The Units of Story: The Sequence

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Sequences give the reader a sense of “critical moments in life.” That is, they, like all the other units of story, have beginnings, middles and ends.

To look at it another way, sequences are large set pieces in the global story journey.  Steven Pressfield has been writing about his method of dealing with sequences on his site recently.  He calls it the clothesline method. Read about it here.

Like the Beat and the Scene and ultimately the Act, the sub plot and the global story, the sequence must have the five form elements (inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, and resolution) but it does not have the “major shift” reversals of the Story’s core value like the Act or global plot. More on these major shifts later on.

Sequence events can be summed up with phrases like “GETTING THE JOB” or “WINNING THE RACE” or “COURTING THE PRINCESS” or “FIRST KISS” or “BUYING THE HOUSE.”

More specifically, a sequence is a collection of scenes (or even one) that adds up to more than the sum of their parts but less the major reversal of a story’s core value that occurs in the Act. That means that the change that occurs in the sequence is greater in scale than any preceding single scene, but not as great as the change that occurs in an Act.

For example in the novel and film Misery, there are some very definable sequences. I’ll work from William Goldman’s amazing screenplay adaptation of one of Steven King’s best works. Here are the first seven scenes of the screenplay.

  1. The first scene of the movie lasts one minute twenty seconds. James Caan (playing protagonist Paul Sheldon) finishes writing a novel and partakes in his ritual single cigarette and bottle of champagne.
  2. The second scene is two minutes forty five seconds long. Paul leaves his hotel to head home and deliver the novel to his agent, but crashes his car in a blizzard.
  3. The third scene is a flashback to Paul deciding that he’s going to forego the commercial route that has made him so successful and write a real novel. This scene lasts one minute five seconds
  4. The fourth scene finds Paul unconscious. A large figure pulls him out of his wrecked car, throws him over its shoulder and trudges into the woods. This scene is one minute twenty seconds
  5. The fifth scene finds Paul awake in bed. He’s being taken care of by Annie Wilkes, played by Kathy Bates. The scene is one minute five seconds.
  6. The sixth scene Annie tells Paul why she did not take him to a hospital. They are snowed in. This scene is one minute five seconds.
  7. The seventh scene Annie explains to Paul just how badly he is hurt. This scene lasts one minute fifteen seconds.

(I’ve given you the screen time to illustrate just how economic Goldman is with his storytelling. These scenes are practically the same length, a technique that builds a visual rhythm.)

These first seven scenes comprise three distinct sequences.

The first sequence (scenes one and two) could be called SUCCESSFUL WRITER CRASHES HIS CAR. We know he’s successful by the tony ski lodge environment he’s in and his choice of champagne to celebrate the completion of his work.

  • The inciting incident of sequence one is the completion of the novel.
  • Progressive complications of sequence one are the weather conditions he faces upon departure.
  • The crisis of sequence one is whether he should disregard the storm and press forward homeward bound? Or should he stay put and risk getting stuck in the mountains with nothing to do? This is the crisis’s best bad choice question.
  • The climax of sequence one is his decision to go.
  • The resolution of sequence one is his wrecking the car and being completely incapacitated.

What’s so wonderful about this sequence, beyond its economy, is that it results in an irreversible change. The lead character cannot undo the fact that he recklessly drove into the heart of a snowstorm. If the sequence were expanded and the writer decided to wait out the storm until morning and then drive home and then the rest of the events of the story played out…not only would it alter the tenor of the storytelling, it would drastically influence the viewer/reader’s understanding of the character.

Paul Sheldon takes big chances. He’s not a guy who’s going to vacillate.

The second sequence is just one scene (and yes a skilled writer can pull off a sequence with one scene). It is the third scene flashback when the viewer/reader is informed of the Sheldon’s decision to change his career path. It could be called WRITER STOPS PLAYING TO THE CROWD.

The third sequence is the WRITER GETS RESCUED BY RECLUSE sequence, made up of scenes 4 through 7.

  • The inciting incident of this sequence is the Annie character played by Kathy Bates pulling Paul Sheldon out of the car.
  • The progressive complications are Paul’s discovery that 1) while he’s safe, he’s not in a hospital, 2) his injuries are such that he’s at the mercy of a rather strange and powerfully built woman, and 3) the woman has loaded him up with narcotics that keep the pain at bay, but are dangerously addictive.
  • The crisis question the Paul must answer is another best bad choice. Should he use his star power and demand that this woman get him immediate evacuation? Or should he humor her and hope that she comes to her senses?
  • The climax is in his ultimate decision to humor her.
  • The resolution is that she pushes him deeper and deeper into relying on the pain medication.

Sequences are crucial building blocks of story, but I recommend that writers focus on scenes in their first draft. Looking at and defining sequences is a great idea, once you have something in hand and you are evaluating how successfully you brought the story to life. To obsess about them before you have a rough draft is very often a mistake. Sequence analysis is an editorial craft, and as such, should be saved for editing, not initial creation.

If you get stuck and you have no idea where your story went off tracks, chances are you are either missing or over-delivering sequences in the story. Over delivering on a sequence means that you have too many supporting scenes. One or two can be eliminated entirely without losing any narrative consistency.

Remember that readers and viewers are very discerning and sophisticated (just think about how much story the average person consumes each day from the newspaper to websites, emails, television shows, books, heart to heart talks with their friends etc.). That old cliche LESS IS MORE absolutely applies in storytelling. You want to give the reader just enough to follow the through-line of your story without overloading them with scenes they’ve already anticipated in their own minds.

For example, Stephen King and William Goldman knew that a sequence such as ANNIE LEAVES HER HOME FOR A WALK AND DISCOVERS A CAR WRECKED ON THE HIGHWAY is not necessary for MISERY. When Annie appears, the reader intuitively knows that that sequence has happened off stage. If you have that kind of “shoe leather” in your book or screenplay, you will lose the attention of your reader/viewer. And once you lose their attention, it’s almost impossible to get it back.

The time to really look hard at sequences is in the third or fourth draft, after you’re convinced that your scene by scene, your act by act, your subplot by subplot and your global plot is sound. After you have those marks checked off, it is a very good idea to go back yet again and define the sequences of your scenes. You’ll undoubtedly find places to hone and cut.

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.