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Sequences: Advanced Writing Technique

Adapted from Writers Workshop Script Doctor

Copyright © 1994, 1996, 1998, Dorian Scott Cole

Characters seldom discover a problem and resolve it in one scene. Characters often gather information, or become troubled, over a period of time or in different places. Three such incidents is a workable number in a story. Tension often builds over two to five scenes, developing a larger piece of the story, and this is called a sequence of scenes. Just like the scene, and the entire story, the sequence is a miniature story that centers around conflict, and tension builds to a climax. 

Sometimes the sequence is confused with writing for television. In television episodes, the acts are divided into sections between commercials. These sections are sequences of typically three scenes that end in such a way as to entice the viewer to return to the TV to see more. Writing in sequences for film isn't the same thing. "Writing small events" rattles off event after event like a machine gun and loses all the impact. It also makes the story choppy and more difficult to follow. But writing in sequences thoroughly develops movements within stories with dramatic arcs of their own. It is a very effective way of writing, but it works better if you continue elements of the story within the sequences so the sequences are seamless.

An example of a sequence: 

In prior scenes, Hawk has discovered that Digs has needle marks on his arm, and Hawk's car has been broken into and his amp stolen. 

Discovery of the problem and doing something about it: In the first scene, Hawk puts two and two together and talks to a cop about arresting his friend Digs because he thinks Digs broke into his car and took his amp to sell for drugs. 

Obstacle 1: In the second scene he talks to Digs' sister who says he was at home all night. He doesn't believe her. 

Obstacle 2: In the third scene he talks to one of Digs' enemies who says he saw him cruising that night - he could hear him coming a mile away. Hawk becomes really angry. 

Plot twist, climax, and resolution: In the fourth scene he goes to Digs' mother and makes nasty comments about the family. She tells him Digs is on chemotherapy and doesn't want anyone to know, which explains the needle marks. Digs is in another room listening. He comes out and the two confront each other. Hawk decides to help Digs get through this.

Electric Scenes: Getting What You Want in a Scene

What the writer must write, to be visual, are scenes that engage the audience. Using sequences allows the writer to more fully use conflict and anticipation, to engage the audience. 

Writing visual scenes in sequences

Character Conflict. Conflict is the heart of drama. When people are in a struggle against each other or against something, others are drawn in. The viewer wants to know how it ends. If someone begins a joke but forgets the punch line, what do we do? Hang him from the nearest chandelier? When we hear a mystery, what do we do? We stay alert for the solution. If a good friend tells us Aunt Shirley caught her husband buying an expensive gift for another woman and she is seeing a lawyer, what do we want to know? Will Shirley sue for divorce? We want to know how things end. We are naturally curious, and a conflict is one of the things that grabs our attention. 

Anticipation: Anticipation is knowing something is going to happen because you've been set up for it. It's like a Christmas gift - you can see it is under the tree, and the size of the box, but you don't know what is there. In a story, if the audience knows Rod is hot headed and retaliates, and something angers him, they know something is going to happen. Anticipation draws them in, and if spread over several scenes with rising tension, it draws them deeply into each scene. Inside the scene, anticipation is waiting for the reaction you know is going to come. If the character has been drawn well, and his motivation is clear, the audience will know just about how he is going to react. But it has to be set up. 

Using conflict and anticipation in a sequence

Scene One: jealous wife Jill questions her husband, Mike, like a police interrogator about his activities, then says she will pick him up after work, "to talk."

What are we anticipating? A continuation of the action. 

Scene Two: Mike travels by car with his attractive secretary, and learns they won't be arriving back until after quitting time. What are you anticipating in the next scene? Jealous Jill waiting in her car to pick him up, witnessing him getting out of the car with his secretary. What are we anticipating? We know Jill is not the type to just start crying. Will she run over him, embarrass him, divorce him, or what. 

Within the scene, anticipation can also be a factor. Should Jill just run over him? This very direct solution ends the scene and drama quickly. How about this: Mike walks slowly across the parking lot while Jill worries the steering wheel and burns. When he gets in, she doesn't say a word, but drives furiously away. She runs a red light at a busy intersection. He yells, "Slow down!" She yells back, "You son of a bitch! You son of a bitch!" She continues driving recklessly. A truck approaches from the opposite direction. She pulls into the opposite lane, squaring off with the truck. Mike tries to move the steering wheel, but all he does is make the car swerve. At the last moment she avoids the collision and parks the car. She throws the keys at him and storms down the street on foot. He pulls up beside her and yells, "She's my secretary. We had a meeting in Benton today and she took notes." After several exchanges, she gets back in the car swearing she will check his story. What do we anticipate? She will check his story, and there will be more doubt for Jill. 

So if the plot is strong, characters are motivated, and things are set up, there is anticipation and the audience is engaged. To set it up, write in sequences of three to five scenes, then play it out in the last scene.

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