Tag Archives: sequence approach

Prepping for NaNoWriMo: The Sequence and Beat Sheet!

I love my beat sheet. Love, love, love it. It’s basically a form of outline for a story, but because of my screenwriting background, I tend to think of stories in sequences, scenes, beats, etc.

Beats (in my outlines) are all the “steps” of the story. For example:

Anna gets a horse for her birthday. Yay.
Anna’s father loses his job. Boo.
Parents can’t afford to keep the horse. Extra Boo.
Anna gets a job at the stables to support her horse-riding. Yay!
Anna falls from a loft and breaks her leg. Boo.

After I’ve done copious amounts of prewriting (i.e. I basically know what the story is about and where I want to go), I write my first beat sheet. Sometimes I know exactly what’s going to happen in a sequence and my beats are more detailed. Other times I get to the middle of a sequence and I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I know something must happen, so I’m just vague and add in some questions:

Anna meets someone at the hospital (male/female? a love interest?)

SEQUENCES are generally used in screenwriting (a sequence equals about 8-15 minutes of screentime), but I’ve discovered they work just as effectively for novels. Sequences are a series of scenes that act as a kind of mini-movie. They have a set up and pay off and end in a change in status quo. Large “reversals” and “reveals” can happen at the end of a sequence.

Sequences help to break a story down into manageable “chunks.”  In novels, those chunks usually turn into chapters, although you don’t really have to worry about that just yet. Beats are the smaller steps inside each sequence that get you from the beginning and end.

For a much more detailed post about the Sequence Approach, CLICK HERE

When writing out my sequences and beats, the first thing I think about is how the “status quo” is going to change at the end of the sequence, then I write out the beats it will take to get there.

Here’s my real live process for the first sequence of Intergalactic (the YA Sci Fi story I’m writing for NaNoWriMo).

SEQUENCE 1Set up of characters and world

I knew IdoLL was about to set off on her intergalactic tour and that (at 17), her music career was already waning. I wanted to demonstrate that her manager has been cutting corners financially. At the end of the first sequence, I wanted to have a “Houston, we have a problem” status quo change and a reveal that her manager has not exactly been up front with her.

I came up with 8 main beats for this opening sequence:

*IdoLL’s tour ship has been replaced with an older model and most of her crew let go
*She learns the planet they are about to visit is on the brink of war
*She discovers out her parents have left the galaxy
*IdoLL gives a humiliating interview with an amateur netcaster
*They land, she meets the queen, and is treated rudely
*She learns that she playing a private birthday party for the princess, and she’s not even the main act . . . her nemesis is
*She is humilated by an audience member and storms out of the concert

After I had the main beats in this sequence, I went back and filled in a few details (bitty beats), to make sure that each scene had TENSION (as well as set up and foreshadowing). For instance, in the opening scene – her discovery of her ship – I added the following smaller beats:

*idoLL’s tour ship has been replaced :
-IdoLL and Monkey enter the docking station
-Monkey can’t get ahold of their manager
-She meets the “discount robot” pilot / bodyguard
-she tours the ship and it’s in sorry condition

Within this one scene I’ve created the set-up for the story and the current status quo: IdoLL’s fame is waning and her manager doesn’t care about her any more.

Because the status quo is clear, the final humiliation at the end of the sequence makes us empathize with her. Her manager and her parents HAVE abandoned her, the gig totally stinks, and her obnoxious rival is the star of the weekend. All her fears have manifested, and it’s only the first stop on her tour.

~     ~     ~

Does this sound like a lot of work? It can be. But when I’m writing the story next month, I’m going to be SO glad I have my beat sheet to follow. Even if there are some blank spaces and vague ideas. I can always fill them in when I get to that sequence. As well, I usually rewrite my beat sheet after the first draft to assist with the rewrite.

Let me know if you have any questions about any of this! And let me know if you try your own beat sheet and, if so, how it goes.


Filed under NaNoWriMo, novel adventures, writing exercises

Screenplay: The Frenzy – Preparing Part 2: The Outline (Sequence and Beat Approach)

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 my “Sequence and Beats Sheet.”

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 jungle.

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!


Filed under behind the scenes, screenplay: the exercise, screenwriting, writing exercises