The Sequence Approach

“Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach” by Paul Joseph Gulino.

Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. New York, NY 2004.

230 pages. ISBN-13: 0-8264-1568-7 Amazon Price: US $14.25

Paul Gulino is Associate Professor of Screenwriting at Chapman University in California. He is a produced screenwriter and playwright.

ORIGINS

The sequence method takes us back to 1897, and the advent of projection. Films rarely extended beyond one reel, and were 10 to 15 minutes long. As theatres purchased second projectors, longer films could be screened almost without a break, but screenwriting manuals written prior to the First World War advised writers to structure their work around the division of reels.

This structure persisted into the 1950’s, with sequences identified by the letters A, B, C, D etc.

The sequence method focuses on
how the audience will experience the story and
what the writer can do to make that story better.

Gulino does not tell us why the sequence approach to writing ended but he does tell us why he believes it should be revived. “…sequencing helps writers create dynamic, dramatic engines that drive their stories forward. And unlike other popular approaches to screenwriting, the sequence method focuses on how the audience will experience the story and what the writer can do to make that story better.”

Any screenwriting method that makes the writer’s task easier and focuses on the audience’s experience is worth examining.

EIGHT SEQUENCES

A typical two hour film, Gulino tells us, comprises eight sequences – two in the first act, fourth in the second and two in the third. Each sequence is a short film which mirrors the structure of a complete film.

But while complete films have conflicts and issues that are resolved at the end, sequences have conflicts and issues that are only partly resolved. Because they are only partly resolved, they engage the attention of the reader and viewer.

According to E.M. Forster a story “…has only one merit: that of making an audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.” (Aspects of the Novel, 1917)

TOOLS OF ANTICIPATION

Gulino does not just tell us to keep the audience engaged. He shows us how it is done with four tools. They are, in ascending order of significance, telegraphing (and reverse telegraphing), the dangling cause, dramatic irony and dramatic tension (particularly chases and escapes).

Other tools are discussed during his analysis of eleven screenplays.

Gulino’s method makes screenwriting easier. Instead of staring at a blank sheet of paper and wondering how to fill it 120 times, a screenwriter has only to craft a 10 to 15 minute mini movie to be on the road to a complete screenplay.

REMAINING QUESTIONS

The book is an excellent introduction to the art of sequencing but it does not answer all the questions. Why, for example, did sequencing lose its popularity. Did Syd Field’s “Screenplay”, with its three acts and multiple plot points crowd out the art of sequencing? Was sequencing seen as a device that divided a film, rather than emphasised its whole? And why, if sequencing is such a good device, do screenwriters try to hide this structure?

Very few films use chapter headings, but I find chapter heading quite satisfying. “The Sting”, “A Room with a View” and more recently “500 Days of Summer” use chapter headings that identify the sequences. In “500 Days of Summer” this technique was essential, because the film bounces back and forth in time and without the chapter headings the audience would not know the current state of Tom and Summer’s relationship.

DVD SEQUENCING

This brings me to another advantage of sequencing – one overlooked by Gulino. Most people do not view films in theatres. They see them in the privacy of their own homes, with the advantage of remote controls that allow the viewer to pause, go back and fast forward. Most viewers time their food, drink and lavatory breaks to coincide with the end of a sequence, and a screenwriter who bears this in mind will produce a more comfortable viewing experience.

It is interesting that the division of films 100 years ago was dictated by the size of the reel; now they are dictated by the weakness of the bladder. That is progress.

SEQUENCE LENGTH

While Gulino suggests that sequences are usually 10 to 15 minutes there has been a trend lately towards much shorter sequences.

Directors, having cut their teeth on MTV clips, are often deluded into believing they can create a feature film. The result has been a number of films with very short scenes and very short sequences, such as “The Bourne Ultimatum”. In my opinion most of these movies are unsatisfactory. They do not allow the audience to be drawn into the story.

An audience is prepared to suspend disbelief to a certain extent, but sudden and repeated changes of character and location are jarring and serve to remind the audience that it is only watching a film.

ELEVEN ANALYSES

Gulino illustrates his points with an analysis of eleven screenplays. Unlike many writers, he does not chose films that exactly fit his thesis. Five of his examples do not have the suggested 8 sequence structure – “Lawrence of Arabia” (16), “The Fellowship of the Ring” (12), “North by Northwest” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (9) and “The Graduate” (7). One that does conform is “Air Force One”, written by Andrew Marlowe who studied under Frank Daniel, a passionate advocate of sequencing and Gulino’s mentor.

The examples illustrate the underlying drama of each sequence and the relationship to the drama of the film as a whole. I noted that one blogger criticised Gulino for only offering 19 pages of theory and 205 pages of examples, but he obviously missed the pearls of wisdom that reside in each of the examples.

CONCLUSION

“Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach” is one of the best books available on screenplay structure. It simplifies the writing process and emphasises the underlying drama of each sequence and its relationship to the screenplay as a whole. It is essential reading for both novice and experienced screenwriters.

- Jack Brislee

Jack Brislee is a business broker and property developer by day and a screenwriter by night.
He has written 12 scripts, one in pre-production in the
UK and one in pre-production in South Africa.

He collects and dissects books on screenwriting.

9 Comments

  1. Matthew Schelle February 20, 2010 at 7:46 pm #

    great book, the film example breakdowns are a great tool

  2. Margit February 21, 2010 at 3:39 am #

    The 8-sequence method was once called the Frank Daniel method… I hope Gulino is not presenting this theory as his own.
    David Howard has also written down some of Frank Daniel’s theories. I imagine there might be a lot of similarities between this book and “How to Build a Great Screenplay” and “The Tools of Screenwriting”.

    • Karel Segers February 21, 2010 at 7:32 am #

      Thank you for your comment, Margit.

      I believe Gulino was a student of Daniel’s and he surely gives due credit to his mentor.

      Personally I’m a great fan of Frank Daniel’s approach and regularly go back to THE TOOLS OF SCREENWRITING, which is very different from THE SEQUENCE APPROACH.

      I’m not familiar with the other book you mention but will keep an eye out.

    • Jack Brislee February 21, 2010 at 8:58 am #

      Gulino does not present the theory as his own and does acknowledge Frank Daniel. In the preface he states “Luckily, at USC, I learned the craft of screenwriting from one of the form’s master educators, Frank Daniel, who designed the program’s curriculum around the sequence method.”

  3. Mikiyas efram March 26, 2012 at 1:47 am #

    wow wow wow i am really really in need !!! to know more about the sequnce aproch so wats the secret ????? so email me mikiyasefram@yahoo.com

  4. Mike February 25, 2014 at 7:32 pm #

    It still amazes me why people recommend G.’s book so highly. It literally contains a chapter, maybe two, of useful information, and the rest is just filler we’ve all heard before to make the actual useful information into a book. Hell, everything useful in it can be found on the internet for free. I mean, it’s a useful book if you have no inkling of the 8 sequence method, but if you do, then you pretty much already know everything you’ll ‘learn’ about it from the book.

    • Karel Segers February 26, 2014 at 2:17 pm #

      Hi Mike – You’re right that there’s only 20p. of ‘theory’ in the book; but I wouldn’t call the rest ‘filler’.

      The analyses are the most useful part to me as it illustrates how things work. Often students read the ‘rules’, yet remain incapable of taking any learning from it. The 10 movies are a broad cross-section of genres and eras and everyone will find at least one favourite.

      You recommend searching on the internet… It’s the last thing I recommend to my students as the sources are often dubious and/or contradictory. Gulino takes great care in giving his statements context.

      Ultimately, in my view the only practical tools to analyse stories and films are dramatic tension and hero’s journey. Everything else is really derivative. Gulino sticks to the core essentials of dramatic tension and his book shines in simplicity.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Bits of film. « Extravagant delight - January 13, 2012

    […] Finally, a sequence of  film  is a distinct narrative unit formed by a series of scenes, usually linked together by a pattern such as unity of time or location. In the early days of cinema, technical matters forced screenwriters to divide their stories into sequences, each the length of a reel (approximately ten minutes). This fact triggered Frank Daniel to develop a system mimicking that early style, known as the sequence approach to screenwriting. Basically, it consists in spliting the film in sequences that serve as “mini-film”, each with their own compressed three-act structure. The first two sequences combine to form the film’s first act. The next four create the film’s second act. The final two sequences complete the resolution and dénouement of the story. Each sequence’s resolution creates the situation which sets up the next sequence. For those interested, more details here. […]

  2. Experiment in the Bare Bones of Storytelling : Pirates of the Caribbean Sequel Trilogy, part 3 | J. Nelson Leith - October 31, 2013

    […] it turned out, the exercise is also a good example of how to incorporate the eight-sequence method, Brian McDonald’s “invisible ink,” and elements of Blake Snyder’s beat […]

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