The Units of Story: The Act

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There is a song by the 1980s new wave band The Godfathers that I always remember when someone asks me how best to describe an Act. It is simply titled, Birth, School, Work, Death.

The Act is a major life stage in a story.

The Act could be a self-sustaining story in and of itself. There is no shortage of one Act plays. But in long form storytelling, Acts are the major events that change the story irrevocably. Again, what that means is that the protagonist’s life is changed permanently. Like the Beat, Scene and Sequence, the act must have a clear inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax and resolution. And if you were to home in on these particular moments in an act, you would be able to identify the specific sequence, scene and beat that comprises the Act’s component parts. Beats build scenes, scenes build sequences and sequences build Acts.

The Act brings explosive change.

As such, Acts are often very satisfying in that they bring a very strong story rush to the reader/audience. But in the long form story, they must leave the reader/audience wanting more. Even in the final Act’s resolution (which serves as the resolution for the global story too) a well-turned story leaves the reader/audience wanting to hear another story about the same characters. Hence the sequel, prequel phenomenon we inhabit today.

Long form episodic television series like Breaking Bad or Mad Men are divided essentially into Acts. Each episode is a critical moment/developmental stage in the life of the protagonist, Walter White or Donald Draper, or one of the major secondary characters. We keep coming back to the shows because we want to know how a fundamental change that occurred in one episode will play out in the next.

Acts completely change the global story, either positively or negatively. Again, the climactic action in an Act must be irreversible. That is there is no turning back. Someone dies. Someone gets pregnant. An alien lands on the earth… these are the climactic moments in Acts.

The characters and by extension the audience, must be surprised by the action or revelation from the Act climax. The values at stake in an Act also move the story’s global values. That is, if the story is a serial killer thriller, its Act climaxes must shift on life or death circumstances. The protagonist is either close to bringing the antagonist to justice or the antagonist has the hero on the ropes in a seemingly inescapable situation.

Act climaxes escalate—move closer and closer to the limits of human experience—the further along you move into the global story. They must progressively complicate, moving from “big” to “huge” to “shocking.”

For example, if the first Act climax of Chinatown was the revelation that Evelyn Mulray was raped by her father, the viewer would not really be prepared for that level of shock. The viewer has yet to fully attach to the character, so the information that she was raped would not resonate. The writer Robert Towne knew that a revelation of that size had to be saved for the ending of the story. And he puts it exactly where it needs to be…at the penultimate act climax.

Instead Towne ended the first Act with the scene when the real Mrs. Mulray arrives at Jake Gittes’ offices.

A mysterious imposter played by Diane Ladd had hired Gittes in an early scene to track the movements of Hollis Mulray. The real Mrs. Mulray played by Faye Dunaway arrives at Gittes’ offices to tell him that she never hired him to tail her husband, and that the work he’s been doing is going to cost him his entire business. She is going to sue him and destroy his livelihood.

This is a perfect end to the beginning hook of the story, a great reversal that turns on both Revelation (I’m not the woman who hired you) and action (my lawyer is going to destroy you.).

This Act One climax is irreversible.

Gittes can’t go back to the life he had before the real Mrs. Mulray came into his life. His business is now at risk. His future is in danger and he’s not the sort of person who stands idly by when he is threatened. Towne knew that the perfect way of getting his character Gittes to react was by threatening him. Gittes fights back.

How Gittes reacts to the threat defines him, as it does for all of us. His ire propels us into the next Act…wondering how the Hell is this going to sort itself out?

Plus, at the end of this first Act, Towne has made the story personal to Gittes, a major obligatory element in a crime thriller. Gittes is now the “victim” in his own eyes.  And Jake Gittes is not anyone’s Patsy. He’s going to press forward no matter what.

This characteristic is exactly why the central evil/antagonist in Chinatown, Noah Cross, sets Gittes up in the first place. We discover later on that Noah Cross, Evelyn Mulray’s father, essentially owns the Los Angeles Police Department. And we’re told that Gittes used to be a cop before he became a private eye. While we never do learn why Gittes left the force, he does confess that his butting in to someone else’s business and the tragic end of that interference had something to do with his leaving the LAPD.

Here’s the scene just after Gittes gets his nose sliced open:


(working on him)

— So why does it bother you to talk

about it… Chinatown…


— Bothers everybody who works there —

but to me — It was —

Gittes shrugs.


— Hold still — why?


— You can’t always tell what’s going

on there —


… No — why was it —


I thought I was keeping someone from

being hurt and actually I ended up

making sure they were hurt.

Noah Cross will not be denied. So when his former partner Hollis Mulray (his daughter Evelyn’s husband) tries to safeguard a young girl from him, Cross undoubtedly asked his cronies in the LAPD which Private Detective he should hire to find the girl.

They recommend Gittes because he is a monomaniac. The cops explain to Cross that Gittes threw away his police career in Chinatown just to take a case to the end of the line. Cross, being a brilliant epitome of evil, understands that if he makes the mission to find the girl personal for Gittes, there is little chance he’ll fail in finding her. Cross makes it personal for Gittes by using his own daughter to bait him. [What is so incredible about the above information is that Towne never puts it on the page…it’s information that the audience fills in themselves long after they’ve seen the actual movie.]

The theme/controlling idea of Chinatown is simply “evil reigns.” No matter who we are and no matter how smart or tough we are, we cannot outsmart or out muscle evil. We are fated to either give in to evil figures like Noah Cross or we are fated to fight against tyranny pointlessly and ineffectively for the rest of our lives. Humanity is repugnant and dirty. Evil has won, always has won and always will win. Principled people with good intentions not only fail to bring justice to the world, by their very naiveté they empower tyrants.

Chinatown’s Director Roman Polanski barely survived the Holocaust. Battling demons of his own, he unleashed them all in this effort.

While Towne’s screenplay is a masterpiece, the controlling idea/theme of the movie is pure Polanski. What is so striking about Chinatown, a commercial story with one of the most disturbing down endings of all time, is that Polanski’s vision was so perfectly put onto the screen, in such a compelling way, that the dark message made sense. It satisfied the viewer. Polanski’s art was so perfectly expressed; it made the average Joe willingly submit himself to confronting the very dark underbelly of humanity. That is remarkable.

Chinatown, like The Silence of the Lambs, is that very rare commercial story with a deeply resonant and meaningful controlling idea/theme that is so perfectly crafted, it makes us confront the darkest realities of our being.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.


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About the Author

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the '70s and the Fight For America's Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon's Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.
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Mary Doyle says:

Thanks so much for this post! I know this is going to expose me as being completely OCD, but here’s a math question about sequences and acts for the self-identified math nerd. You’re probably going to tell me not to be concerned about this right now, but here goes: If we are using McKee’s recommended three-act model, is there an ideal equation as to how many sequences can be borne within this structure or is it simply dependent on the construction of scenes that support and carry the global plot and subplots? As always Shawn thanks – looking forward to The Story Grid’s release next month.

Shawn Coyne says:

I think a good rule of thumb would be an average of 5 – 7 scenes per sequence, 60-70 scenes per novel (around 90,000 to 100,000 words), so between 10 – 15 sequences per novel. If you use my handy dandy 25/50/25 percentage conversion for breakdown of Beginning Hook, Middle Build and Ending Payoff, then you have about 2.5 to 3.75 sequences for Beginning Hook and Ending Payoff and 5 to 7.5 sequences for Middle Build. As an example for the three big movements of ROCKY, it would be LOSER ROCKY GETS BIG CHANCE as the Beginning Hook, ROCKY PREPARES PHYSICALLY AND EMOTIONALLY FOR BIG FIGHT as Middle Build, and ROCKY FIGHTS as Ending Payoff. Each of those big movements would be broken down into sequences. Each of those sequences would consist of a number of scenes. That’s the global macro point of view.

Elanor says:

This is awesome info!

Thanks, Mary, for asking the question so that I can learn from the answer. 🙂 And thanks to Shawn for more math! I tend to go from big to small, so this view is really going to help me.

Michael Beverly says:

Quick question about length.

You mentioned in the Potato Chip Post that 80-100K was the standard (nowadays).

I see you’ve revised that up.

I was walking through CVS picking up a 12 pack a few minutes ago and walked past the BEST SELLER rack, you know, there are no book stores anymore, so I stopped. Beer getting warm.

To read blurbs.

I noticed Flynn’s latest paperback, 540 pages.

So, what? 150K words,,,,somewhere in there.

I have checked a lot of current/recent bestsellers on Amazon, can’t seem to find many below 400 pages.

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, my god,,,,600-700 pages.

And that’s not an epic fantasy, either, that’s a thriller, right?

So, maybe your high end, 100K is a bit low? I mean to fit in with what the buying public seems to want?

Am I messing up with my word count assumptions, or is the best selling list a anomaly and the vast number of mid list stuff in that range of 90-100K?

Shawn Coyne says:

Hmm. How do I reply without being nasty? I would suggest that there is a lot of shoe leather in those titles. And I would also suspect that the publisher pumped up the page count using font technology in order to get the consumer to pay a higher price for the book. I stand by the word counts of 80, 90 or 100,000. In fact, if you can write a corker of a book without any shoe leather in 50,000 or 60,000 words in a way that doesn’t make the reader fell cheated, I’d salute you. The problem is that publishers don’t like those 50,000 to 60,000 word novels too much. Can’t charge $29.95 for them. Best you can do is $24.95. And that extra $5.00 is a huge deal in the thin margin publishing business. But I digress. The business of publishing is a whole other enchilada.

Joel D Canfield says:

I love enchiladas.

I hate the propensity to write long books based on the consumer’s perception that they’re paying by the pound.

Doug Walsh says:

As someone in the middle of reading the 1100+ page epic “Shogun” I have to say that I’m definitely getting my money’s worth. I guess Clavell’s Asian Sagas (and others like it) are the exceptions to the rule because I for one am loving it.

Joel D Canfield says:

Read this in my email, then realized that if I didn’t come here and leave a comment I’d miss out on the conversation in the comments.

Bravo, Shawn, for inspiring the kind of smart commentary I see down here every day.

Michael Beverly says:

WHAT? You wait for the email….?

Seriously, over the weekend I was refreshing the home page, you know, just in case…

Joel D Canfield says:

Okay, so this is one of my songwriting weeks so my attention is elsewhere. Also, I can’t be obsessively banging the refresh button because I need it for mandolin. Or ukulele. Or guitar.

At least not till next week.

Poor excuse, I know, but at least it’s art related.

Michael Beverly says:

Okay, no problem.

Funny, I was trained as an oil painter. I had to decide in the last couple years to pick one or the other.

I picked writing for a myriad of reasons, but I think the most important one is that I can’t stop writing. Even when I’m not writing, I’m writing.

When I need a break, I come to the internet and write things.

I’ve always been jealous of musicians because I can’t sing and I’m tone deaf; but if I could be reincarnated I’d like to come back as a combination of 50 Cent, Eminem and Tiger Woods.

Yes, I know you might be thinking that hip hop isn’t real music, but have you listened to the lyrics of either of those guys? Pure genius.

In fact, because we are talking about length of writing; I’ll say that Eminem is one of the greatest writers alive because to write 100K words into a successful novel is probably easier, much easier, than writing a successful rap song.

Anyway, I’m rambling because I’m still a bit twisted with Shawn’s latest reply about length. I mean, it seems too good to be true; 80K words is better than 140K.

I seem to recall that LOTR was actually written as 6 books, not a trilogy.

I wonder (assuming I’m remembering correctly) if each of the six could be “story grided”?

CS Lewis kept the Narnia series in short books, but each is a very different story, unlike LOTR.

Okay, scratching my head…

I’m trying to decide if the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series would have been a better series if it was shorter. Oddly, books 2 and 3, some 1200+ pages was actually one long story.

Yeah, I’m sure it could have been shorter, but it’s also hard to argue with such success.

And one of my favorite books, Gone with the Wind, is definitely too long. For sure.

But what would I cut? I can’t say. I was sad when it ended.

Joel D Canfield says:

Some stories need to be long; they want to be long. In addition to your references I’ll mention Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. Neve intended to be 3 books, it’s as massive as LOTR. What would I cut? Nothing. Could be that I integrated it when I was young and can’t see it objectively.

Some stuff, though, seems like there are 23 subplots because scifi fans demand 150,000-word epics so the author was afraid to just tell the story (or believed that longer is better.)

Great songwriting is indeed a high art. Harder than a great novel? I can’t say because I don’t think I’ve achieved greatness in either realm. But I’ve achieved similar levels of satisfaction and praise for both my lyrics and my mysteries, and I can guarantee that a novel is a thousand times the work of a 2:36 song.

Did you read Steve Pressfield’s post about pulling a whole novel from two sentences? I did it with one. Took 25 years, but the DNA was in that one sentence.

Best song I’ve written came out of a single descriptive phrase and took about ten minutes to nail down once I realized that phrase. Get a good chorus written and verses expose themselves as fast as I can type, much of the time.

Songwriting is high art, I agree completely. I just don’t think that it qualifies as more of anything simply because it is limited in size or scope.

Emotional impact, though? I’ll give you that. I’d have to scan my shelves and ponder long and hard to come up with any work of prose which possesses me so entirely as Patty Griffin’s song “Long Ride Home.” (Even GWTW, which everyone who’s ever seen the movie should be required to read.)

Elanor says:

LOTR was written as one big book. I heard that the publisher made Tolkien break it into pieces because they couldn’t print books that big. lol This is also why Two Towers is hard for people to read. It was never meant to be a story in its own right. It’s the middle part of the larger book. 😉

Larry Pass says:

Just FYI (if you’re still reading replies to older posts), LOTR was actually written as ONE book — where the villain is the title character, by the way–, and it was the publisher who decided to break it up into three.

Michael Beverly says:

Yes, I read that post on Pressfield’s blog about starting with just a sentence or two.

It’s similar to the advice: Start with a ‘what if’ sentence.

What if a seventeen year old girl fell in love with an eighty year old man because he was trapped in the 20 something body of a vampire, and he sparkled in the sun?

What if the wife of a popular detective smashed in the head of his sexy lover and left clues framing him for her murder?

As the population of the world’s books grows it’s getting harder and harder to find an original question (that isn’t just insane).

I realize the variations and nuances are endless, and that’s our real job, to make everything old, new again.

Oddly, in response to your ending comment, I’ve read GWTW, but I still haven’t seen the movie. How’s that for backwards?

Joel D Canfield says:

The movie is a spectacle not to be missed.

Its primary flaw, in my mind, is that while the book shows us what’s happening in Scarlett’s head, making it clear she’s the only one who has a clue about what’s important, the movie shows us only her actions and she comes off as an unlikable self-important ninny.

But everyone has to see the scene of the burning of Atlanta.

Krista Kubie says:

Brilliant examination of “Chinatown.” I have admired the story structure of that film since I watched it for a college class a few semesters ago. Now, I finally see all the components and how they fit together. The magic really is in the actual craft of molding the story, isn’t it?

I LOVE this website. I have read all your posts over the past few days, and I’m hooked. As a writer who struggles in the middle of novels and strives to make my process ever quicker, I am hanging upon every word you have to say.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing your expertise! I look forward to the next post and the forthcoming book.

Jack Price says:

Hi Shawn,

In your examples of well-written stories, the structural units seem so logical — inevitable. But from the business end of a keyboard, the complexity is daunting.

And knowledge of structure isn’t a shortcut. Art is still damn hard work.

I guess the saving grace is that story structure models how life works, so we know this stuff internally. Your posts help us move from unconscious awareness to conscious awareness — a big move.

Thanks and keep ‘em coming.


M.J. Mahoney says:

Hi Shawn, as you described “Acts” so succinctly, am I allowed a quick digression into “Chinatown”? It is a great study piece and I’d like to know what you, and other people, think.

Now, I love “Chinatown”, but I think it’s definitely one you have to watch several times to truly appreciate, and therein lies the problem. I’ve seen it perhaps four or five times myself, but a few months ago I had the instructive experience of watching it in a film-club of four other people who had never seen it before. Needless to say the plot went entirely over their heads. Nobody clocked/remembered the subtle earlier references Gittes made to working in Chinatown, so nobody actually got the downbeat parting message about corruption. One of (for me) the most powerful scenes in cinema, Mrs Mulwray’s heart-wrenching denouement about the identity of the young girl, actually provoked a few sniggers, whilst the grim ending was met with shrugs and jokes about the blood effects. (Whether as a defence-mechanism to uncomfortable scenes; genuine disinterest; or the fact that they’ve been desensitised by modern cinema, I don’t know. They’re all well-read and none of them are idiots.) So, I spent fifteen minutes afterwards expounding upon the intricacies of the plot and what the film was “actually trying to say” while making myself sound like some insufferable film-school hipster in the process… 😉

Anyway, I say it was instructive because I could look again at the film, not as a writer this time, but through my friends’ eyes. All the bits I had to explain to them, I realised, were actually faults. You shouldn’t need someone to sit you down and explain who did what to whom after the curtain falls. The crucial scenes should be seared into the memory. It’s easy to forget or dismiss Gittes’s lines about Chinatown as meaningless backstory, (until the second or third viewing when you realise that it isn’t). We can’t really care about the Hollis/Mulwray argument because we see so little of them and hear it all in second-hand exposition. People switch off for all the pedestrian stuff about the LA water supply/land-grab and switch back on for the nose-slitting scene and the action. By the time the big denouement comes, many people will have lost the thread, thus deadening the impact.

While you could level the same criticisms at many other convoluted film noir plots, I think “The Usual Suspects”; “Gone Baby Gone”; “Se7en”; “Angel Heart” and many others prove it doesn’t have to be so. Anyway, sorry for the long post. Thoughts/rebuttals welcome!

Elanor says:

I actually don’t see what you describe as “faults” as faults. lol

I think that all the best art out there has many layers which allow for many levels of understanding. This is why great art continues to be relevant throughout a person’s life and through the ages. There’s no reason everyone has to understand everything right away. I think the expectation that we will is a contemporary thing — a result of the more fast-paced lifestyle we lead now as opposed to even 40 years ago. So many things are instant now that people expect understanding to be that way too.

I like to look at Shakespeare as an example of this. He wrote for the masses. If you look at his plays, the stories are entertaining, and if you want to, you can leave it at that. If you want to delve deeper, though, there are many layers of symbolism and theme and political commentary to dig into. If you want to be entertained, that’s cool. If you want to look deeper, that’s cool too! I haven’t seen Chinatown in a million years, but I think it works the same way. If the audience wants to walk away with the surface story, that’s cool. If they want to delve deeper, that’s cool too!

Just my two cents. 😉

M.J. Mahoney says:

I agree totally about providing multiple layers, Elanor; in fact I’m a big proponent of it. However, the problem with “Chinatown” is that surface-story — the thing that the audience _must_ come away with — is too buried in the dull details. We writers and story-buffs are willing to give a film multiple viewings to really get to grips with it. But we’re a tiny, dedicated minority. Really, the penny dropped for me when I was trying to explain “Chinatown’s” plot to my nonplussed friends and found myself having to refer them back to minor scenes that none of them remembered. Of course they didn’t get it — why would they remember that pedestrian conversation between Gittes and that suit from the water company? What was in it for them? Where was the drama and feeling in that scene?

I’m by no means suggesting that stories should be dumbed-down in any way. Quite the opposite! I’m saying that major plot points must take centre stage when they appear. You can’t hope to please all the people all of the time, of course, but you can remove some of the barriers that stop the audience from really digging a story.

Elanor says:

Oh! I get it now. lol

I still don’t necessarily see that as a “fault” though. I don’t think that “well-crafted” is necessarily the same as “accessible,” and I don’t think it needs to be.

Films were different in the 70s. I don’t think you could get away with a movie paced the way The Sting is paced these days, but that doesn’t mean The Sting isn’t a brilliant movie.

I think audience expectations have changed. They’re used to getting everything handed to them, explained in big neon letters, and then they expect to be reminded of significance every two seconds. I watched Hawaii 5-0 last night and there was a scene where the team was in an elevator going up one floor at a time to see where the blood trail from inside the elevator continued on the floor outside the elevator. I got that from context, visuals, and the line preceding the elevator shots. The screenwriter, however, felt it necessary to have one of the characters mention out loud the fact that they had a matching blood-trail. *headdesk*

I think that if Chinatown were made now, they’d change a lot — pacing, characterization, camera angles, color palette, etc. — so that a modern audience would “get it.” The thing is, I think the audiences of the 70s did get it, as it is. That’s why I don’t think of the things you describe as faults of the film — they’re faults in the way a modern audience perceives the film.

Tina Goodman says:

Hey, what about the acting in Chinatown? It was impressive.

Elanor says:

@ Tina – I agree! The acting in Chinatown is amazing! However, the acting and the story are two totally different things. If you get a cast of amazing actors together and give them a terribly written script, the movie/play will not be as good as if you’d given them an amazing script.

The thing I was trying to say about Chinatown is that modern audiences don’t engage with the story the same way audiences did back when the movie was new. Modern audiences have different expectations in plot, pacing, characterization, themes, etc. as well as in production related areas like costuming, sets, camera angles, and editing.

If you got the hottest, most talented actors of today, gave them the Chinatown script, and shot it the same way it was shot back when, the movie probably wouldn’t do very well, in spite of the star power. Why? Because the story isn’t structured in a way that modern audiences are used to consuming stories.

But it could be that if someone “remastered” Chinatown, recut the scenes, added different orchestration, and updated the color palette, the movie would explode all over the internet.


Michael Beverly says:

I think some cult classics, made into film, must be seen over and over again.

One of my favorites is Seven Monkeys. You cannot possibly get that film the first time. Or second time.

Matrix is the same, imho.

Interesting side note. I saw Fight Club years ago. Thought it was a stupid movie. Never watched it again.

I read the book a couple months ago. OMG. Amazing book. I can see why the film didn’t impress me, it’s too complicated unless you’ve either, a) read the book or b) seen the film several times or c) you’re a pro like Shawn

Nod to Amy in Gone Girl there….

Pulp Fiction comes to mind too, I thought it was slow and a bit boring the first viewing. By the fourth viewing, well, enough said.

I think some movies cannot be well made unless they are such that seeing them requires either more than one view or a prior reading of the book (if there is one).

Usual Suspects I’ve seen, what? Four times at least. LOL…

M.J. Mahoney says:

Well, I don’t mind a complicated film, Michael, as long as the crucial plot points are there to see. I’d even take a clumsy “J’accuse!” scene or a cheesy explanatory flashback, just as long as I didn’t come away feeling like I’d just lost my shirt on a slight-of-hand game. And I can imagine that’s just how many people felt, if they hadn’t been paying minute attention to the slow parts of “Chinatown”. It becomes an obtuse riddle; the sort that makes you roll your eyes, rather than laugh in delight.

I can’t help but think that some important plot points in “Chinatown” were hidden in what Elmore Leonard famously called “the parts that people tend to skip”.

Michael Beverly says:

So I watched it two nights ago. Yeah, slow. It was probably more of a movie in the 70’s, when it was released, I mean, there is a scene that shows boobs. The Graduate didn’t show boobs. Within ten years…never mind.
I’m slowly going through Story, RM’s book on screen writing, so he had a break down of a scene in that film that I wanted to watch.

It was very instructive, btw, because he wrote what they said in the film AND what they were thinking between the lines.

I can see how the story would be easier to tell in a novel. Reminds me of the Black Dalia, which I enjoyed as a book but can barely remember as a film.

I think to pull off a good cult classic film today, one that seems to suck the first time you watch it (or is a bit boring) you have to be amazing and get lucky.

To make a cult classic like The Matrix, you have to be really beyond amazing because that film was great the first viewing and got better later in later viewings.

Then with all the money they earned they made several stupid sequels, go figure.

Elanor says:

I love the Matrix! The sequels make me so sad… All that wasted story potential! 🙁

Doug Walsh says:

May be a tad unrelated, but since we’ve now progressed from Beat to Act, I can’t help but notice you didn’t mention Sequel, that reaction period to the action of the Scene. I guess since it’s really a Scene unto itself (or perhaps just a passing sentence or two at the end of a Scene) it didn’t bear mention.

Back in your potato chip page-turning analogy you mentioned you recommend making each Scene a Chapter and keeping them to roughly 2000 words. I noticed in the majority of books that I’ve read recently, Chapters often contained 2-3 Scenes and quite often, after a line break, the next Scene was in fact a Sequel.

What are your thoughts on that? It seems that the more I understand the art of storytelling (thanks to this site and books like Weiland’s “Structuring Your Novel”) the more I start to fret over the actual mechanics of Chapter construction.

Shawn Coyne says:

Hi Doug,
I don’t recognize SEQUEL in my methodology as a unit of story. I suspect that what you are referring to is what I would call a resolution scene of a sequence. That is a scene that ties up a substantial shift in the global value of a story, but not as huge a shift as an Act. Anyway, this is really inside baseball stuff. I wouldn’t fret about this until you’re deep into the editorial process. And even then, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Jeff says:

The Scene and Sequel idea is one proposed by Dwight Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer and you can get a sense of it here:

The basic idea is that you alternate between scenes and sequels.

A Scene has the following three-part pattern: Goal, Conflict, Disaster

Whereas a Sequel has: Reaction, Dilemma, Decision

In other words, after the protagonist has failed to achieve his goal and experienced the fall-out from that failure, he (or she) has to regroup, face a “best bad choice” or “irreconcileable goods” dilemma, and make a decision, leading to a new goal/scene.

Don’t ask me what the advantage of that structure is over the scene structure you laid out, but I believe that’s what Doug is referring to. [Please correct me if I’m wrong, Doug]

I’d also be interested in hearing your thoughts on this…

Also thanks for the awesome post. I’m always thrilled to wake up knowing it’s a Tuesday or Thursday (even if I don’t get around to commenting till later)

Shawn Coyne says:

Hi Jeff,
I make a point of not diving into other people’s methodologies. Not because I think mine is the best, but because it’s just too confusing. I think we’re speaking the same language though. Sounds like good advice to think about reactions as much as actions as move from scene to scene, progressively complicating the movement of the story as you do so.

Jeff says:

Thanks, Shawn. Definitely agree that comparing frameworks can create more confusion than insight. The only point of comparison that hits home for me is the idea of consistently placing your protagonist on the horns of a dilemma. It is your breakdown of the two types of delimmas which has helped me get a better handle on that. I’ve never seen that before and it’s a huge help. So thanks for that.

Joel D Canfield says:

Jeff, I’ve learned pragmatism: while the scene/sequel concept works well overall, it’s not gospel. Nor is any other method. They’re all principles.

I have 6 little bottles on the counter by the stove: 6 kinds of vinegar, so I can add just the right bite or splash or aroma to whatever I’m cooking. They feel like a metaphor about writing methodologies.

While I admit I’m totally on board with the Story Grid as my go-to, the cider vinegar, I like having 5 other varieties to spice up, deglaze, or otherwise add oomph to my writing and self-editing efforts.

Michael Beverly says:

I read that book years ago, and I’m reading another of his now (half way through) and it’s very slow and, in my opinion, some of his thoughts are uppity or tend to be dismissive of “popular” fiction.
In the beginning of whatever I’m reading now, I can’t recall the title (which says something in itself), he mentions this “transitory” novel called “The Firm”; he sort of made me feel like he thought Grisham would be forgotten about in the next week or two.

Anyway, I am also trying to read (about half way through) the snow flake guys book. The little bear and the big bad wolf. God. I want to pull out my hair and scream.

I’ll probably not finish it, but because you linked to his web site, I thought I’d ask you if you benefited from it?

I do think all this studying is both helpful and confusing at the same time. I liked Joel’s kitchen spices analogy. Or vinegar, whatever.

I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again, Shawn has helped me in a way no other coach has (the closest other one being Brooks).

And I feel like he really cares about helping people, of course everyone has to make a living, but I don’t feel like I’m being sold anything, and that makes a big difference.

Jeff says:

Hey, Michael,

I have the Kindle version of Swain’s book, have made my way through about 2/3rds of it, and have sort of lost the motivation to finish. Based on what I’ve read so far, I’d say that I did get a lot out of it, because it was the first book that sort of taught me how to have a protagonist consistently fail, and keep going in a way that revealed character (through hard choices when facing a dilemma), and to have that failure and persistence naturally lead to progressive complications. I also think Swain’s idea of “Motivational Reaction Units” is sound, and can be helpful.

As far as Snowflake guy, I’ve never bought anything of his. I just found his site based on a search for “Dwight Swain + Scene and Sequel.” Don’t really know much about him.

There are a lot of good story paradigms and writing books out there, but I’ve found that most of them repeat each other, or are derrivative from some better source. And that’s exactly what makes Shawn’s stuff so good: it’s original and palpably better than most anything else I’ve read — and I’ve read quite a lot.

Michael says:

Sorry, but I’m having trouble with terminology. In every other system I’ve looked at the inciting incident is the place in the overall plot (what you refer to as the external plot, I believe) where an inequity happens in the everyday world that the protagonist is compelled to correct. I believe what you refer to as “inciting incidents” for the Acts are what everyone else (Syd Field, et al) call “the first plot point,” “second plot point,” etc. (some use a third plot point for the mid-point character shift, some don’t). Is this correct? Thanks in advance.

Terry Brennan says:

Not only did Roman Polanski barely survive the Holocast, the Manson crazies murders his pregnant wife Sharon Tate. He directed Chinatown only five years later. Evil rules.


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The Book

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.

First Time Writer

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.


Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.