On this blog, I make frequent references to story sequences and turning points. However, it occurs to me that, with the exception of onefour-year old article written back when I began exploring the concept, I have never offered a full explanation of just what story sequences are and how they are used to construct a cinematic narrative. Since they are so important to the structure of a cinematic story, so much that their discussion takes up two whole chapters in my new book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, I have chosen to dedicate this month’s article to a brief overview of this subject.
As frequent readers of this blog know, every great story is built upon an elegantly-simple five-component structure called the Story Spine. These components are: 1. The Story Problem, 2. The Story Goal, 3. The Path of Action, 4. The Main Conflict, 5. The Stakes. Put together, the Story Spine can be represented by a simple diagram:
However, this diagram has been simplified to be applicable to ALL types of story no matter what their form (fairy tales, plays, anecdotes, short stories). The feature-length film, in contrast, is a long-form mode of storytelling with a required length of ninety to over one hundred twenty minutes. This length creates problems for cinematic structure. If a movie’s protagonist does as the Path of Action on this simplified diagram seems to suggest, and pursues only a single line of action from the beginning of the film to its end, the story would quickly become repetitive and dull. The audience would grow tired of watching the protagonist ram him or herself forward after the same objective with the same actions without the benefit of development or change. To overcome this problem, the Spine of a feature-length cinematic story looks something more like this:
Here we see that a cinematic Path of Action is not made of a single line of action, but many short, separate segments, all twisting and turning their way to the protagonist’s ultimate goal. These segments are called STORY SEQUENCES. Simply put, a feature film’s required length, forces its plot to be broken down into smaller, more manageable structural units.
Practically the first thing every developing screenwriter is taught is that a cinematic plot is told through three acts. However, this is putting the cart before the horse. The thing is, acts are really nothing more than groups of consecutive story sequences. One cannot understand how acts work until they understand story sequences. Story sequences can be thought of as “legs” in the protagonist’s journey. When the story begins, the protagonist’s ultimate Story Goal seems far off and difficult to achieve. So, the protagonist must take things one step at a time by pursuing a series of smaller, more immediate SEQUENCE GOALS – one per story sequence – that slowly move him or her closer and closer to the ultimate prize. By pursuing a smaller, yet related sequence goal in every sequence, story sequences become united in their action as interdependent sub-adventures.
To provide a simple example, let’s say every morning you have the ultimate goal of getting to your job on time. To reach this goal, you must first accomplish a series of sub-goals. First, you must prepare to leave home by showering and getting dressed. Then, you must get to the corner in time to catch the right bus. Once on the bus, you must travel to your job’s location. Succeeding at that, you must then get to your work station with time to spare and start your day. With each sub-goal comes its own individual tasks and difficulties. However, with each sub-goal achieved, you take a step closer and closer to the ultimate goal – getting to work on time.
Sequence goals must always be directly related to the main Story Goal. They are sub-goals within the sub-narrative. If a sequence’s action is unrelated to the main story and its Story Spine, the story will skew off into a tangent, lose focus and direction, and basically waste the audience's time with a meaningless side-trip. Instead, the separate-yet-connected nature of story sequences allow a cinematic plot to seem to its audience to twist and turn in unpredictable directions, while keeping the main plot on track and always moving forward in a clear direction.
Story sequences typically last from ten to fifteen minutes. Giving sequences a constantly consistent length provides a plot its sense of rhythm and balance, like evenly-spaced pillars holding up a large building. The average feature film is composed of ten to fourteen story sequences. Typically, the first act lasts two to three sequences. Act 2A two to four sequences, Act 2B two to four more (creating a grand total of five to seven sequence for the entire second act – I know this is bad math, but a second act with only four sequences proves too thin, while an eight-sequence act becomes too unwieldy), with the third finishing the film with three to four sequences more. Three-hour epics such as The Godfather or one of the Lord of the Rings trilogy will contain more sequences in each act, but this is the exception rather than the norm.
Sequences are grouped into acts because the consecutive plot actions contained within these groups work together to create larger movements of plot. The sequences of the first act set up and launch the story action, pushing the protagonist towards a Point of No Return (the End of 1st Act Turning Point). In Act 2A, the protagonist pursues goals that end up complicating the situation, leading to a Monster Moment (the Mid-2nd Act Turning Point or “Midpoint”). In Act 2B, the protagonist pursues another series of goals aimed at overcoming the monstrous situation created by the Midpoint, inevitably forcing him or her into an end-of-act battle that creates the Third Act Catalyst (the End of 2nd Act Turning Point). Finally, the sequence of the third act work together to propel the protagonist towards the Main Story Climax, which will resolve the main story conflict and bring everything to a conclusive end.
But what causes story sequences to zig-zag in unpredictable directions as suggested by the updated Story Spine? A related, and more important question is what causes each story sequence to begin and end? Each story sequence is brought to an end with an event called a TURNING POINT (represented by the little white circles on the diagram). Turning points are dramatic events that cause the protagonist to halt his or her pursuit of the current sequence goal, and then choose a new course of action. In doing so, the event literally turns the story in a new direction, beginning a new story sequence with action aimed at a new sequence goal. Turning points are important. They are what give a story its sense of structure. They are the story’s most meaningful moments, the events that cause the narrative to undergo dramatic development and CHANGE. Because turning points cause the story to grow and change, the audience remains interested. Each of these dramatic moments of change reclaims the audience's curiosity and commands them to stay in their seats so they may discover how the hero will deal with the new and unpredictable situation to come.
Turning points transform the plot situation in one of two ways. Sometimes a turning point occurs because the protagonist successfully achieves the goal of the sequence. With the task completed, the protagonist can turn his or her attention to the next phase of the plan. This move the story onward into its next sequence and gets the hero open step closer to the ultimate prize. This is called a positive turning point. However, more often than not, the protagonist does not achieve his or her sequence goal. An insurmountable OBSTACLE appears to block the protagonist’s way. Like a brick wall erected in the protagonist’s path, the obstacle makes it impossible for the protagonist to reach the current sequence goal through his or her current line of action. This creates a negative turning point. If the protagonist wishes to continue his or her adventure, the protagonist must abandon the current sequence goal and decide on a new course of action aimed at a new goal that will somehow circumvent the obstacle and allow the hero continue his or her journey. By making this decision, the hero launches the story into its next phase.
Turning points must do more than simply shift story action in a new direction. They have an added responsibility of progressively intensifying the story situation through events that cause DEVLOPMENT and ESCALATION. Development occurs when any event causes the story situation to change. But the development that occurs at each turning point cannot be just any simple change, but a major, complicating change. Something is added to the story which takes the situation further, deeper, and into more complex territory. With each turning point, a story is taken from a rather simple scenario at its beginning to an increasingly complicated situation as it moves forward. With each complication also comes escalation. The turning point event must alter the story in a way that forces the protagonist to take on bigger and bigger actions. To continue, the hero must agree to more danger, more risk, and a greater level of conflict. The protagonist must become more dedicated, and in reaction to the protagonist’s bigger, more forceful actions, so must the force of antagonism. Intensity then builds at each turning point, causing dramatic tension to slowly rise like a roller-coaster heading towards its highest point, until conflict reaches critical mass at the main story climax. The roller-coaster then hurtles downhill in an explosive release of dramatic tension as the story comes to a satisfying end. The more development and escalation created leading up to the climax, the more emotionally exciting the climax will be at the story’s end. This is a second reason why turning points are so important. One by one, they create the steady build of tension necessary to create an end that makes the audience feel the entire experience was worthwhile.
For the sake of brevity, I have stuck to the sequence method’s bare bones for this article. There is a lot more to know about how sequences are structured, how it must serve the Story Spine, and how it allows the traditionally-taught Three-Act model to function like a well-oiled machine. If interested in learning more, I suggest you pick up at copy of my book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms where these concepts are laid out in comprehensive detail.