While sequences are just one way to break down your story, I’ve always found them to be an incredibly practical and useful way to write. This is mostly due to the fact that it allows me to break my story down into more manageable pieces, and the format ensures that there’s always a sense of forward momentum to my scripts. Last week, I gave a brief overview of the sequence approach and now we’re ready to jump in and take a deeper look at each individual sequence that Paul Joseph Gulino discusses in his book, Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach.
So let’s get started with the first two sequences, which together comprise Act I, using one of the most successful animated films ever as our real-world example…
Sequences and ‘Toy Story’ (Part 2)
Sequence One: Establishing the Status Quo and the Inciting Incident
Your first sequence is one of the most important in your script, as it’s the one that will grab the reader by the shirt collar, push them up against a wall, and demand that they keep reading… or not. The point of this sequence is pretty straight forward – you’re establishing the status quo of your world, introducing your Protagonist, and then carrying us forward to the Inciting Incident where the status quo we’ve just established is disrupted. This all normally takes place within the first 10-15 pages, but obviously the pacing of your script could differ slightly.
Looking at the first sequence for Toy Story, you’ll find that falls perfectly into this mold. As the film begins, our first scene is of Andy playing with his toys. We immediately get a sense of the tone and genre we’re in for. This scene also manages to introduce the supporting cast and clues us in to the fact that Woody will be our main character. Around the four minute mark, there’s a brilliant switch of perspective. The camera switches to Woody’s perspective; seeing everything through his eyes and Andy takes him back upstairs and lays him on his bed. This is the audience’s first clue that the toys are alive, moments before Andy leaves and the toys all spring to life.
We then move into the “staff meeting” scene which reintroduces us to our supporting cast, this time demonstrating their personalities, and confirms Woody’s role as the leader of the toys (and even sets up a romantic relationship with Bo Peep which will come into play again later). This is all establishing the status quo of their world, but Toy Story takes it one step further as the announcement of the birthday party brings out one of the themes of the film as well - the fear of losing your friends; of being replaced.
We move quickly through the next couple of scenes as the Army men set out to establish a camp on the first floor and then report back a list of new toys to the group waiting upstairs. The writers even manage to instill additional drama into that scene by having everyone think the presents are done with, and then revealing one final gift.
The final scene of this sequence is Andy as his friends run upstairs to play with the new toy. They zoom around, knocking Woody to the ground under the bed (we’re already touching back onto the theme of being replaced). The kids leave and the toys regroup, climbing the bed to discover – at the 15 min. 20 sec. mark – the brand new Buzz Lightyear action figure standing on Andy’s bed. This reveal is our Inciting Incident. Buzz’s introduction has already started to disrupt the status quo that we established just a few minutes earlier.
So there you go: Five individual scenes (Andy playing – the “staff meeting” – journey of the army men – present unwrapping – and the introduction of Buzz Lightyear) that form cohesively into one sequence. Let’s see what happens next.
Sequence Two: The Predicament and the Lock In
Boiled down, the role of this second sequence is to establish exactly what the dramatic conflict of the story is going to be. It identifies that predicament for the audience and then, as the first act draws to a close, it locks the Protagonist into that predicament. They’ve now officially started their journey towards whatever their goal in the story is.
So how does Toy Story’s second sequence play out?
As it begins, we’re almost immediately introduced to what will be Woody’s predicament in the film: his fear of being replaced, both as Andy’s favorite toy, and as the alpha toy in the room. The first scene of this sequence is Woody’s world (his status quo) crashing down around him as all of the other toys are immediately enamored with Buzz. This predicament also leads directly towards establishing the main dramatic conflict of the film – Buzz versus Woody – with their first confrontation coming quickly as Woody challenges Buzz to fly around the room (“He’s not a Space Ranger. He doesn’t shoot lasers or fly”).
We then further solidify Woody’s predicament with a montage scene. Andy plays with both Buzz and Woody, but Buzz is now the “hero.” We also see the decorations in Andy’s room change; his sheets, the poster over his bed, the drawings hanging on the wall, all moving to be Buzz-centric, thus confirming Woody’s fears and prompting him to feel he needs to take action in order to protect himself.
There’s a quick scene that follows introducing Sid. While this isn’t directly relating to the sequence goals, it’s still moving the story forward by setting some several key pieces of information that will pay off later. And finally, we end the sequence with Woody pulling a little prank that results in Buzz falling out of the window. The other toys turn on him, but he gets a momentary reprieve as Andy grabs him to take to Pizza Planet.
It’s in this moment that Woody’s worst fears become reality. He HAS lost his position of respect and his friends. His predicament has been locked in, and we’re off into Act II.
Come back next week as we look at sequences three and four. Until then, keep writing… to infinity, and beyond!
- More Specs & The City articles from Brad Johnson
- Screenwriting the Dan O’Bannon WayStructure and Breaking In: An Interview with Syd Field
- Why You Should Write a Short Film Screenplay
- Balls of Steel Goes Into the Writing Room and Behind the Lines with DR
Tools to Help:
- Books and Classes by Jen Grisanti at The Writers Store
- Screenwriting books by Syd FieldDan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure: Inside Tips from the Writer of Alien, Total Recall & Return of the Living Dead
- The Essential Elements of Screenplay Structure: Get Your Story Straight On Demand Webinar by screenwriter of What Women Want, Diane Drake