The Sequence Approach

Book Review


4/22/20047 min read

I thought I would take a moment to review one of my latest buys: 'The Sequence Approach; The hidden structure of successful screenplays' (Paul Gulino Continuum press, 2004). I bought it at the recommendation of Colin and Jak from the London Scriptwriters Consultancy at one of their excellent 'Soho screenwriters' evenings. The way they used the Sequence Approach to enhance the basic three act structure was very satisfying so I thought that the book was worth laying out cash for: If you spent 10 quid on every screenwriting book on the shelf at Waterstones Piccadilly you could bankrupt yourself quickly - so, was it worth it?

Initially I thought not…

A quick glance at the contents page reveals that the explanation of the Sequence approach takes only 12 pages of the books two hundred; the rest of the book is made up of eleven close analysis of films using this method. And those twelve pages themselves are quite prosaic, there isn't much in the way of grand theories or numbers to live by ( a notorious aspect of screen writing gurus is that they tend to ft things into numbers; 3,4 or 5 acts, even 22 steps).

Gulino delineates eight sequences but says that is about average, sometimes there are more, sometimes less. This laid-back approach comes from his statement about what the writers task actually is: to keep the audiences attention on what happens next. Good man!

Now I am starting to get interested - this accord pretty much with my understanding of the task. I have found that adding act structure over the top of this can be somewhat suffocating if your goals are not purely about character and story and you like to play with form. This is perhaps more in effect in plays that screenwriting, but unhinging from the act structure can leave you wide open to a play in which nothing happens.

The idea of the sequence approach is that you think of the whole as a series of short films (reels) which must relate to each other in some useful way. Most typically they relate through story and the general outline of the three act model but they can also relate through theme or whatever you want... as long as you keep the whole thing moving forward!

So, what are the sequences?

These are my notes for the sequences from Colin and Jaks talk, so they differ a little from Gulino's in that these are precisely mapped to a three-act rising stakes structure. The thing to pay attention to is the four sequences that comprise a traditional act two.

A: Setup

Often starts with a hook - a puzzle, conundrum, question in the audiences mind - used to stimulate curiosity. Then a picture of the protagonist before the story proper begins, the kind of person and type of life they have now - what their life would be like if nothing further happened to them (North by North West's opening four minutes).

Ends with Catalyst (aka inciting incident, point of attack) which is the first intrusion of instability into the flow of normal events.

B: Development

The main tension (or central dramatic question) is set out. Usually the protagonist coming to terms with (making a plan for) the change in circumstance. This attempt fails and the predicament intensifies for the Protagonist.

At the send of the sequence there is some kind of Big event (aka first act turning point) which signals a marked change and the point of no return for the protagonist

C: Special world

The Protagonist tries to solve the problems posed at the end of the last sequence, usually this is an easy fix attempt which invariably fails.

'Special world' because often the protagonist has to venture off their own known ground to make things better and they have to learn the rules of the new domain that they have entered before they can move forward. Classic example is in The Matrix there is an extended sequences of Neo learning - and mastering - the rules of the complicated world in which the audience learns as at the same time.

D: Game

The easy fix inevitably makes this worse, there is a desperate attempt to return to normality.

This usually results in the midpoint culmination (aka second act turning point, twist) a revelation which makes everything more complicated and difficult for the protagonist. The protagonist may have a very real chance of winning only to have this feeling rapidly reversed. Often this will be a situation which is the mirror opposite of the final successful resolution (unhappy man wins career but loses girl - by the end he may have the girl back and have given up on the career)

E: Grace

Protagonist grapples with new situation in place after the midpoint culmination - often new characters or situations are shown here as things open out after the twist. Often the protagonist will begin on a new quest at this point too. In NbyNW it becomes about Eve at this point for instance. At the end of this sequence there is another change and the stake go up - the antagonist often will collide headlong with the protagonist here leading to...

F: Intensification

At the end of this sequence the main dramatic question is often answered, the main tension is resolved.

Often it is a Big Blue, a period where the Protagonist is most down and out. Perhaps wrong to see it exclusively as a low point in a picture, but rather as a profound moment in the transit of the main tension by either resolving it or reframing it (i.e. in North by North West it becomes 'save eve'). It can be a Big Orange also, a high point before a tragic reversal.

G: Sprint

The apparent resolution in F is not the final word. Unexpected consequences occur, the stakes are raised and the Protagonist often will change objectives completely - often as the result of lessons they have learned in solving previous problems. So the bad man comes good but now must save the girl from the approaching train.

Pace is higher and often there will be a major twist in this section. We are now battling 'mano a mano' with the antagonist

H: Resolution

After a climatic moment the equilibrium is restored and the protagonist can begin their new life. Usually there is a coda, or a 'the end' moment that closes off any loose ends and a chance for the audience to come down to earth.

So is it any good?

Like I said, Gulino is more laid back about layering the three acts over the top, that's more Colin and Jak's thing about drilling the basic shape into writers heads. What is more important to him is driving each of the sequences with a mini three-act structure.

If you wanted to get more detailed you could say that each of those three acts in a sequence could itself be made of three scenes and each scene would exhibit a three-act shape. That is taking things quite far, but the key thing about this is that it is possible to actually write this way. The most common mire for screen writing is the bog of the second act - it's a lot of time, about 50-60 minutes of continual development which can be very very difficult to pull off indeed. If you look at it using the sequence approach then you start to write 4x15minutes stories instead - and suddenly things become workable. And here is the power of the Sequence Approach: it is useful for writing not just as an analytical tool.

Can you hear the penny dropping? This book is worth it's weight in failed first drafts.

Sequence Approach as analytical tool

In the eleven film analyses that make up the rest of the book Gulino goes about applying the sequence approach as an analytical tool rather than a creative one, always clearly showing how the approach practically works and how flexible it can be.

In the selection of films there are clearly narrative driven, high-concept pieces ('Toy Story', 'Air force One') as well a very useful analysis of 'Being John Malkovich' which shows Kauffman pushing fairly traditional means to their limits. That Guilini then takes on films which would 'fail' a three-act test such as Fellini's 'Nights of Cabiria', 'Lawrence of Arabia', and 'the Shop around the Corner' shows just how confident he is of the method by trying it out on movies which could be said to be exceptions. And here, particularly with 'Cabiria', he shows how tying sequences together with theme works in the hands of a master.

He also takes time to (politely) show Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh how they could have improved The first 'Lord of the Rings' movie. His analysis of 'North by North West' is very good indeed and he carefully shows how the momentum of 'what happens next' covers over some of the cracks in terms of logic.

The quality of the analysis is very good. Having sat through (and enjoyed I might add) Robert McKee's legendary six hour analysis of 'Casablanca' I have to say that Gulino is better, more useful and a lot less opininiated. (Actually the reason I secretly enjoyed McKee's seminar was the way he riled the people from the BBC with his high theatrical manner and his opinions, so I'm not really laying into him). Gulino is a subtler, more rigorous and appreciative intelligence.

At a stylistic level Gulino is very pragmatic and doesn't spend any time showing off or working very hard to sell the idea to you - clearly he sees it as a useful tool that can be picked up as needed. As a whole the book is calm and patient - on first read this seems slightly disappointing and underwritten (he really could have taken the first 20 pages and made it into 200 without much trouble) but once you go through things a couple of times you really begin to appreciate the value. I have picked this book off the shelf evey couple of months and found something new.

So by the time I got through most of the analyses I was very excited. And the proof of the pudding is whether this method would be useful to me, now, across all my work.

I sat down with some step outlines that I am working on - two films and a play - and worked them through using this approach. I am pleased to say it worked like a charm.

The flexibility is the best thing, you can hammer a film's three-act structure down with it or open it out into something a little less manically narrative for a play. I think I would have found this approach particularly useful in rewriting 'Fond Love and Kisses' before it hit the stage in 2003 as it had multiple protagonists - having a way to think through it's story without 'reducing' it to one protagonist and three acts would have been helpful.

I have also been re-reading a book called 'New Playwriting Strategies; a language-based approach to playwriting' by Paul Castagno which is rigorously into polyvocality, juxtaposition, mixed-genre, split and multiple characters, and other such lovely things. Thinking some of his material through with a sequence approach also makes sense, and I can see how it could easily be used to drive overall shape in so-called physical theatre as well.


So, I am now a fan... This book joins my select list of absolute essentials.

The Sequence Approach; The hidden structure of successful screenplays (Paul Gulino, Continuum press, 2004

Amazon listing

ABE Books listing

Also Paul looks like a complete dude from hell - check out his photo of him asking what colour pill you want: There is plenty of reading off his faculty page too, including a nice dissection of [Hereditary](