You may not know the exact definition, but you have already seen dozens of film sequences. You already know what it looks like on screen but on paper? In this article, you can find out how to write a film sequence.
Let’s start by highlighting one simple fact: a film sequence is important, REALLY important. According to Syd Field (in his book Screenplay), a movie sequence is like a mini-story inside the bigger story of the movie.
Basically a group of scenes that deals with one problem the hero has to face at a certain point of the story.
It has a beginning, middle and end and it blends perfectly with the events in the movie. This means that the end of the sequence is not the same as the ending of the movie. Think about a film sequence as a chapter in a long ass book, it is a coherent story that makes sense in the context of the book, but it wouldn’t sell many copies if printed on its own.
So why do we need those “stories inside stories”?
In the 3 act structure, act 2 is the longest one. It takes twice the screen time of act 1 and act 3 and in most stories it consists only in the hero overcoming the obstacles that were put in his way. How do you write a good second act without making a mess or boring the audience to death?
That’s where a film sequence comes in. If this part of the story is only about the hero tearing down everything on his path and moving on to the next obstacle, it will become repetitive and the people watching will lose interest quickly.
You protagonist won’t be a mighty fearless hero that works hard to defeat his enemies and comes up with clever solutions, he will look like Mario jumping up and down and collecting coins in an old video game.
But if you write the story keeping in mind that every obstacle is a real threat to your hero’s happy ending (and not just a minor setback), you’ll manage to grab and keep the audience’s attention.
Ok, but how do you write it practically?
Since a sequence is made of scenes (each with its own number on the margin) you can’t write an additional number to remember which sequence you’re writing. And you don’t even need to. After all, the number of the scene is printed because the director and the other people involved need it for technical purposes.
What you can do is highlight the text of each sequence with a different color. Many screenwriting softwares allow you to do so.
And after you’ve finished your story, you can just bring the text back to normal since you don’t need the colors anymore.
But let’s look at a real example with a movie that follows the classical 3 act structure: The adjustment bureau.
The adjustment bureau
The goal of the story is pretty simple: David needs to outsmart the Adjustment bureau and find a way to stay with Elise.
In the first act, David meets Elise and finds out who his opponent is. In the third act, David has a final confrontation with his opponent(s) and gets his happy ending.
So what about the second act? What happens there?
It’s true that a film sequence needs to have a clear goal, but each sequence cannot be completely independent from the rest of the story. All the sequences need to be connected by something in common.
In The adjustment bureau, the “something in common” is the goal of act 2: finding Elise and staying with her. Think about it this way: in act 1 David sees Elise, in act 2 he pursues her, and in act 3 he finally “gets” her.
Here are the sequences that create the second act of The adjustment bureau:
1- Elise’s dancing rehearsal
Years after his last meeting with Elise, David meets her again and invites her on a date, where she invites him to see her performance. Both are surveilled by Richardson and his men.
David has to get to the ballet theatre but the Bureau and Richardson put any sort of obstacles in his path because they need to keep him from seeing her dancing.
In the end, David manages to see her dance during the rehearsal, Richardson realizes that it’s time for him to give up.
The goal of this sequence is to see Elise dancing. By doing so, David will show her his commitment to the relationship and create a problem for the Bureau.
2- Richardson’s failure
After failing, Richardson gets called in by his superiors that reveal to him that David and Elise were meant to be together in other versions of the Plan.
While Richardson realizes that the mission was rigged from the start, therefore he could never have succeeded; his superior decides to put another man on the case called “the Hammer”.
In the last scene of this sequence, Richardson forgives
Falcon Harry and tells him that it’s not his fault.
This sequence has nothing to do with the characters’ goal, but rather it’s used by the writers to introduce (even if just by name) the next antagonist: the Hammer.
3- The date
During a montage we see David and Elise walking around and chatting, they’re getting to know each other.
As the date goes on David takes Elise to his old neighborhood where we see that he is a beloved politician. He talks to her about the tragedy that struck his family in the past.
After going to David’s house they spend the night together.
Here David’s goal is simply to get to know Elise better and spend some time with her. With this sequence, we (the audience) find out a little bit more about the couple.
After an interview, David finds himself face to face with the Hammer and the man reveals to him the function and the goal of the Bureau.
David assists to Elise’s performance for the first time, but the Hammer makes her fall and injure herself to show David what he is really capable of.
David decides to leave Elise in the hospital and stay apart from her for her own sake.
We can say that this sequence comes from the perspective of the villain. The Hammer’s goal (convince David to stay away from Elise) is what ties the scenes together.
5- Using the doors
After some time, David has reprised his political career and Elise is engaged to her ex-boyfriend. Surprisingly, David meets
Falcon Harry again who offers him his help to stop the wedding.
Harry teaches David what the powers of the men of the Bureau are and how to use the doors to his advantage.
As the Hammer and other agents pursue him, David manages to get to the courtroom and talk to Elise.
The goal of this sequence is to think of a plan to get to the courtroom in time to stop Elise from getting married.
The final sequence of act 2 that leads up to the climax is usually filled with tension and action, in The adjustment bureau, it is no exception. Unlike the last 3 sequences, which were more focused on the characters, this one has to bring closure to act 2 and create anticipation for the climax of act 3.
Whether you want to use the 3 act structure or not, dividing you movie in sequences is a perfect way to organize your ideas. Rather than writing scene by scene and ending up with a good beginning and a good ending but a rambling mess in the middle, writing in sequences allows you to give a coherent theme and structure to your story.