What is a Sequence?
Dedicated storytellers want to know how to show incremental change over time in their stories. They often know how their story begins and ends, but they aren’t sure how to break that big arc into smaller shifts to create gradual and believable change and craft a satisfying ending for their readers.
At Story Grid, we understand that incremental change is revealed through the cumulative effect of the protagonist’s choices, which creates irreversible change in themselves, others, and the world. We use sequences—a continuous series of two to six connected scenes—to track these mid-level changes throughout the story. With the sequence UNIT OF STORY, we bridge the gap between the larger frame-changing shifts at the level of the QUADRANT and the smaller VALUE SHIFTS at the level of the SCENE.
What are the parts and key features of a Sequence?
Like all units of story, sequences conform to the FIVE COMMANDMENTS OF STORYTELLING, and events within the scenes dramatize (or enact on the page or screen) the change in the protagonist as a reaction to the success or failure of their attempts to meet their sequence-level goals.
What else do we know about sequences?
Each sequence includes two to six SCENES. A story of about sixty to seventy scenes will have between eight and twelve sequences. We sum up sequence events with phrases like getting the job, identifying suspects, hiring the crew, outfitting for the quest, infiltrating the villain’s hideout, or passing the test.
What do these situations have in common?
- The protagonist wants something that will help them reach their story-level goal.
- There is a problem to solve with multiple forces of antagonism opposing the protagonist.
- Solving the problem requires more than one scene or value shift to dramatize for the audience.
- The implications of the protagonist’s actions reverberate beyond the immediate scenes.
We know sequences are groups of scenes that show how the protagonist changes and causes change in others and the environment, which we call the CONTEXT. How do we experience those changes?
In the typical sequence of a story, we observe the protagonist pursuing goals that require course correction. In other words, the protagonist must change their approach to solving the problem because they exhaust their initial strategy without getting what they want. These challenges force the protagonist to learn or master new skills and seek new information that eventually will help them better attune to the world (in a prescriptive story) or not (in a cautionary story).
These ups and downs over multiple scenes cause irreversible changes in stakes or what the protagonist risks every time they face a crisis. Taken together, the protagonist’s fortune is altered for the better or worse as they face the next challenge.
When combined into quadrants, sequences build up to a change in the way the protagonist frames their world and their primary problem and can lead to transformation (in a prescriptive story) or doubling down on their existing worldview (in a cautionary story).
Sequences help us break down the conflict and change that occurs in the entire story. As the protagonist pursues goals across multiple scenes involving multiple value shifts, they encounter more challenging forces of antagonism that create greater conflict. That increase of external conflict forces the protagonist to seek new information or skills. To say it another way, external conflict from the context and other characters (which we call AVATARS) increases the inner conflict that forces the protagonist to alter the way they approach the problem presented by the global INCITING INCIDENT.
Recap of the key features of a Sequence
- Each sequence is two to six scenes.
- Sequences change the stakes or what the protagonist risks in subsequent crises.
- Multiple forces of antagonism create greater conflict externally and internally.
- The protagonist gains new knowledge or skills that will help them better attune to the context and solve problems.
- The Five Commandments of Storytelling enable us to dramatize the sequence-level change.
What are the benefits of using Sequences?
A sequence is a critical level of story that connects the scenes to the larger global movements. By understanding how avatars pursue their goals within and across sequences, we can craft compelling and believable change in our characters and story context.
Example of a Sequence
Securing Provisions: Sequence 1 (scenes 4, 5, and 6) of Quadrant 2 of The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
In scene 4, the dwarves and Bilbo set out on their adventure. Soon they lose a large supply of food and must investigate a fire nearby. In scene 5, Bilbo encounters several trolls who fight, eat, and drink like savages. The trolls capture the dwarves and tie them up in sacks. Then in scene 6, Gandalf saves the day by tricking the trolls into staying outside until the dawn. We describe this sequence as “securing provisions.”
Five Commandments of the Sequence
- Inciting Incident (Coincidental): Bilbo and the dwarves lose a large supply of food.
- Turning Point Progressive Complication (Active): The trolls capture the dwarves.
- Crisis (Irreconcilable Goods Choice): When the trolls capture Thorin, should Bilbo risk his safety to rescue him or stay safely out of the way?
- Climax: Bilbo fights the trolls.
- Resolution: Gandalf returns and confuses the trolls so they stay outside until dawn, which turns them to stone.
After the dwarves are captured, Bilbo learns how to gain freedom by fighting, despite knowing he might not be strong enough to save the dwarves. He also observes Gandalf’s actions in saving the group and will use this when he must save the dwarves from the spiders later in the story.
Value Shifts within Each Scene
Scene 4: Safe to Threatened
Scene 5: Free to Captured
Scene 6: Captured to Free
How can this benefit your writing today?
Make a list of the sequences you need in your story.
- Think about the global movement of your story from beginning to end, or from inciting incident to resolution.
- Create a list of 8 to 12 potential sequences by identifying one of the following:
- Irreversible shifts in the stakes,
- Subsets of the global problem, or
- Subsets of the global solution (knowledge and skills the protagonist will need to attain).
- For one of those sequences, sketch out two to six scenes (in a phrase or short sentence) that could show cause the irreversible shift.
- Apply the Five Commandments of Storytelling to build out the sequence to show the change in stakes.
Additional Sequence Resources
- The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne
- Story Grid 101: The Five First Principles of the Story Grid Methodology by Shawn Coyne
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