the eight-sequence method for novels and screenplays

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).

A simplified version of the 8 Sequence Method is pictured here, with each sequence propelling the main character in some inevitable direction, only to hit a new challenge at the end of each sequence, propelling them in a new direction. Each sequence is a little story on it’s own, with a minor climax at the end; the ones at the Act breaks even more life-changing for the character.

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, 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.

the eight-sequence method for novels and screenplays
The 8-Sequence Method for Novels (and screenplays)

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.

*affiliated link

Oh, wow… I just realized 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.

The first in a series about finding your writing process, starting with writing toward the basic shape of all successful stories, the Basic Plot Structure.

I thought I’d start simple and work outward to the more complex, since that’s the most sane way to write stories themselves. In fact, it is the basis of one popular process I’ll go into later called the Snowflake Method. But first, let’s look at one underlying process or structure that seems to be common to all successful stories: the plot structure.

Whether you’re a Pantser or an Outliner, eventually a story must be honed into the right shape that is recognizable as a satisfying story. Any writer will already know this shape, resembling a triangle or a mountain, which our hero must climb to find their Inner Hero. It involves a Setup to get us up to speed on our fictional world, an Inciting Incident to rip our main character out of their comfort zone, a long series of ever-increasing obstructions for them to climb over, a Climax where they figure out what they needed to do from the start, and a Resolution where they find their new life.

archplot structure chart

Whether you support the whole idea of writing to a structure or form, thanks to all the movies and books your audience has watched and read already, this is the form of story they are already expecting to see. If we deviate too far from it, we run the risk of our work hitting the wall (literally) or a trash can before they finish reading it. Luckily it’s a pretty open and forgiving structure.

Note the Three-Act structure laid out beneath that triangle. This is also a pretty common part of an audience’s expectations, though they may not consciously register the passing of each Act. The Acts are more a measure of turning points that should (some say “must”) happen for the hero in a successful story (and just about every movie you’ve ever watched and enjoyed). We can talk about Acts later on.

This shape doesn’t just happen–it must be designed. Outliners start out with this shape in mind and plan their scenes to “rise to the challenge” their heroes will have to face. Pantsers, like their fellow audience members, already “feel” this shape and roughly write toward it, only to later revise and nudge things into the right places. Neither way is better than the other, of course, except for the writers using it.

Whatever works for you is the way to go. That one thing we must remember, or nothing that follows will seem wondrous … oops–I slipped into Scrooge territory there. Sorry.

It is interesting to note that the triangle above used to be drawn more like an isosceles triangle, before the Internet and a million action movies jaded us to the plodding pace old movies and books now must seem to younger audiences (well, to me, too, anymore). Especially the beginnings and endings.

The Freytag structure

Back then, as you can see in this Freytag graph, beginning setups were much longer, and resolutions more gradual. Nowadays, we’re clever enough to do the Setup as part of the Inciting Incident and the Resolution is practically melded into the Climax itself. It’s elegant and makes a lot of sense, especially when dinosaurs are roaming about eating everyone.

As far as processes go, this is pretty basic stuff, almost to the point of being subconscious anymore to the practiced writer. But it is upon this model that most other processes are built, or at least target, so I thought it best to put it out there for those just starting out.

For a much more in-depth exploration of the importance of story structure, I recommend reading Super Structure* by James Scott Bell. This book is not only friendly and fun to read, but immediately breaks the myth that writing to structure confines your process; instead freeing you to write your story faster and in a way that will connect more solidly and emotionally with your audience.

(*affiliated link)

Next week: The Snowflake Method.

How many of you find yourself in this place: Trying to figure out if your Dream Job is more a job than a dream?

I know, it’s a silly question really … unless you’re a college student wrestling with her choice of major. Or a writer wondering if she truly wants to court MGM … or Barnes and Noble. Hollywood or New York. Movies or books. Working for someone else (a Job) or in my coffee shop (a Dream).

I’ve been paddling around in this boat, seemingly in circles, as the current of time pulls me inexorably into my senior year in college, and my life into that phase where it’s either put up, or shut up.

Most of my life I’ve spent outlining, pondering, daydreaming, brainstorming, scribbling, writing, revising and agonizing over stories I thought would one day become novels. It’s what I’ve known since I was a wee tykette, after discovering  libraries as safe havens for geeks, where bullies feared to tread (all that knowledge threatening to dissolve the ignorance that made them who they are).

My eyes glittering, surrounded by endless shelves of books, each one full of . . . Potential: knowledge and experience and stories my quiet little life had never dreamt of. I began to consume books like potato chips.

The science fiction and fantasy section was an especially tasty place to begin ingesting the material in that place, but then I branched out to other parts of the Dewey Decimal System when I found a plethora of other fun things to learn, things that made my classes at the time seem horribly boring in comparison (I’ll never understand how public education manages to make something like History so indigestible). I would inexpertly regurgitate bits of things I’d learned on my own, as little stories in the margins of spiral notebooks meant for more academic scribblings–then full sections in the back when the margins became too constricting.

I got hooked on writing very early. But did I ever decide what I would ever do with it? What industry, if any, would I pursue with this practice? How would I apply myself?

Like I mentioned, the novel had always been my default target, simply because it was what I’d known. It wasn’t until well-meaning peers and fellow students started reading my stuff and commented on the how “visual” the scenes were that I began to consider switching to moviemaking. What an intriguing idea . . . !

Several years ago I actually finished one of the many story ideas I’ve been collecting (I counted 98 separate story folders on my hard drive recently) as an actual “Novel” . . . (wake and cue orchestra). It became a 650 page monster, full of quirky fun dastardly bastards and unappreciated heroes. My first readers seemed to love the thing, but it was far too big for a first time author to publish. I marked it down as a practice exercise, shelved it and moved on.

Then came this new love affair with the movie genre and all its lovely constriction: 120 pages maximum (unless you’re Kevin Kostner), one page per minute of movie time, no internal thoughts, everything is visual, out in the open. I thought to myself (rather unvisually), “there’s what I need to battle my page-monsters! I’ll write movies!”; the constrictions of the form actually turning me on.

I worked my way through an Associates degree with that idea in mind, then my Junior year, proudly proclaiming myself a Film major. I was ready to write a dozen Blockbusters all by myself, once I truly learned how.

Only it’s not quite that simple. If it ever was …

Everything in life has a trade off. This one has a doozie: When you work in film, you can make a boatload of money, if you’re a success, but you don’t get to call any shots. Not one.

The moment you write a story and sell it in Hollywood, it’s not yours anymore. Unless your name holds a ton of cred, like perhaps Stephen King–and even he has horror stories of his own with Hollywood, which I find deliciously ironic–you lose any right to the story. You typically lose any revising rights, as well. If you’re smart, you turn your back on the story altogether, because Hollywood loves to rewrite, repurpose, revamp, reimagine . . . until the original story can no longer be resuscitated.

Very few stories make it through Hollywood intact, unless the story has already grabbed up a serious cult following in the form of . . . wait for it . . . a novel!

Think J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkein, or PG Wodehouse (and most of Stephen King). New authors, like myself, won’t be found on that list … yet. We’re on that other list, the one that’s titled “bend over and get ready for unwanted collaborationism.”

Hollywood is a hugely collaborative industry. Everyone who has anything to do with a movie (look at the credits … there are thousands!) has an opportunity to tweak the story, if not grab a pipe wrench and twist it into something else entirely.

Novelists, on the other hand, get to call all the shots. Sure, they make far less money generally. “You can’t make a living writing books – but you can make a killing,” I’ve heard said (anyone know by whom?). But when I write one it stays written. And I don’t have to move to L.A., where you basically must live to make it as a screenwriter. When would I have time to write if I’m stuck in traffic all the time?

So, here I am, asking myself the Big Question: Is Film really where I want to be? I have a year to figure it out. In the meantime, I’ll be here in my coffee shop, writing … something. A good story, I hope.

A good story will work anywhere.