Sequence and Scene Definition


'Screenplay Structure' is accepted as a vital component of a successful screenplay - if you create and organize all the critical elements of a story before embarking on writing, this outline and template will both accelerate your writing and create a piece of wortk with all the key plot points and character conflicts presented at exactly the right times. ScreenWriting Sciences' 19-Sequence Model will help you do this. 


Dan O'Bannon, co-writer of Alien and Total Recalldescribes Screenplay Structure as: '"..A set of predefined relationships between story elements that give shape to the finnished story.'" His book, 'Guide to Screenplay Structure'', goes on to highlight the critical plot points and character conflicts in a group of classic movies from Casablanca to Lawrence of Arabia. Similarly, in 'Story', Robert McKee, refers to Structure as: "...A selection of events from the characters' life stories that is composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life.' He goes on to describe the building blocks of 'Story', namely: 'Event', 'Scene', 'Beat', 'Sequence' and 'Act'.  Michael Hauge in 'Writing Screenplays that Sell', refers to structure as: '"..The specific events in a movie and their position relative to one another. Proper structure occurs when the right events occur in the right sequence to elicit maximum emotional involvement in the rteader and audience.'" He defines a checklist of structural requirements, including character motivation,conflicts, pace, anticipation, audience curiosity and forshadowing. 


What the 19-Sequence Model does is create the template for the story and plot elements described by O'Bannon, McKee and Hauge. 




'Sequences' form the template for writing a script - it's easier to write a complex plot when the story is split into managable units of defined content. 'Sequences', and their composite 'Scenes', are also how a movie is constructed, editied, and presdented to the audience. The 8-Sequence Model is one of the most frequently sequence structures cited, and there are many books, websites and software available to assist in screenplay writing with this model. The 19-Sequence Model that was published in the Journal of Screenwriting describes the research which demonstrated that the majority of the 132 movies analyzed were composed of 19-Sequences, not eight. I will contrast these two models below, after first defining the terms 'Sequence' and 'Scene'. 




The Journal of Screenwriting paper that describes the 19-Sequence Model uses a carefully reasoned definition of 'Sequence' and 'Scene'. Space in the journal, however, restricted being able to fully explain demonstrate these definitions. As noted in the paper, credible authors use difference definitions (for example: McKee, Field, Cowgil and Karetnikova): 'Sequence' and 'Scene' are to some degree ideosyncratic constructs. For the purposes of analysis and the development of the 19-Sequence Model, composite definitions of 'Sequence' and 'Scene' were derived by combining the wordage of these authors' definitions. For clarity, I shall now illustrate the derivation and definition of Sequence and Scene (and Shot) by using On the Waterfront. As Morpheus tells Neo in The Matrix: "You have to see it for yourself." I welcome your comments. 

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. The film won a remarkable eight Academy Awards (including 'Best Story and Screenplay'). 


Sequence-Scene-Shot Composition of Sequence 1 of On the Waterfront



1. Definition of 'Shot'

Watch the following clip until the 0:40 min mark and refer to the Figure above. On the Waterfront opens with a daytime waterfront view of the Longshoremen's Union cabin perched on a wooden wharf with a huge ocean-going liner docked behind. Five men emerge from the cabin (Terry Malloy, his older brother Charlie, Johnny Friendly - the corrupt Longshoremen's Union boss, and two thugs) and 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'. 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 that begins 'Shot 3' at 0:37 min. 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. 


SHOT: 'An uninterrupted take by the camera'. 


2. Definition of 'Scene'

At the end of Shot 2 (0:37 min), we are left with the questions: Where is Terry going and what will he do when he gets there? 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 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: A shot or multiple shots that together compose a single, complet and unified dramatic event, action, unit or element of film narration, or block (segment) of storytelling. The end of a scene is indicated by a purposeful change in time, change in a character's status, focus of action and/or location. 


Scene 3.

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 (at 5:58 min on the DVD). 
  • 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 On the Waterfront until the 11:00 min mark on the DVD, 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 Sequence is a Scene, or a series of connected Scenes, that present a succession of related events or idea that constitute and advance a distinct component of the story narrative, plot and/or character development'.


With these definitions of 'Sequence' and 'Scene' I then watched 132 movies to define where the Sequences were delineated in each film. It is this analysis that is presented in the Journal of Screenwritng paper. 



The 'Eight Sequence Model'
One of the most popular and long-standing models of Sequences in screenwriting is the 'Eight-Sequence Structure model'. According to the Wikipedia entry on 'Screenwriting'


'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) (Gulino, 2005). 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 denouement of the story. Each sequence's resolution creates the situation which sets up the next sequence.' 

The Eight-Sequence Structure model is thus based on the practical requirement from many years ago that movies be segregated into 10-15 minute segments because of film-spool size. Sequence length and content therefore seems arbitrary. The assumption appears to be that contemporary screenwriters 'know' of this film-reel structure time constraint and still either inherently or deliberately conform. The conclusion from the results of my research, however, is that screenwriters do not. For example, it is useful to compare the Eight-Sequence model to the ScreenWriting Science's 19-Sequence Model with an example from Paul Gulino's book: 'Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach' (2005): 


Double Indemnity was written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, and nominated for seven Academy Awards. Here are the three Acts of Double Indemnity in the Eight-Sequence Model: 

Act I:

A: Neff's opening confession and Phyllis leaving a message for Neff.
B: Neff's second visit to Phyllis and agreement to kill Phyllis' husband.

Act II:

C: Neff and Phyllis are thwarted by Mr. Dietrichson's broken leg.
D: Neff and Phyllis murder Mr. Dietrichson.
E: Keyes initially concludes the death was an accident, then becomes suspicions.
F: Neff learns of Phyllis is implicated in a previous murder of a husband; Neff becomes suspicious

Act III:

G: Neff endures revelations about Sachetti, concludes that his only hope is to eliminate her. He goes to her place and kills her.
H: Neff sends Sachetti back to Lola, then confronts Keyes in person, tries to make his final getaway, fails.

ScreenWriting Science's breakdown, however, is different. I will focus on Act III for comparison. 

Act III, as it is presented Screenplay Summary of Double Indemnity , is actually composed of five sequences not two, each with a different purpose in the story narrative. Specifically:



SEQUENCE 1: After Lola tells Neff she suspects Zachetti and Phyllis are having an affair and murdered her father, Neff learns that Keyes too believes Zachetti is Phyllis' accomplice and does not suspect Neff.


SEQUENCE 2: In the next two clips, Neff enters Phyllis' house with the intend to murder Phyllis for her betrayal of him and to cover his involvement by setting up Zachetti for Phyllis' murder. 

But, Phyllis shoots Neff first, even though after she says she loves him. Neff murders Phyllis.


SEQUENCE 3: Outside Phyllis' house, Neff decides not to frame Zachetti. He tells Zachetti that Phyllis lied to him and that Lola really loves him.


SEQUENCE 4: In Neff's office at the insurance office building. Keyes over-hears Neff's confession. Keyes tells Neff he is too injured to escape. 



SEQUENCE 5: At the entrance to that insurance office building. Neff tries to escape, but collapses. Keyes calls for an ambulance. They both acknowledge their friendship.


The differences in the two approaches is clearly seen between Sequence G of the Eight Sequence model and Sequences 3, 4 and 5 in Screenwriting Science's model. The 19-Sequence Model focuses on separating plot into definable story units based on plot points and emotional impact. 

The 19-Sequence Model and Screenplay Summary Advantage to Your Writing
ScreenWriting Science has used a heuritic and objective approach to identify the Sequence structure of screenplays and derive a common, uniform Template. Each Screenplay Summary uses this Template to present the Sequence-Scene structure of successful movies to enable you to use movies that are similar to the one you are writing as a model. 

The specific advantage of presenting Screenplay Summaries as their Sequence components, is that once you have planned your screenplay according to the ScreenWriting Science's Sequence format, it becomes much easier to write specific sections for specific narrative purposes. ScreenWriting Science's model is particularly helpful in Act II where significant milestone Sequences are identified. In each Screenplay Summary, you essentially have a blueprint for a script! By combining screenplays similar to the one you are writing, the Screenplay Summaries will simplify the creation of your plot and the writing of the actual script.