Let’s jump right into the next group of sequences we’ll be discussing. For anyone just stumbling across this, we’re in the middle of a series of columns where we’ll be breaking down the eight sequence method for screenwriting (see Paul Joseph Gulino’s book, Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach) using Toy Story as our real-world model. Need to find the previous parts? Here you go!
- Part 1: an overview to sequences and why you should consider using them.
- Part 2: discussing sequences one and two.
Alright, let’s get to it…
Sequences and ‘Toy Story’ (part 3)
Sequence Three: First Obstacle and Raising The Stakes
As we move smoothly into the second act, our Protagonist has had their status quo upset, and a journey presented to them. The goal in any script is to constantly raise the stakes, and this should happen relatively quickly with your third sequence. Now that your main character has embarked upon whatever their quest might be, it’s time to hit their first obstacle. As a writer, this is when you show your audience that the journey isn’t going to be quite as simple or straightforward as imagined. It also tends to be when the door closes behind your hero. Once that first obstacle is completed, the door back to their previous life should be officially closed. The only way is forward.
Toy Story does this brilliantly. Woody knows he can’t go back home without Buzz; his options have been quickly eliminated. There’s no going back. As the car stops for gas at the Dinoco station, Buzz shows up and Woody’s elated. Could it really be this easy?
Of course not. If it was, we wouldn’t have much a story to tell would we?
When the car pulls away without them, the stakes for Woody have been raised considerably – they’re now lost toys – and he and Buzz are presented with their first obstacle: finding a way to Pizza Planet. This also functions to raise the dramatic tension of the story to a new level. Not only is Woody lost - not only can’t he go home without Buzz - but now he has to actively work with Buzz, the toy responsible for taking away everything that was important to him.
The next several scenes are the characters overcoming this first obstacle. They hitch a ride in a delivery truck to Pizza Planet and sneak their way into the building. With Andy located, the objective seems well within reach yet again. And once again, Woody has the rug pulled out from under him as Buzz is lured away to the claw machine that resembles a space ship and Woody is forced to follow him.
As Sid wins Buzz and Woody from the claw machine and takes them home, we transition into…
Sequence Four: First Culmination (Midpoint)
With sequence four it’s time to up the ante again. Bring in more rising action, and a new, more formidable obstacle is brought in to keep your main character from achieving their goal. Dealing with this new obstacle should build to your first culmination, right around the midpoint of your script.
But what exactly is the first culmination? It’s the first truly decisive moment in your story when your character directly confronts the new obstacle being presented in sequence four. Normally, this first culmination will run parallel to the ending of the story; if it’s a happy ending then the first culmination is positive. If your ending is a downer, then the first culmination will generally end with your character at their lowest point. This is just a general guideline and, in fact, Toy Story doesn’t follow this model.
Sequence four begins as Woody and Buzz are brought back to Sid’s house. They witness exactly what horrible things he does to his toys (there’s a beheading, and then they meet the collection of misfit toys that populate Sid’s room), and suddenly our main characters aren’t on a quest to just get home, they're on a quest to survive. The stakes have been raised again.
As everyone knows, Toy Story has a happy ending (even if you somehow haven’t seen the film, it’s a Pixar animated movie, so it’s a pretty good guess), but the first culmination for our heroes is a real downer. While it might go against the grain of what Gulino says is “standard,” it certainly works on an emotional level. Woody tries to escape, but is chased back into the room by Sid’s dog. He’s trapped with no way out. And Buzz sees an ad on the television and finally discovers that Woody has been right all along; he’s a toy. In a state of depression and denial, Buzz climbs the banister and jumps for an open window in an attempt to fly away only to fall to the ground. He’s broken, both physically and spiritually.
While this doesn’t parallel to the overall feeling of the end of the film, it does mesh from an action standpoint, as the finale of the film involves Buzz flying successfully (albeit with a rocket on his back).
And that’s where sequence four ends, the stakes have been raised to the level of “will we survive?” Both of our main characters find themselves trapped and at their lowest point in the film.
So what’s next? Come back next week as we look at sequences four and five. Until then, beat your head against the desk until you get that Randy Newman song out of your head, and then… keep writing.
- 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