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.