The Eight Sequences in Detail
Act One, Sequence One (pages 1-12) is the Status Quo Sequence, which contains the Inciting Incident.
Consider the opening sequence carefully because it is the most important sequence in the script. Imagine that the screenplay arrives at the office of a potential producer. A young, inexperienced reader has been assigned to read the script and write a coverage document to be passed on to the next person in the process. Bore that reader and the reader will not recommend it. Consequently, the opening scenes should contain some of the best material in the story for hooking the interest of that reader. The first sequence of the summary is the first half of the first paragraph.
When we say that this sequence is about the introduction, we do not mean to have the characters walk about and introduce themselves to each other. In fact, minimize as much as possible what we refer to as the “handshake introduction” of characters. We need to learn the names of the important characters. That does not necessarily mean having the characters use verbal introductions such as “My name is John,” which can seem unnatural and be a waste of time and the actors’ talents.
An excellent example of character name introduction is in Romancing the Stone. In the film, we are introduced to Jack and the evil villain early on, but do not learn their names until well into the story. The audience sees Joan’s lonely life and her lack of romance. The character is a romance writer, and in the opening scenes this is shown rather than told. Part of the introduction is to establish the world in which the story will take place, the status quo. The protagonist’s status quo is the world before he or she is forced to make decisions that move the story forward.
You are trying to capture the reader’s attention and draw him or her into the story. An impulse of new writers is to have a page or more of colorful description of the world, the protagonist, and his smaller world. However, you are writing a screenplay, not a novel. Another mistake of new screenwriters is to have a lot of exposition, usually employing a narrator or a narrative scroll. The term for this type of writing is “lazy writing.” Yes, there are numerous scripts that begin using both of these methods and are made into films. But you want your material to stand out and appear new and fresh. A creative writer will find interesting ways to present information the reader needs to visualize the world and what is happening. Think creatively. Film is a visual medium, which requires communication of essentials to the audience through images. The temptation is to explain everything to the reader instead of creating visual word pictures, which is more conducive to intriguing, on-screen imagery.
For the first act, introduce the world you are fashioning. Show the norm for the protagonist and let the audience know the protagonist’s goal. Somewhere in the first five to seven pages, make known the basic want of the protagonist. The want is the external goal of our hero as opposed to what he or she needs, which is an internal struggle. For instance, the protagonist wants fame and fortune, but what they need is to learn to live with the resources that they have and not seek notoriety. The protagonist wants to win the beautiful person with all the right physical features, but what they need is to find his or her ideal companion.
However, the antagonist shakes the protagonist’s wants and world. The protagonist may not yet know that the antagonist is disrupting his or her world, but the protagonist does know that unpleasant or uncomfortable things are happening. The story line will dictate when the antagonist first appears in the story. Nevertheless, the goal of the antagonist should bump up against the want of the protagonist in this sequence. To begin, the audience at least needs to recognize who or what this person or force is and what danger the antagonist poses for the protagonist’s world.
The eternal debate rages among screenwriters over when the inciting incident should occur. Nevertheless, the prevailing belief is that it must occur in the first act, and it should happen as a natural part of the story. Therefore, it can occur as early as in the opening scene or the last scene of the second sequence.
Regardless, Sequence One ends with the first critical decision made at some point by the protagonist. As already mentioned, critical decisions are choices the protagonist must make to move the story forward. A certain choice would cause the story to end; another choice will wittingly or unwittingly propel the protagonist into the next sequence. The movie The Matrix illustrates this well. The protagonist must choose between two pills: a red pill or a blue pill. If Neo chooses the blue pill, his memories of the real world will be wiped away, and he will return to the ignorant bliss of believing that the world created by the antagonistic force is real. However, if Neo takes the red pill, he will become part of the movement that knows the painful reality. In short, if he chooses the blue pill the movie is over, but if he chooses the red pill Neo pushes the story forward to the next act.
If the inciting incident has not yet taken place, the first critical decision at the end of the introduction sequence will lead to it.
Act One, Sequence Two (pages 13-25) is the Predicament Sequence. In this sequence, the predicament central to the story is established. The Predicament Sequence is also known as the Setup, as it establishes the motivation for the protagonist in the second act. This sequence is the second half of the first paragraph of the synopsis.
Some person, people, or force is about to disrupt the protagonist’s first act goal. Circumstances and motivations force the protagonist into a new, unwanted direction. The protagonist stays on this new course in order to accomplish the overall objective. Obstacles are hinted at or begin to become clear.
Sometime during this sequence, the protagonist voluntarily or involuntarily makes a new objective, leading to the main story goal. The protagonist’s second objective will carry the story through act two. In Star Wars, the Empire kills Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle. There is nothing left for him on his planet so that he will accompany Obi-Wan Kenobi. When the Death Star captures their ship, Luke’s new goal is to rescue the princess.
The primary tension starts as the sequence ends with Plot Point One, also known as The Opt-Out Decision. At this point in the story, the protagonist has a significant critical decision to make. If the protagonist chooses one decision, then the story cannot go forward. However, whether the protagonist willingly makes the decision or is forced to make it, the decision that advances the story into the second act is made – blue pill, red pill. Now the protagonist is locked into a course of action and cannot easily change direction.
Act Two; Sequence Three (pages 26-38) is the First Obstacle and Raising of the Stakes Sequence. The protagonist shifts to his or her new goal and the central part of the story begins.
Without this screenwriting process for organizing a screenplay, somewhere between sequences three and four is where most “great ideas” falter. Many scripts die here.
Novice writers who start writing the screenplay before fleshing out sequences three through six using this process will find the story stalling. They had the beginning and the end, but a story has three parts – a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Be prepared to work very hard. You will stare out the window because staring at a screen that has not changed or a notebook with blank pages can be frustrating. But a dedicated, hard-working screenwriter will push on to the second act.
The second act involves the complex development of the plot. The writer is doing more than preparing the way for the resolution. If you do not have a clear picture of where the story is going, the middle section will be confounding. In many cases, this happens because the writer had a great beginning and a smashing ending and thought the middle would write itself when he or she arrived at that point. Wrong. It bears being repeated: the second act is the story and, therefore, the midpoint is a key to telling that story. Understand that the second act is not filler. Keeping the audience invested and interested until the end is the reason for making the film. It is the essence of three-act structure. For all the brilliance of the beginning and end of great films, they would not be great films without an impressive second act.
Think of it in these terms: two scared little robots are on a spaceship being attacked. A pretty princess gives them plans for destroying a huge wicked battle star; the robots then deliver the plans to the Rebellion, and they blow the Death Star up. That was not a story. The middle sequences make the above description the beginning and the end of a great story.
Act two of the screenplay is where most screenplays fall apart. Act two contains sequences three, four, five, and six. If you think that you have a great idea, you are about to enter the critical phase of developing the concept into a story. Consider the second act structure carefully. These four sequences are vitally important to the process. Do not cut corners. What happens in this part of the script will determine if the concept can become an actual movie.
Diving into the third sequence, the protagonist has the new objective but hits the first of the obstacles that will make achieving that goal harder. Since the protagonist is locked into a course of action, there is no backing out. The price of failure is laid out, along with the exposition that was left unfinished from the first act. With this new information, the protagonist realizes how difficult the new goal is going to be to accomplish. Now the protagonist knows that he or she is in serious trouble. When we say exposition, it does not mean that some character gives a speech about the problem or the danger, which is the plot of the antagonist. Once again, there is that word “creativity.” If the protagonist fails, find interesting ways to demonstrate or convey the consequences whenever possible. If the writer does not have time to explain what will happen if the antagonist wins, that job of explanation is given to a character to do through dialogue. But if you want your script to stand out from others, find a way to minimize exposition.
In the paragraph describing the protagonist, you defined the arc the hero will take to becoming a different person. In the second act, that change starts to happen. However, do not try to rush the protagonist into that new persona. Unfortunately for the protagonist, he or she should still be making decisions the same way they did at the beginning in the first two sequences, and it only makes things worse instead of better. If the protagonist was a law-abiding citizen, he continues to obey the law, yet things do not improve. A protagonist who does things against the grain continues to fight the system, and that only gets him or her into more trouble. Those old thought patterns just do not work. It is the definition of insanity, doing the same thing repeatedly, but expecting different results. It appears that the protagonist is not big enough, strong enough, or smart enough to solve the problem, defeat the antagonist, or conquer the situation. The protagonist and all those who are relying on him or her are in trouble.
There are usually subplots that begin with the third sequence. The screenwriter might allude to them in the first act, but setting them up is part of the function of this section. At this point in the story, another character or the antagonist frequently forces the critical decision the protagonist makes, which brings the sequence to a conclusion for him or her.
Act Two; Sequence Four (pages 39-51) is the First Culmination and Midpoint Sequence.
The essence of the midpoint is this: the story was going in one direction through sequence three and four, and now the writer must turn it around to go in another direction toward the conclusion. It could be that the protagonist has received a piece of information that rocks the world.
Some discovery or the injury or death of another character shakes the protagonist. The protagonist’s world is in chaos. The protagonist was making decisions and acting in his old manner, but is learning that the old stuff does not work. It is time to change and you, as the writer, must show how the protagonist reaches this new epiphany. Be creative. As a movie is visual, showing the change in the protagonist is much, much better and preferred over a character telling the audience how it happens.
The protagonist knows to make a change in tactics and is on the arc to a new persona, which starts by making decisions in a new way. It could mean that the protagonist decides to take the fight to the antagonist instead of passive resistance. He tried to obey the law; now he will break a few laws. The rebellion is going to attack the evil empire; the good guy challenges the bad guy to a duel, or the hero decides he is no longer going to run away. However, the pursuit of a new course of action will stretch the protagonist, and that raises the stakes as he or she enters into unchartered territory. The antagonist might feel that they are beyond their skill level, but this is the point of no return. The main character faces the choice to do or die or succeed or fail.
It is time for a midpoint critical decision, and the protagonist chooses to put the new plan in place. He has set the story on that new course.
With sequences three and four completed, the main portion of the story plot is set. But we are not going to rush to the end just yet. The protagonist still has much to learn and the plan never goes quite as planned. The protagonist has one final goal to set for the third act, so the last two sequences will move him or her toward making it.
Act Two; Sequence Five (pages 52-64) is the Subplots and Rising Action Sequence.
The protagonist may have a new plan to take on the antagonist or the antagonistic force, but it will take time for preparation, training, or accumulating the resources to make the plan work. During this sequence, the subplots play through. Most subplots are resolved by the seventh sequence. They might be a love story, reconciliation, or a chance for the hero to recover from a wound. Minor characters are momentarily taking the focus off of the protagonist. Sometimes, this can be a rest from the action that lulls the audience into relaxing and taking a breath so that you can set up an even more intense action or drama for the next sequence.
Nevertheless, the tension remains and the action continues to rise, albeit more slowly through these pages.
As the protagonist deals with the wound that has plagued him or her, we will discover if it will heal or persist to the end. If the protagonist will succeed, then the wound is dealt with in a manner in which it will no longer pose a problem. If the protagonist fails, the wound is only partially healed or the protagonist ignores or hides it. The critical decision the protagonist makes will take the script to the sixth sequence. It usually involves one of persevering in the new course of action or making decisions in a new way.
Act Two, Sequence Six (pages 65-77) is the Culmination and End of Act Two Sequence.
The pause is over, and the protagonist returns to the main story and the new plan with gusto, as does the antagonist. The writer is setting up the ending.
Although the protagonist may ultimately be successful, at this moment all seems to be lost. The plan is failing, and all hope is fading quickly. The protagonist is at the lowest point against the highest obstacles. Frequently the mission appears impossible during these pages. All is lost for the hero and his band of warriors. But within the potential unfolding disaster, they discover the key to the resolution.
For a tragic resolution, everything appears to be going according to plan during this sequence. The main character will accomplish what he or she set out to do. The protagonist has reached the highest point in the story. Success is within reach. The audience may not yet know this, but the writer places the hints within this sequence. The story has reached Plot Point Two, where the protagonist has all that is needed to be the catalyst by which the story will arrive at a conclusion. The end of act two is usually the polar opposite of the ending of the film.
The second plot point is the second turning point and should be like an explosion, launching the story into act three. The protagonist establishes a new goal after either completing his or her second act goal or determining that the goal or a least the way of reaching the goal is unattainable. The protagonist must regroup and find a new approach.
Act Three; Sequence Seven (pages 78-90) is the New Tension and Risk Sequence, often called the False Resolution Sequence.
With the new goal, the protagonist moves to defeat the antagonist or escape the coming calamity. But while the protagonist thought that success was imminent, the plan falls apart. The unforeseen happens and the protagonist faces a series of obstacles, which seem destined to crush the plan. Tension reaches its highest point; will the protagonist fail or succeed?
Or the protagonist is in a position to win. The plan is working, and the antagonist is on the ropes. For a brief moment, the audience is deceived into believing success is only a few scenes away.
The scenes in this sequence should be simple, rapid, and short, with nothing elaborate setting them up. The audience is on the edge of their seats waiting, anticipating what will happen next.
Then there is the unforeseen twist; the unexpected happens. This is the point where you can surprise the audience. They are expecting one outcome, but you give them another. You want the audience to think that the hero has failed or is going to fail because a companion or friend has betrayed him or her. In a well-written script, the audience will be fooled into thinking that the end is in doubt, even if they know intellectually that it is not.
Then the protagonist makes one final critical decision and pushes the story into the eighth and final sequence. Typically, the last critical decision is one the hero would not have made at the start of the film. Remember that the protagonist has changed or arced so he or she now thinks and acts differently. The hero acts in a manner completely opposite of how the protagonist would have acted.
Act Three; Sequence Eight (pages 91-103) is the Resolution Sequence and the Coda.
Having made the last critical decision, the protagonist barrels toward the climax. This is where the writer can write that sensational ending that motivated him or her to plan and write the screenplay in the first place.
The resolution should be the opposite of the false resolution. The main character uses what he or she has learned during the character arc in order to succeed. In the case of a tragic ending, the hero makes a noble sacrifice or, despite changing, still fails because the odds were against him or her. Ideally, the protagonist will be able to do or say whatever he or she was unable to do or
say in the beginning the story. However, in the case of a tragic resolution, the main character’s failure might stem from an inability to achieve a positive arc. That breakdown then results in the heartrending conclusion.
The story resolves all subplots and ties up all loose ends. Clarity is important for the audience. Why was the protagonist successful? More importantly, if the protagonist fails, the audience needs to understand why. Having just invested time and emotion in the story, they need to know why you arrived at your great ending. This is only possible if the writer knows why the resolution happened as it did and can communicate that idea. Otherwise, be prepared for negative feedback.
If you have done the work, you now have a story. The resolution occurs, and we reach the conclusion; the story is over. There remains one final task for the writer, which is to take the completed treatment/outline and write the script, begin with FADE IN, and write until FADE OUT. To better understand how we can flesh out the treatment, let’s consider a few movie examples every potential screenwriter should have watched.