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, 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.