The Units of Story: The Sequence

Sequences give the reader a sense of “critical moments in life.” That is, they, like all the other units of story, have beginnings, middles and ends.

To look at it another way, sequences are large set pieces in the global story journey.  Steven Pressfield has been writing about his method of dealing with sequences on his site recently.  He calls it the clothesline method. Read about it here.

Like the Beat and the Scene and ultimately the Act, the sub plot and the global story, the sequence must have the five form elements (inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, and resolution) but it does not have the “major shift” reversals of the Story’s core value like the Act or global plot. More on these major shifts later on.

Sequence events can be summed up with phrases like “GETTING THE JOB” or “WINNING THE RACE” or “COURTING THE PRINCESS” or “FIRST KISS” or “BUYING THE HOUSE.”

More specifically, a sequence is a collection of scenes (or even one) that adds up to more than the sum of their parts but less the major reversal of a story’s core value that occurs in the Act. That means that the change that occurs in the sequence is greater in scale than any preceding single scene, but not as great as the change that occurs in an Act.

For example in the novel and film Misery, there are some very definable sequences. I’ll work from William Goldman’s amazing screenplay adaptation of one of Steven King’s best works. Here are the first seven scenes of the screenplay.

  1. The first scene of the movie lasts one minute twenty seconds. James Caan (playing protagonist Paul Sheldon) finishes writing a novel and partakes in his ritual single cigarette and bottle of champagne.
  2. The second scene is two minutes forty five seconds long. Paul leaves his hotel to head home and deliver the novel to his agent, but crashes his car in a blizzard.
  3. The third scene is a flashback to Paul deciding that he’s going to forego the commercial route that has made him so successful and write a real novel. This scene lasts one minute five seconds
  4. The fourth scene finds Paul unconscious. A large figure pulls him out of his wrecked car, throws him over its shoulder and trudges into the woods. This scene is one minute twenty seconds
  5. The fifth scene finds Paul awake in bed. He’s being taken care of by Annie Wilkes, played by Kathy Bates. The scene is one minute five seconds.
  6. The sixth scene Annie tells Paul why she did not take him to a hospital. They are snowed in. This scene is one minute five seconds.
  7. The seventh scene Annie explains to Paul just how badly he is hurt. This scene lasts one minute fifteen seconds.

(I’ve given you the screen time to illustrate just how economic Goldman is with his storytelling. These scenes are practically the same length, a technique that builds a visual rhythm.)

These first seven scenes comprise three distinct sequences.

The first sequence (scenes one and two) could be called SUCCESSFUL WRITER CRASHES HIS CAR. We know he’s successful by the tony ski lodge environment he’s in and his choice of champagne to celebrate the completion of his work.

  • The inciting incident of sequence one is the completion of the novel.
  • Progressive complications of sequence one are the weather conditions he faces upon departure.
  • The crisis of sequence one is whether he should disregard the storm and press forward homeward bound? Or should he stay put and risk getting stuck in the mountains with nothing to do? This is the crisis’s best bad choice question.
  • The climax of sequence one is his decision to go.
  • The resolution of sequence one is his wrecking the car and being completely incapacitated.

What’s so wonderful about this sequence, beyond its economy, is that it results in an irreversible change. The lead character cannot undo the fact that he recklessly drove into the heart of a snowstorm. If the sequence were expanded and the writer decided to wait out the storm until morning and then drive home and then the rest of the events of the story played out…not only would it alter the tenor of the storytelling, it would drastically influence the viewer/reader’s understanding of the character.

Paul Sheldon takes big chances. He’s not a guy who’s going to vacillate.

The second sequence is just one scene (and yes a skilled writer can pull off a sequence with one scene). It is the third scene flashback when the viewer/reader is informed of the Sheldon’s decision to change his career path. It could be called WRITER STOPS PLAYING TO THE CROWD.

The third sequence is the WRITER GETS RESCUED BY RECLUSE sequence, made up of scenes 4 through 7.

  • The inciting incident of this sequence is the Annie character played by Kathy Bates pulling Paul Sheldon out of the car.
  • The progressive complications are Paul’s discovery that 1) while he’s safe, he’s not in a hospital, 2) his injuries are such that he’s at the mercy of a rather strange and powerfully built woman, and 3) the woman has loaded him up with narcotics that keep the pain at bay, but are dangerously addictive.
  • The crisis question the Paul must answer is another best bad choice. Should he use his star power and demand that this woman get him immediate evacuation? Or should he humor her and hope that she comes to her senses?
  • The climax is in his ultimate decision to humor her.
  • The resolution is that she pushes him deeper and deeper into relying on the pain medication.

Sequences are crucial building blocks of story, but I recommend that writers focus on scenes in their first draft. Looking at and defining sequences is a great idea, once you have something in hand and you are evaluating how successfully you brought the story to life. To obsess about them before you have a rough draft is very often a mistake. Sequence analysis is an editorial craft, and as such, should be saved for editing, not initial creation.

If you get stuck and you have no idea where your story went off tracks, chances are you are either missing or over-delivering sequences in the story. Over delivering on a sequence means that you have too many supporting scenes. One or two can be eliminated entirely without losing any narrative consistency.

Remember that readers and viewers are very discerning and sophisticated (just think about how much story the average person consumes each day from the newspaper to websites, emails, television shows, books, heart to heart talks with their friends etc.). That old cliche LESS IS MORE absolutely applies in storytelling. You want to give the reader just enough to follow the through-line of your story without overloading them with scenes they’ve already anticipated in their own minds.

For example, Stephen King and William Goldman knew that a sequence such as ANNIE LEAVES HER HOME FOR A WALK AND DISCOVERS A CAR WRECKED ON THE HIGHWAY is not necessary for MISERY. When Annie appears, the reader intuitively knows that that sequence has happened off stage. If you have that kind of “shoe leather” in your book or screenplay, you will lose the attention of your reader/viewer. And once you lose their attention, it’s almost impossible to get it back.

The time to really look hard at sequences is in the third or fourth draft, after you’re convinced that your scene by scene, your act by act, your subplot by subplot and your global plot is sound. After you have those marks checked off, it is a very good idea to go back yet again and define the sequences of your scenes. You’ll undoubtedly find places to hone and cut.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.


27 comments on “The Units of Story: The Sequence

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    I have to confess that I started reading this post with a dread akin to the Old Woman in Her Shoe suspecting that she is pregnant again i.e. “please don’t give me another thing to worry about.” I was reassured to know that we don’t need to concern ourselves with sequence until the third or fourth draft. If I understand the concept of sequence then, it’s making sure we haven’t taken any off-road trips through the novel? Instead of editing at a micro level within scenes, we are editing at a macro level and cutting out entire portions of the global plot that are superfluous? I’m struggling with this one and am ready to go to the back of the class. As always, thanks so much for breaking this down for us!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Mary,
      You are exactly correct. No need to go to the back of the class. You are one of the stars. Sequences are wonderful things. And they are very helpful when you consider the global flow of the story. Like Steve Pressfield’s Clothesline method which he constructed from the David Lean sensibility for making an epic film, if you think in terms of sequence, you’ll slice out stuff that detracts from what the reader really wants to know next. Sequence analysis is one way to make sure that your narrative velocity is directed.

  2. Thanks for the phrase “shoe leather.” It has dampened my enthusiasm for many a book, which means I’ll be ruthless about exorcising it from my own.

    1. The interesting thing about shoe leather is that as a new writer, I have to write it in order to finish a first draft. But the cool thing about shoe leather is that once I’ve got a few revised drafts under my belt, I can put my editor hat on and get rid of it, and it will make the book better.

      This is great learning and it leads to a question.

      I read Anna Karenina last month and was fascinated when I read in the introduction that in the earlier drafts, Anna was fully explained – her past, how she came to marry etc. In the introduction it say, “Of this abundance of commentary only a few traces remain in the final portrait of Anna. As Tolstoy worked, he removed virtually all the details of her past, all explanations, all discussion of her motives, replacing them by hints, suggestions, half-tones, blurred outlines.” I think this is what makes the novel so good and explains Tolstoy’s brilliance.

      Is this the same thing you are describing in your post, Shawn, or is this process something different?

      1. Shawn Coyne says:

        Yes, that’s it exactly. Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD does the exact same thing. You know he figured out all of the details before he cut all of them out.

  3. Elanor says:

    Another amazing post!

    This is great info for all the finished rough drafts I have languishing on my hard drive in various states of revision. I think it’s really going to help me fine tune my pacing.

    I do have one question… The second sequence, WRITER STOPS PLAYING TO THE CROWD, is only one scene long. The other sequences are more than one scene long. I understand how multiple scenes can be strung together to create a sequence, but how do I know if a scene is a sequence unto itself? Does it have to do with the ability to sum up the sequence? That is, if a scene has a central idea which completes within the scene and doesn’t carry over into scenes before or after it, then it is also a sequence?

    Okay, I lied, I have another question. lol When editing, is it a good idea to write out these summing-up phrases as they appear in the story with a list of the scenes that comprise them? I’m trying to think of ways I can figure out if I’m missing sequences or over-selling them. It seems like the summing-up phrases should tell most of the story by themselves if they’re all written out. Is that right?

  4. Michael Beverly says:

    Speaking of “shoe leather”:

    When a thriller (or thriller sub genre) absolutely must have a time lapse; whether a week or a month (not all fast paced thrillers can realistically happen in a few days, or am I wrong and a longer time span must mean a change in genre?); what’s the best way to not have “shoe leather” in that span of time?

    In Silence, when Clarence goes to the first victims house; she just mentions that the girl had been gone 9 months, for obvious reasons the story doesn’t start there.

    But Harris really compresses time (I’d say unrealistically) and that can’t always be done in a way that is realistic enough for the setting/plot to happen in a way that doesn’t seemed forced.

    Should the thriller/mystery/horror type story always happen in a 4-7 days?

    In Indiana Jones, they show a map of the world and a little plane crossing it; so we know Indiana went from one continent to another in about 3 seconds.

    Is a similar thing acceptable in a novel, like writing: “A week later I’d finally worked up the courage to ask her out on a real date. No more hot dog carts for my future wife.”

    We know that Annie saves Paul right away because he’d have frozen to death, later when he sneaks a peak at her creative moments albums, he gets the back story on her, she’s evil and he’s gonna die if he doesn’t escape.

    But what if the story was she wanted his baby?

    And after she gets knocked up, he realizes that it’s his baby, and he doesn’t just want to kill her, I mean, it’s his kid, right?

    Would it be okay, story wise, to write: ‘Nine months later…?’

    1. Elanor says:

      I’m going to jump in here even though I’m not an expert… I’ve seen time condensed successfully a couple of different ways.

      In one book, each chapter had a date and time at the top, like a sub heading. In another book, significant events were given a time frame (“The bomb will be placed in 4 days…”), then the beginning of the next chapter started with something that referenced how close the event was (“We only had 20 minutes until the bomber’s deadline, and we still had no leads…”).

      I think that something as straight forward as “nine-months later” might work in a comedy, but I’m not sure how it would word in suspense or thriller novels. I think time gets compressed in novels all the time, but when it’s done well, we don’t even notice it. Like the Indiana Jones example you gave might be something like, “The plane ride over the Atlantic was rough, but it was nothing compared to what was waiting for me when I finally landed in Germany.”

      In the hypothetical story where Annie wants Paul’s baby, I’d just start at “nine months later” and scatter “how they met” in throughout the story wherever it’s relevant.

      I’m looking forward to seeing what other people think!

      1. LOTR opens with Bilbo’s party, then summarizes DECADES until Frodo’s adventures begin. The movies wisely ignore it and pretend Frodo is still young.

        Asimov’s Foundation trilogy skips centuries at a whack because they aren’t on the story’s spine.

        If we’re truly skipping ahead, saying so clearly is enough. Minutes, days, millennia — readers have seen it all and will follow a story well told over any gap necessary.

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Joel, Michael and Elanor,
          Well said all of you! Like any story well told around a campfire, as long as the storyteller has the trust of his audience, clearly shifting time is as easy as you all suggest. The only thing that will lose an audience is cheating. By that I mean, the writer changes time to add a bunch of stuff that does not progressively complicate the global story. Instead, he throws it in there to beef up the page count and/or introduce deus ex machina that he can pull out to solve a thorny story problem in his ending payoff. Bottom line is that as long as the writer doesn’t cheat, he can move ahead or backward at will.

          With that said, I would say that a very condensed time frame is close to being a convention in the thriller. Are there thrillers that do not happen in a day or a week or a month that work? Yes, of course. But those are usually global scale thrillers. Espionage and/or big techno variety.

          But I think readers expect a thriller to be a very fast experience, that the writer assume that the reader wants the breakneck pace of an emergency situation. This mirrors panic situations in everyday life. It’s important to remember that we go to thrillers, like all stories, to release anxiety and to help us cope with changes in our own lives. So when you’re thinking of writing one, it’s a good idea to think of a particular anxiety that is universal and see if you can’t dramatize that. GONE GIRL is a thriller about our complete paranoia about the closest people to us, our spouses, significant others etc. Do they really really love us? Or are they “playing us?” A great hook.

          I don’t think the Annie inseminating herself with Paul’s sperm would be a good choice for MISERY though. Annie’s character isn’t the kind of person who would ever want to actually have a real physical expression of love. Having a child? No way! She’s in love with the idea of love, the romance bullshit of love. She’s in no way interested in Paul as a human being. He’s just the machine that feeds her love of “MISERY.” The depth of King’s understanding of “fans” of artists and what really motivates them is astounding. Being someone so obsessed with another’s creations is fodder for madness. That’s what MISERY is about. Losing your humanity by living in fantasy. There is no way Annie would have the nerve to actually express love for Paul. She doesn’t love Paul. Deep down she hates the son of a bitch and wants him destroyed. How dare he create a world so convincing with no means to let her live in it…and that is how King solves the HERO AT THE MERCY OF THE VILLAIN SCENE. Paul comes to understand this about Annie and he uses her ultimate desire (to die romantically and with significance…dying alongside an artist who will never create another work of art because of his recognition of her importance) as a means to turn the tables on her. Brilliant!

          Here’s another one. Your car breaks down in the desert. You don’t know how to get it running again. What happens next… That’s a great set up for a fastball thriller. There’s a great move made a while back called BREAKDOWN, with that very simple premise and it’s terrific.
          Hope that helps

          1. Michael Beverly says:

            Okay, totally creepy. Two nights ago I just couldn’t look at my own work anymore so I finally got around to starting Gone Girl.

            Then I was thinking to myself, is this actually a thriller? I was going to ask.

            I mean, it reads like a thriller, but ever other chapter is back story, diary entry’s (usually this convention/trick is boring or slow, but of course, not here).

            Anyway, I’m half way through, so thanks, Shawn, for not putting a spoiler in that last post.

            But I’m really confused again, I mean, it’s a page turning read and I’m loving the author’s voice, her humor and insight, but it’s a thriller?

            Well, it’s a great book, so I guess that’s all that counts.

            I waver between thinking ‘I can do this’ and ‘I’m just going to jump off a freeway overpass and get it over with.’

          2. Shawn Coyne says:

            You can do it Michael. One problem at a time. GONE GIRL is a genre mix. It’s not a pure thriller. I’d have to do a really deep dive into it to be more specific. Hang in there.

    2. Tina Goodman says:

      You could also show the progression of her pregnancy, the physical and emotional changes.

  5. Okay, when I first heard you use the phrase “let me put my grid on it” I thought: ‘okay, so he has a stream-lined way of editing.’
    Now I’m sitting here, mouth agape, maveling at how well thought out this is and how well this can work when you’re revising your work.
    The past few blogs I’ve read from you since I signed up to your list have been really well done. I saw comment after comment about how readers had heard these things before, but they never really clicked until now.
    I’m basically echoing that now. I can not wait until this book drops, but I must as time does not bend to my will. I’m so happy I signed up to your list. You have a special way of saying things so that writers connect ideas together in new ways, allowing them to move their writing up a notch or ten.
    Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Thanks Jim.
      What’s kind of cool about what has been happening here, by mistake, is that the publishing process for this kind of book (lots of art, over-sized format, textbook style design to make the read easier and usable over and over again) is that it has required all of us to take this editing course slowly. That is, we’ve all had to be patient and “go to class” twice a week. That has proven too much for some people, who signed up enthusiastically at first, and then just couldn’t take it any more and dropped out. Which is totally fine and understandable. Maybe they’ll come back when they can get the book and join up again. That happens in any course I think.

      As the “teacher” I’ve had to review each lesson over and over again so that it fits within the progressive acquisition of knowledge each reader has built over these past five months. I started the blog on September 19, 2014. There’s been no ‘rush’ here to “get it” quickly. Just clearly. Anyway, I think that’s going to be immeasurably helpful to all of you once the book is in your hands. You’ll already have had exposure to the “Hook” and “Build” of the thing so the “Payoff” should be easily understood.

      Just like fiction, nonfiction (even textbooks) work best when they use story as a means to keep the reader to anticipate the end. I’m confident that the end to THE STORY GRID lessons will pay off in a way that will give you all a very prescriptive method to find the problems in your work and fix them. If not easily, at least methodically.

      And the thing is…I cut almost an entire book (60,000 words) from it because it was too much too soon. So there’s plenty more to come after the first book lands.

      All the best,

      P.S. Baring some last minute snafus (and you know there always are some) we’re still on schedule to have this ready for and subscribers by Mid-March at a super duper price, with some fun extras thrown in. Thanks for hanging in here.

      1. I’m finally reading McKee’s Story and between that and Story Grid I’m so glad my WIP lay in a drawer for 2 years so I could learn all this stuff before I picked it up again.

  6. Cyd Madsen says:

    Hi Shawn. Not all of us who don’t comment have dropped out 🙂 I’ve been following since I discovered you through Joanna Penn and taking the lessons to my work with the thought that finally something is making sense. These lessons have been so clear they’ve helped me identify why I’m not writing the way I want to write and itching to get to the editing process. In fact, I’ve pulled a couple of my novels because their problems are now so obvious to me they need to be given another few rounds of editing for release later (I write under different names). This lesson on sequences has been like a missing piece of a puzzle I thought was left out of the box. The rhythm and how it’s achieved. Yes. So often I’ve gone through the check list of what should and shouldn’t be done and find I’ve had it covered everything to the best of my ability, but something still wasn’t working. Like so many people, I have a touch of synesthesia, a confusion of sensory input. I hear music as shapes, that kind of thing. The rhythm of sequences, I now realize, either draws me into a story like a bow expertly stroked across a cello’s strings, or it screeches. Now I get it. The method of establishing that rhythm through sequence doesn’t matter, just that it’s done and done well. Goldman, wow, one of my all-time heroes. That opening close-up of Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid was much more than introducing viewers to a legendary outlaw nobody had heard of before that film, or at least it was in Goldman’s hand. I’ll have to go back to that film with my new knowledge and name the beats of that scene and close-up and watch for the sequences. I can still feel the rhythm of that film so strongly I want to move in some way. I’ve always wanted to write that well but kept missing the beat. Thank you for this magnificent set of tools. Can’t wait for the book, but taking it in small chunks like this has been invaluable.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Thanks Cyd. So glad you’re on board.

    2. Michael Beverly says:

      Hey Cyd,

      You wrote: “but taking it in small chunks like this has been invaluable.”

      Take this advice in how you format, even for a post in a blog (imho); if you want it make it easier for people to read.

      Your wall of text was hard to read, and I wanted to see what you had to say, which is the only reason I’m butting in.

      It’s hard to read.

  7. I have a question about the last paragraph. To paraphrase you suggest that one looks over their sequences after they have gone over the scenes, acts, subplots, and the global plot. Is there a particular reason for this order? I ask because the progression does not appear intuitive to me.

    I must say the idea of having a structured direction for the editing process holds an enormous appeal to me. This post, and a few of the other recent ones, appears to be part of a larger chapter on that topic.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Eric,
      There is a reason, but it’s particular to me. You may find that focusing on another unit of story earlier in the process or later works better for you. That’s totally cool. The important thing is to consider all of these units and do your best to make sure they all add up to more than the sum of their parts.
      Yours Shawn

      1. Thank you Shawn. That makes total sense.

        Funny enough, just after I made the above post I wandered up to the local store to get lunch for me and my wife. On the way I was thinking through a scene for a story I’m working on, a scene that happens to be the culmination of a sequence. I had initially written the scene one way, but realized on my walk that I could do it another, slightly more dramatic way. As I was trying to puzzle out which version of the scene would be better, this post came to mind. That’s when it hit me: Either scene might work well in terms of acts, and plots, but only one of them would serve a better end to the sequence.

        “A ha!” I said to myself. “That’s what he meant!”

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Music to my ears Eric! Great!

  8. I have to say I’m disappointed in one aspect of this post. It’s something I’ve noticed creeping into your explanations, but in this one it’s glaringly obvious. In the beginning, I was excited that you used novels as examples rather than movies, which so many story classes and books do today. As you pointed out yourself, they’re two different things. However, you’ve fallen into the same trap. The inclusion of the screen time rather than the number of pages or paragraphs in the novel really bothered me.

  9. DC Harrell says:

    Finding a lot of good stuff in the comments interactions, too. Thanks for articulating my questions, people, and for answering them, Shawn.

  10. Patricia Wilson says:

    I’ve had my story idea for some time, but as a total novice with no idea whatsoever, had written it as scenes came to me, with no structure and no continuity except the overall which has lived in my mind all this time.
    Hence, I have a manuscript that I’ve been unable to organize on my own, though I still love my original idea for my book.

    I’ve been following your Story Grid and am now at The Units of Story, the Sequence. I don’t remember how I came upon your blog, but it has been, to me, like being in ongoing classes toward an MFA in Fiction.

  11. Michael says:

    And this is why there’s so much confusion about writing – everyone wants to reinvent the wheel. The term “sequel” with regard to “scene” has been in use for decades (since 1981, to be specific) with an entirely different definition. [1], [2]

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