Unlike some working guys, I have a fondness for screenwriting books. I didn’t go to film school -- what passes for my writing toolbox right now is a motley collection of techniques picked up from such books; whatever the hell I gleaned in the trenches of 100-pages-in-three-days rewrites in television; and several thousand pages of honing my liar’s craft while somehow conning people into paying me while I learned the trade. Hell, all that even goes by the wayside sometimes, leaving me standing in front of the mirror in my garage, letting my fevered little imagination run dialogue until it just … hits.
I hop genres fairly regularly, so each script grinds along in a different way. I know writers, excellent writers, who have mastered their approaches, like surgeons who can calmly tackle whatever lands etherized upon their table. My scripts are strapped onto a bloody board, screaming into a leather gag while I rummage around in their guts, blood up to my elbows until finally: “I say, Hadley, this saw-toothed thingy is rather good at getting at the damnable French lead behind the rib cage. Must remember to use it on the next poor bugger.”
Just this weekend, at a meeting with Akiva Goldsman, he told me to solve a plotting problem, “the same way you did it in Killing Floor.”
“Same technique will work.”
“… you have --“
“-- no idea what you’re talking about, no.”
On the other hand, the only explanation I have for my career is that I never really learned how not to write a script. This created some very atypical bits of prose and problem-solving, which apparently made the reads enough fun to keep bringing me back for more. If ever there was proof of “Your ‘style’ is just a collection of your mistakes” ... I’m fairly sure my mistakes paid for my house.
All this to say I think it’s worthwhile to start formally tossing you some recommendations for your tutelage, Spec Monkeys. Seeing as we’ve entertained the “sequence” vs. “three act” debate here a few times, I thought I’d take a look at the keystone book for the Sequence approach.
For those of you in Idaho: for years, the Bible of screenwriting was Syd Field’s Screenplay. In it, he laid out how the traditional dramatic three-act structure applied to a roughly 120 page screenplay. There are historical issues here, about this being a very mixed blessing, but seeing as we’re talking about extending a 2000 year old theory of dramatic development onto our new medium, it seemed to make sense. The majority of screenwriting books, although adding their own little gildings of the matzah, stayed in that structural paradigm.
The Sequence approach basically posits that the best way to attack plotting a movie is through subdividing it into eight or so mini-movies, each with its own information, complication, and partial resolution, building a momentum which leads you to the next sequence.
Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach by Paul Joseph Gulino immediately clarified a lot of my questions about the approach. The book itself is twelve chapters: one chapter on the history of film-making, geared towards both revealing the “hidden” history of Sequence structure in film and explaining how it can be practically applied during the plotting of your script: then eleven example films which are torqued apart to show how the Sequence approach drives them: from Toy Story to The Shop Around the Corner to Being John Malkovich to an odd little chapter on The Fellowship of the Ring.
The first chapter’s history lesson, on how we wound up with the screenwriting structure traditions we have, is a great read. There’s a bit of the apostate’s trick, in that the method the book is pitching is revealed to have been the original One True Method of structuring visual story-telling, lost like a Dead Sea Scroll. The explanation of how the Sequence approach actually works, however, is so clean, you have to let the sales job slide. The “theory” is dealt with in 15 precise pages, letting the analyses of the screenplays that follow do the real work of breaking down the application.
It is interesting that several times during the book, Gulino makes a point of explaining how the Sequence approach actually blends with the traditional dramatic three-act structure. The Sequences are often described as “acts” by some writers, which always threw me. The Sequences, although fractally complete, work to advance the rising tension of the movie’s overall structure even as they resolve their own mini-structures. When you actually crack open Syd Field’s text, now considered a bit hoary, you see he’s dropped what he calls “plot pinches” in similar spots to the Sequence breaks. The Sequence approach isn’t all that radical, really, from what’s considered traditional plotting. It even lays a series of first act-out/midpoint/second-act-out ideas over the Sequences. However, I will say that the internal structure of these mini-movies changes the overall momentum of your movie.
The analyses of the eleven movies are well done. Each movie is parsed in simple language, each film is chosen to showcase how the Sequence approach can be applied to a wide range of tones and genres. There are a few times where you can see the seams, a bit of the “No, these pants fit fine when I hold my breath!” But generally, illuminating. As I mentioned before, the single misfire is an odd last chapter in which Gulino shows how The Fellowship of the Ring could have been a much better movie if it had followed the Sequence approach more closely. I think this reveals Gulino doesn’t work in fantasy or science fiction particularly often -- heavy genre films that require you to immerse an audience in another world require some very specific combos of director/writer tools. I’m the last to say that particular film is beyond criticism, and several of his points are valid -- but having wrestled a bunch of these things to the ground successfully, I can see where he’s still hewing to writing choices which are always the first scenes cut in either the edit or after audience testing. Also, as soon as you argue cutting Tom Bombadil was a mistake, with all due respect you forfeit the right to any further conversation about the adaptation. Just saying.
It’s worth mentioning that once I’d read the book, I looked at a rewrite I was mired in. I realized that although I knew where I wanted to wind up at one point in the movie, the reason I kept stalling was that the previous section lacked a drive. It had conflict, but not a unified conflict. Gulino’s book helped me resolve a wee blind spot first day out. Hey, anything you can reach for when you’re stuck in the long dark soul of the second act is a plus. *
No book is ever going to be able to teach you how to write. Period. But Gulino offers a very useful tool for use while you’re plotting your film. Of course, you need to tell your story your way. Doing that, you’ll wrestle with the constraints of the script format, pacing, a helluva lot of things beyond characterization, dialogue and your emotional beats. I don’t ever want to reduce writing a film to the level of building furniture, but I have read those movie scripts that are pure, unadulterated projections of the writer’s inner narratives and visuals. They suck. They suck hard.
I would say that as long as you treat this Sequence approach as a resource rather than a formula, it’s a damn fine analytical tool to have in the back of your head. It probably shouldn’t be your virgin foray into screenwriting texts. But this goes up as a big RECOMMEND from the Kung Fu Monkey Screenwriting Library.
*(if you haven’t had a gun in your mouth at page 70 at some point, you’re not a real screenwriter)