turning up when we're out for coffee or at the grocery store, but the minute we say clearly that we're not interested pointedly calls us a fat bitch, and then whines because being a "nice guy" gets them nowhere. And the feeling of helplessness as we watch our mother on life support, surrounded by plastic tubes and wires that seem to hold a once-dynamic woman in stasis. The more specific you are about your experiences, the more likely you are to have people tell you they understand, and that it's "just like" something they've gone through.

So that feeling of helplessness gets attached to an image of an astronaut, so dependent on the tubes that connect her to life. Or the dweeb backs up their aggressive response to rejection with a knife. And bi-racial guy becomes a human raised in an alien environment. Focus on the specifics, and these situations will become familiar not only to us, but to an audience.

Thus, a writer must know themselves, so that when they do imagine flying, they can place the sensation of the rush as they dive through the air as something akin to riding a roller coaster. So that when feel a rush as they ride a roller coaster, they can think: this is what superman feels like when he's flying.

Know yourself. Pay attention. And then write what you know.

Defending Home

My contribution to the Triggerstreet collaborative screenplay titled Hate.


An iron gate with a rusted chain and heavy padlock guards the stairway into a dilapidated apartment building.

At the top of a short flight of stairs a dark wooden door, pulled off its hinges, leans against the frame.

Plaster, painted an ugly late-communist shade of yellow, cracks away from crumbling brick walls.

From behind the door, JIRI emerges with a ladder and a toolbelt. He runs a hand through his limp black mohawk, sets the door in its frame, and attaches the lower hinge.

(O.S.) A loud slam followed by muffled cursing.

Jiri jumps down the steps and peers out the gate.

Cobblestones line the floor of the entryway before the gate. The graffiti is a mixture of the political and the obscene - anarchy signs and cunts.

One end of the entryway is open to a courtyard enclosed with a two-story brick wall. At the other, a pair of heavy doors shelter the space from the street.

The doors open and JACK (40, American) steps in, walking with the especial purposefulness of a drunk attempting to look sober. He cradles something inside his motorcycle jacket, and gestures for BESNIK to follow him.

Besnik's dark hair and moustache are streaked with gray, as is the dingy black coat that tops his workman's jumpsuit. He shakes his head, and steps into the entry.
Jezis! Drzhobo.

Are you telling me to shut up? Me? Do you forget who I am?

Tak fine: drzhobo, Sensei.

He bows slightly.
That's more like it. Come, have a drink with me and...


Jack pulls a bottle of Becherovka out of his jacket.
OK. Let me finish this.

He turns back to his work, and nods at someone coming down the stairs.

SARA (26, American) sticks her head around the corner.
I knew that was you, Jack.


You're drunk.

And I'll still kick your ass.

Ah, yes, drunken master.

Aw, you speak so sweetly to me, my darling. Sara, me girl, come have a drink with your husband for it is cold in our abode and I must numb myself before I sleep.

Sara steps around Jiri on his ladder and unlocks the padlock.
This is Besnik, he works across the street, on the restoration.
Jiri hops down from the ladder. Offers Besnik a cigarette.

Yes. I am a mason.

He takes the cigarette, lights it, and then offers one from his own pack to Jiri, and to Sara.

What will it be?

Sara declines the cigarette, but Jiri accepts with a nod.
A bank, I'm afraid.

That's not good. We're not quite legal yet. The neighbors don't like us. A bank...They will not like a squat across the street.


The door at the top of the landing is attached now. It's been painted bright blue.

(O.S.) A loud slam, followed by the sound of several pairs of booted feet.
Police in black riot gear storm the building.

One officer has a bullhorn.
(in Czech)
Police. Open the gate.

Jiri opens his door, sees them, and immediately runs further up into the building.
Have your identity ready.

Another officer with a large pair of bolt cutters snaps the lock. The gate swings forward, and the police rush up the stairs.

Out in the courtyard, Sara and Jack jump from a window onto the top of a low building. Sara reaches behind her and catches a baby. Another couple drops onto the roof, and all of them run across it, and disappear into a neighboring yard.


KAREL, his hoodie up, drinks a beer and sits on the steps just inside the gate, which is held closed with a new lock. A candle burns beside him.

Jack and Sara return.

Karel hands them keys and pulls out a smoke.
We had to get you out. We knew they would be looking for you.


In Germany, they claimed foreigners in the squats were proof of an international conspiracy. The squat is not illegal, but conspiracy...

He opens the gate.


The couple with the baby return. HELENA sings a Russian lullaby to the baby in IVAN's arms.

They see the new lock on the gate.

She walks to the courtyard, and from the shadows jumps a SKINHEAD BOY with a bat, followed by two others.

They knock her down, and kick her.

A boy rushes Ivan.
(in Czech)
No foreigners in our fatherland.

He turns around and covers the baby with his body as the bat strikes him across the back.

Footsteps on the stairs. Half a dozen anarchists come running down, shouting.

Helena tries push herself up to stand, but one of the skinheads kicks her arms out from under her.

She screams as her arm breaks.

The skinheads run away, taking advantage of the moment it takes to get the padlock open to get away.


Jiri, Karel, and Ivan stand with a few other at attention in a martial arts stance, facing Jack. Some of them wear a black gi under their hoodies.

Helena, her arm in a cast, watches.

They go through their forms in pairs, sparring. Jiri and Karel are good. The others are less practiced.

Jack walks through them and corrects their form.
Stop, stop.

They stop.

He hands a stick to Karel, and lights a cig. Karel swings at him, and he deflects it without even turning to look, then quickly strikes Karel, stopping his fist less than an inch from the kid's nose.
This is real. Not something to look cool. Do every movement knowing that you are being attacked. Next time, we will be ready. Now, again.

They spar again, this time with renewed focus.


Snow drifts into the entryway from the courtyard. Karel and another kid play guitars and thrash their heads, while a girl with pink dredlocks dances. Beer bottles have started to pile up around them.

A pounding on the street door, and it flies open. The police are back. The kids hold up their hands.


The gate is on the ground, the hinges cut and the frame pulled from the wall.
Anarchists sit on the stairs, holding bats, sticks, and flashlights. Some are in the courtyard. They are on alert.
(in Czech)
The fascist police, and their friends the skinheads may force us out before the bank opens, but this is our home.

Put out those lights. Get ready.

The anarchists disappear into the dark.


The street door creaks open. Five skinheads come in, quietly. One reaches down and picks up a loose cobblestone. One opens the blue door and Jiri and Jack come out at them.

The skinheads are surrounded.

Someone puts on blaring punk music, and shouts of "skinheady" and "fascisti" punctuate the fighting.

The skinheads make their way back down the stairs, noses bloodied and eyes blackened. More anarchists come at them from the courtyard. Jack gives one a kick that makes him fall and hit his head on the broken gate.

The Skinhead Boy that attacked Ivan tries to help his fallen comrade up, but the anarchists pummel them.
Let him go!

Reluctantly, everyone backs off and the skinheads limp away.


Besnik plays a soulful violin, as Jack, Sara, and the others pass a bottle. Snow catches the moonlight in the courtyard.

Karel fingers his guitar.
Can you play anything a little more exciting than that gypsy stuff?

I like it.

You Americans. We have a saying:
(in Czech)
The only thing stranger than a foreigner is a gypsy.

What do you mean by that?

I just want some good punk music!

The other anarchists shout in agreement.
So, get up here!

Karel stands beside him, and Besnik begins strumming his violin like a guitar.


It's still and quiet. The street door opens, and the Skinhead Boy backs into the entryway, dragging a body.

He lays it beside the broken gate. It's Besnik, unconscious or worse. Blood shines in matted hair on his forehead.

The Skinhead Boy pulls out a gun, and hides around the corner in the courtyard.
Jack and Sara come down the stairs.
Wait, I have to piss.

You drunk.


She crosses her arms, and notices Besnik on the ground.

Jack unbuttons his pants as he walks.

Sara bends down, touching Besnik's forehead.
Jack. Oh no.

When Jack turns to see what's wrong, Skinhead Boy steps out.
(in Czech)
Death to gypsies and foreigners.

Jack looks down the barrel of the gun.

Gunfire. Blackness.

Sara screams.