Many screenwriters I know hate writing outlines (and loglines and summaries and treatments). I’ve approached each feature I’ve written in a different manner, trying to find the ultimate way of getting the story outlined. By far, the most successful technique I’ve found (the one that made the story flow from my fingers) was the “sequence” approach. I have my own adaptation of this that I call “Beats and Sequences.”
I think each writer has to find what works for them. I studied the 3-act, the hero’s journey, Sid Field’s & Michael Hague’s approaches, which you can easily find on line. But I never connected with anything as much as the sequence approach, which is taught in the USC screenwriting program.
The sequence approach was developed by Frank Daniel while head of the graduate screenwriting program at USC. It breaks the story up into 8 10-15 minute “mini movies,” each with their own 3-act structures. The theory is that this approach is more like the early movies in which film reels were only 10-minutes long, so back then writers were forced to divide their stories up into smaller sequences.
For me, this method breaks the story into manageable bites and serves to move the story forward, even for character-driven drama.
I find it particularly useful during the middle of the story (that dreaded 2nd Act), which often feels like being lost in a desert.
This approach is explained by Paul Gulino in his book Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach (he also analyzes 11 films based on this approach) and Chris Soth (USC grad and “Million Dollar Screenwriter“) uses this “mini movie method” in his very successful screenwriting workshops. (btw – Chris was a participant at PitchMarket 2010 and is a wonderful supportive resource. I highly recommend working with him).
If you are interested in finding out more about the sequence approach, I suggest getting Gulino’s book or doing a google search, as it is discussed on several blogs and forums. The blog A Good Story Well Told gives a great overview of his book.
Gulino names each sequence and what is meant to happen inside it (set up, development, special world, game, grace, intensification, sprint, resolution). If you are new to screenwriting, following these more closely and carefully will get you through that draft.
I have several screenplays under my belt, so I took a much looser approach, focusing mainly on the idea of “status quo” change.
(btw – before I plotted this, I nailed my logline down, which really helped)
1) I numbered some pages from 1 – 8, leaving ample room for the “beats” in each sequence. Beats are basically whole scenes that have their own beginning, middle, end. You can think of beats as the “steps” of the story. (Carry and Bob get married, their limousine crashes on the way to the airport, Bob gets his legs amputated, etc.)
2) I decided what the “status quo” was at the beginning of each sequence, and how the status quo would be changed by the END of that sequence. During this process I also thought about what the goals were for the characters in that sequence.
Here’s a hint – if the status quo never changes from the beginning to the end of your sequence, your story probably isn’t very dynamic and is most definitely missing conflict.
For example, my story was based on the relationship between a mother and son. Events happen to them (both as individuals and together) to create conflict between them. At the beginning of the first sequence, their life together is set up and we understand that they have a pretty good relationship. But, mom actually has a secret she’s been keeping from him his whole life. She’s never told him who his real father is. By the END of the first sequence (about 15 pages later), her son has found out this secret and wants to go meet his father. The son is furious with the mom. New status quo.
At the beginning of the next sequence, they go to see his father, who is in the hospital. The son decides he wants to stay. Mom wants to leave. Mom gives in to son to keep him happy. New status quo.
And so on until the end, by which time their major conflict would be resolved (I wanted a happy ending, what can I say).
3) I reviewed the beginning status quos for each sequence to make sure they significantly changed. I drew an up arrow (good terms) or down arrow (bad terms) to indicate the state of the mom/son relationship at the beginning of each sequence. Up, Down, Double Down, Up, Down, Tripple Down (the worst point for them), Neutral, Up.
Great. Story is dymamic.
4) I added as many beats in each sequence that I could think of that would complete each sequence. In the first sequence they start off camping, drive to Uncle Bears, Reunite with their hippie commune family, Mom finds out son’s father is in hospital, son catches her smoking pot and gets mad, Mom tries to sneak off to hospital, Son catches her and confronts her, she confesses her secret. Okay, so 7 main beats to that sequence. If I can divide them up even smaller, I go for it. If I already have particular scenes I know I want to write, I note them in the proper sequence.
And that’s basically how I outlined the plot for the script. It was MUCH easier than thinking of it in larger sections. The sequence approach lends itself to moving the story forward. And when I wrote the script, it flowed better than any other I had written.
Okay – the FRENZY starts on THURSDAY (egad!). By tomorrow morning, I have to decide which story I’m going to tell and sequence it out. I suggest you do the same! Good luck!