Specs & The City: Sequences and ‘Toy Story’ Part 1

I see this in my dreams at this point.

I see this in my dreams at this point.

Every screenwriter knows about the basic three-act structure of the modern screenplay. It’s the love of our life, and the tormentor that keeps us up at night as we attempt to pour the story we desperately need to tell (you do feel a NEED to tell your story don’t you?) into this mold. Hell, I’ve got 30-60-30 tattooed on my knuckles. But for all the effort writers spend attempting to master it, three-act structure is really just the beginning of your journey as a storyteller. The next stage in a screenwriter’s evolution – that big step in technique that can help elevate your scripts from good to great – is the sequence.

So, we’re going to try something a bit different. Let’s take a look at…

Sequences and ‘Toy Story’ (part 1)

Pixar's TOY STORY

Pixar’s TOY STORY

Though the concept has been around for decades, the idea of writing a script as a series of sequences has recently regained popularity through Paul Joseph Gulino’s book Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach (2004). The basic idea is this: just as a screenplay has a beginning, middle, and end (as does every individual scene), a story can be broken down into a series of 8 self-contained sequences (Give or take. Gulino allows for this number to fluctuate if necessary) that also contain a beginning, middle, and end.

Drive your story forward.

Drive your story forward.

Breaking your screenplay down like this has several key benefits. First, it allows you to concentrate on smaller, more manageable sections of your script. With each sequence lasting an average of 10-15 pages, it’s easier to keep everything going on firmly in mind as you write. It also ensures that your story has a constant sense of momentum. You’re basically creating a set of unique and dynamic engines that help drive your story forward, which is easy to do when every 10 minutes or so your characters are completing a goal. This keeps your audience engaged and wanting needing to turn those pages. Finally, when you’re rewriting (which is the majority of what you’ll be doing), sequences are a god-send, allowing you to easily tackle one at a time; honing and tweaking each one independent of the others.

So let’s get down to the nuts and bolts. Here’s a list at the eight sequences (you may have seen them in other places with different names), and how they fit into the standard three-act structure that we all know and love.

ACT I

Sequence One: Status Quo & Inciting Incident

Sequence Two: Predicament and Lock In

ACT II

Sequence Three: First Obstacle & Raising the Stakes

Sequence Four: First Culmination/Midpoint

Sequence Five: Subplot & Rising Action

Sequence Six: Main Culmination/End of Act II

ACT III

Sequence Seven: New Tension & Twist

Sequence Eight: Resolution

Over the next four weeks, I’ll be digger deeper into  two sequences at a time, and utilizing Toy Story, an almost perfect implementation of sequencing, to illustrate exactly how they each function within the story as a whole.

I hope you’ll come back each week to join in the fun. And feel free to chime in with a comment below. I’ll try to make sure that I address your questions as we go through all of the information in the weeks to come.

Now, rest easy knowing that you’ve got a friend in me, and keep writing!

Read Part 2 here.

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2 thoughts on “Specs & The City: Sequences and ‘Toy Story’ Part 1

  1. Pingback: What I’m Learning As I Go | The Next Step: Teacher to Screenwriter

  2. Patrick Mahon

    Paul Joseph Gulino’s breakdown of TOY STORY in his book really opened my eyes to the power of sequences. (I believe he referred to is as one of the greatest screenplays ever written). I’ve written everything since, inspired by this principle, and my work has improved drastically as a result. Also, as you mention, a Godsend in rewriting.

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