Sequence-Scene Definitions

Defining the terms: ‘Scene’ and ‘Sequence’


The following is a detailed annotated explanation of the definitions of 'Sequence', 'Scene' and 'Shot', derived from the paper published in the Journal of Screenwriting, Volume 3, Issue 2, Pages 217-238, (2012): 'Development of a Fundamental 19-Sequence Model of Screenplay and Film Narrative Structure'.  
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The purpose of this page is to use the Set-up of Act I of On the Waterfront to provide an in-depth empirical definition of ‘Sequence’ and ‘Scene’. Then, Acts I and III of Double Indemnity will be used to show how ScreenWriting Science’s definition of ‘Sequence’ contrasts with the one used in the classic 8-Sequence Structure model template. You will see that the most crucial factor that defines a ‘Sequence’ is its functional role in telling plot milestones and generating the structure of the story.
An Excel spreadsheet will soon be available for download that analyzes the Sequence-Scene composition of over 132 final shooting scripts and movies. This analysis has been used to generate a ‘Template’ structure of Sequences and Scenes that are utilized in the Screenplay Sequence-Scene Analyses. These 7-19 page downloadable PDF documents capture the structural organization and plot milestones of each individual screenplay.

On the Waterfront

To define 'Sequence', I will use the Set-Up of Act I of On the Waterfront to characterize the two fundamental construction blocks of sequences, namely ‘Shot’ and ‘Scene’. Please watch the first 0:37 min of this 1:34 min clip of On the Waterfront, then hit the ‘Pause’ button and read on. You can also look at Figure 1 below.

On the Waterfront was written by Bud Schulberg, and the film made by: Director Elia Kazan, Editor Gene Milford, cinematographer Boris Kaufman and Art Director-Set Decorator Richard Day, along with the memorable performances of Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, John Hamilton, Pat Henning and James Westerfield. On the Waterfront won a remarkable eight Academy Awards and four additional nominations.

1. Definition of ‘Shot’

On the Waterfront opens with a daytime waterfront view of a wooden shack (the Longshoremen’s Union cabin) perched on a wooden wharf with a huge ocean-going liner docked behind. Five unidentified men emerge from the cabin (Terry Malloy, his older brother Charlie, Johnny Friendly - the corrupt Longshoremen’s Union boss, and two thugs). The four men walk up a wooden gangplank towards the shore. All of these images and events are filmed in a continuous single ‘take’ by the camera. This constitutes 'Shot 1'.


SHOT: ‘An uninterrupted take by the camera’.

The camera perspective cuts to a closer view of the men arriving at the top of the wooden ramp next to a car. Friendly pushes Terry, who then walks off in another direction with an expression of resigned reluctance on his face. Clearly, Terry is being sent to do something. This is 'Shot 2'.

Finally, the camera cuts to a night time view (beginning of 'Shot 3'). At that point (0:37 min) you will have stopped the movie. This difference between day and night shows us that a significant amount of time has passed since Terry left Friendly at the wharf. Terry’s location has changed too.

Figure 1: The ‘Sequence-Scene-Shot’ Composition of the Set-Up of Act I of On the Waterfront.


2. Definition of ‘Scene’

At the end of Shot 2, we are left with the questions: Where is Terry going and what Hit the ‘Start’ button of the clip above and watch until the end of the clip at 1:34 min.

Shot 3 is a night time view of Terry from above as he walks down a dark alley. The camera cuts to a closer view of Terry as he stops walking, looks upwards and calls, “Joey,” (Shot 4). From Terry’s perspective, we look upwards to an tenement building to a dimly-lit window (Shot 5). In close-up, Terry calls Joey’s name again (Shot 6). The camera looks upwards to the same window as the silhouette of Joey appears behind the curtain (Shot 7). Joey opens the window asks Terry what he wants (still Shot 7). In close-up, Terry says he has found one of Joey’s pigeons and holds out the bird (Shot 8). Back at the window, Joey says that he had lost one of his pigeons in the last race (Shot 9). Terry listens as Joey says he wants the bird back and that he has, “To be careful these days” (Shot 10). Terry responds that he will meet Joey at his pigeon loft on the roof (still Shot 10). After Joey agrees to meet Terry on the roof, Joey closes his window (Shot 11). The camera pans upwards from Joey’s window to reveal two men standing on the roof (still Shot 11). Terry continues to look upwards for a moment, then releases the pigeon (Shot 12). The bird flies upwards as Terry walks away (Shot 13). The beginning of the next shot occurs later at a different geographical location, and shows Terry arriving outside of Johnny Friendly’s bar (Shot 14).

Shots 1-2 and Shots 3-13 are two groups of distinct groups of shots that each represents an essential component of a film’s structure, namely the SCENE. Scene 1 represents Friendly forcing Terry to leave and go do something. Scene 2 focuses on Terry’s interaction with Joey. 

SCENE: ‘Single or multiple shots edited to present a block of the story’s narrative, plot and/or character development’ Generally, Scenes occur within a specific time frame, and focus on a cohesive theme, event or character experience.

Scene 3.

If you have the DVD of On the Waterfront, continue watching as described below, or refer to Figure 1.

After Terry arrives outside of Johnny Friendly’s bar, he announces to his brother Charlie and the two thugs that Joey is on the roof (Shot 14). Next, Joey cries as he falls (after being pushed) from the roof (Shot 15) and through a washing line of clothes (Shot 16). One thug says that someone fell from the roof (Shot 17). The camera cuts to lights being turned on in the tenement building with people appearing at their windows (Shot 18). One thug says that Joey, “Thought he was gonna sing for the Crime Commission,” (Shot 19). Terry expresses shock that Joey was killed and not simply told to, “Dummy up”, and declines an invitation to join Charlie in Johnny Friendly’s Bar (still Shot 19). Next, is an image of Joey’s body lying on the ground surrounded by different people (beginning of Shot 20). Shot 19 is the end of Scene 3.

We learn a great deal in Scene 3. There is not a second wasted. This is writing at its best.

  • Joey plans to testify to the ‘Crime Commission’.
  • Joey causes problems for Johnny Friendly.
  • Joey had not responded to intimidation by Friendly’s men.
  • Friendly deals with problems ruthlessly.
  • Friendly’s thugs and Charlie show callous indifference.
  • Terry is surprised, confused and shocked that Joey had been murdered.

Scene 4.

This next Scene is filmed in the alley below Joey’s apartment and appears to be out of sight from Terry who is standing outside of Johnny Friendly’s Bar, alone.

Just as Father Barry arrives to give Joey the last rites, the policeman stands and is told by a woman that her husband had been murdered five years ago (Shot 20). In close-up, the policeman hears Pop Doyle (Pop Doyle) say he doesn’t know whether Joey was pushed or fell, and the woman says that Joey was the only one with the guts to talk to, “Them Crime Investigators,” (Shot 21). Father Barry reads Joey the last rites. Someone in the background says, “Don't say nothin'. Keep quiet. You'll live longer." (Shot 22). Pop Doyle listens as someone says that people who talk end up dead like Joey (Shot 23). As Father Barry lifts Edie up from Joey’s body she asks who’d want to kill Joey (Shot 24). A policeman covers Joey’s body with a newspaper, but Edie runs to Joey’s body and tears the newspaper away. In close-up, Father Barry encourages Edie to have, “Time and Faith,” and that he will be in the church if she needs him (Shot 25). But Edie chastises him by saying: “Did you ever hear of a saint hiding in a church?” (Shot 26). Edie looks away and cries; “I wanna know who killed my brother,” (Shot 27). Finally, we see Big Mac walk past Terry still standing outside of Johnny Friendly’s Bar (Shot 28). Terry pauses, then follows Big Mac into the bar.
  • Shots 1- 2 constitute Scene 1.
  • Shots 3-13 constitute Scene 2.
  • Shots 14-19 constitute Scene 3.
  • Shots 20-27 constitute Scene 4.
  • Shot 28 takes us into Scene 5.

Now we are ready to define ‘Sequence’.

3. Definition of ‘Sequence’

If you continue to watch your DVD until the 11:00 min mark, you will see that Shot 28 takes us into Scene 5, which specifically is what happens in Friendly’s Bar and away from the murder. It’s a completely different component of the story. Scenes 1 through 4 focus on Terry’s role in the murder of Joey and the reaction of key witnesses (Edie, Father Barry and Pop Doyle). In contrast, Scene 5 focuses on Johnny Friendly and his world; Joey’s murder is barely acknowledged and certainly doesn’t drive the action. Therefore, Scenes 1 through 4 constitute a major building block of screenplay structure, namely the ‘Sequence’. Scene 5 is the beginning of the next Sequence.

SEQUENCE: 'A scene, or a series of connected scenes, that present a succession of related events that constitute and advance a distinct component of the story narrative, plot and/or character development'.


Comparison of ScreenWriting Science’s Definition of ‘Sequence’ to the classic 8-Sequence Model.
Next, I will use Double Indemnity to define by example, how Sequences are used to construct Act I (Set-up, Inciting Incident, Call to Action and the First Commitment to Act) and Act III (Climax and Resolution) and compare ScreenWriting Science’s model of how Sequences construct screenplays with the classic 8-Sequence Structure model. A full analysis of the film can be found in bother the Journal of Screenwriting paper and the Sequence-Scene Analysis of Double Indemnity.  My conclusion is that the 8-Sequence model is not supported by a rigorous analysis. I look forward to your opinion on my assessment below.

The 8-Sequence Model

The most long-standing model of Sequences in the structure of a screenplay is the 8-Sequence Structure.

The ‘Eight-Sequence Structure’ is a system developed by Frank Daniel while he was the head of the Graduate Screenwriting Program at the University of Southern California. It is based, in part on the fact that, in the early days of cinema, technical matters forced screenwriters to divide their stories into sequences, each the length of a reel (about ten minutes). The sequence approach mimics that early style. The story is broken up into eight 10-15 minute sequences. The sequences serve as "mini-movies", 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. (From Wikepedia: See also Gulino, 2005).

The 8-Sequence Structure model seems to be based on the practical requirement from many years ago that movies be segregated into 10-15 minute segments because of film-spool size. The assumption appears to be that screenwriters ‘know’ of this film-reel structure time constraint and still either inherently or deliberately conform to this format. The conclusion from the analysis presented in the Journal of Screenwriting paper, however, is that screenwriters do not.

Act I of Double Indemnity

In Paul Joseph Gulino book: ‘Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach’ (2005), the 8-Sequence model breaks Act I of Double into two Sequences: A and B (see Tavle 1). In contrast, ScreenWriting Science’s definition of ‘Sequences’ breaks down Act I into four sequences: 1, 2, 3 and 4 (Table 1). These four sequences correspond to the classic Syd Field model of ‘Set-up’, ‘Inciting Incident’, Call to Action’ and the ‘First Commitment to Act’.   

Table 1: Comparison of the 8-Sequence Structure model with ScreenWriting Science’s Model in Act I of Double Indemnity.



Eight-Sequence Structure

(Quoted from:

Guliano, 2005)

ScreenWriting Science Sequence Model

3-Act Structure Milestones (Number of Scenes)

SEQUENCE A: Neff’s opening confession and Phyllis leaving a message for Neff.

SEQUENCE 1: Walter Neff is an insurance salesman who enters his office with a gunshot wound. Neff begins to record a confession of lust, money and murder to Barton Keyes.

Set-Up (4)

SEQUENCE 2: In Phyllis’ home, Phyllis asks Neff about accident insurance for her husband and asks him to return the next day. Neff sees how good the determined Keyes is at detecting insurance fraud.

Inciting Incident (4)

SEQUENCE B: Neff’s second visit to Phyllis and agreement to kill Phyllis’ husband.

SEQUENCE 3: After retuning to Phyllis’ house, Neff refuses to help Phyllis kill her husband for life insurance money because of Keyes’ ability to detect fraud (Refusal of the Call).

Call to Action (4)

SEQUENCE 4: Phyllis visits Neff’s apartment and persuades Neff to help her plan and murder of her husband.

First Commitment to Act (1)

Double Indemnity was written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, and derived from a novella written by James M. Cain. The film received seven Academy Awards nominations.

Sequence 1 (Video 1: 0:00-6:32 min) is set in the present, and focuses on Neff (Fred MacMurray) with a gunshot wound to his shoulder staggering into his insurance company office and beginning his confession to insurance fraud investigator Keyes (Edward G. Robinson).

Sequence 2 has two components, both flashbacks, that are thematically linked by ‘insurance’ and ‘fraud’ (Video 1: 6:33-9:51 and Video 2: 0:00-4:22). The first part, Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) asks Neff about insurance for her husband. The second part shows that Keyes is an expert at detecting insurance fraud, thereby warning Neff (and the audience) of the huge risk Neff will face when he enters a ‘Double Indemnity’ murder conspiracy with Phyllis.

Video 1:

Video 2:

Intuitively, Sequences 1 and 2 are quite distinct, both in terms of timing and content: Sequence 1 is Neff’s confession in the present, while Sequence 2 is flashback and focuses on insurance. In the 8-Sequence Structure model, it is unclear why these two segments would be combined as a single sequence (i.e. Sequence A), particularly as they correspond to Field’s ‘Set-up’ and ‘Inciting Incident’ (See Hauge, 1991; Frensham, 2003).

The third sequence corresponds to the Call to Action (and Refusal of the Call: Video 2: 4:23-9:41 and Video 3: 1:20-1:47 min). Here, Neff visits Phyllis’ home and refuses to conspire with her to murder her husband.

The fourth Sequence corresponds to the First Commitment to Act (Video 3: 1:48-4:19 and Video 4: 0:00-6:42) where Phyllis visits Neff’s apartment and persuades him to help her murder her husband. Again, sequences 3 and 4 are distinct and separated by Neff’s dictation to Keyes. It is unclear why these two sequences are combined in the 8-Sequence Structure model.

Video 3:

Video 4: