Process: Writing in Sequences
The third in a series about finding your writing process, continuing with borrowing wisdom from the big screen to write your novel, using the 8-Sequence Method.
The 8-Sequence Method is nothing new. In fact, it began when cinema began, when movies were only as long as film reels could hold, about 15 minutes of rolled plastic. When they figured out how to quickly change reels in the projection room, the movies we know now were born; and even today when reels are rare, they are designed to give us an interesting turn of the plot every fifteen minutes or so. (If you write screenplays, you might want to check out Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach.)
It just works. Fifteen minutes is just long enough to give us some fun with the current state of affairs, but about the time we’re looking for something new to happen. Boom, the main character falls down and must reassess and set out on a new plan.
Why eight sequences? The diplomatic answer is that two hours (8 times 15 minutes) is as long as the average viewer can sit focusing on one thing, while I think it has more to do with the size of the human bladder (have you seen the size of drinks in cinemas?). It does seem to be the perfect length though.
Using the 8-Sequence Method to write novels isn’t new either, with more than one writing book seeming to claim the idea. One such book, by Alexandra Sokoloff, (the first I found on this method) is so comprehensive on the subject, it is a veritable reference book on novel writing. It includes some great exercises along the way, too, but the best part for me is how she breaks down the plot into its most powerful components to make a great story. She does so using the same sequence structure used in film.
As expected, these sequences once more dovetail with the ubiquitous 3-Act Structure, where every other sequence begins on an Act boundary (Act II breaking at the Midpoint).
This is the version of the 8-Sequence Method I derived from reading the book (yours might be slightly different). Each sequence is a set of scenes propelling your main character in some inevitable direction, only to hit a new challenge at the end of the sequence, propelling them in a new direction. Every sequence is a little story of it’s own, with a minor climax at the end–the ones at the Act breaks more life-changing for the character.
Note the pair of numbers in the brackets beneath the sequence’s purpose. These denote how far into the story we are at this point:
- The hour:minutes through the movie,
- The pages in a novel.
(It’s important to get close to these marks, because the audience or reader will be getting edgy to see something happen here, whether they know it or not.)
Sokoloff not only breaks down the importance of these sequences and how to set them up for those of us who like using index cards to plot our scenes, but also delves deeply into the dramatic “elements” that usually appear in each sequence, elements audiences have grown to expect from reading and viewing the mass of work that came before; things that make a story satisfying. She defines these elements not just for the plot, but for character development, setting, theme, plants and reveals, and a bunch more stuff too numerous to mention here.
I suggest getting her book, Story Structure Basics: How to write better books by learning from the movies* to see for yourself. I keep mine handy as a checklist for revising my own drafts.
Oh, wow… I just noticed she now has a series of writing books out on the same subject–and they’re very inexpensive for what you get.
I guess I know what I’ll be reading for a bit.