8 Sequence Structure: The Best-Kept Screenwriting Secret
Back in the olden days, people of all ages would flock to movie palaces — grand, ornate places where moving pictures were projected onto giant screens from reels of film.
It’s hard to imagine since now we can stream whatever we want with the click of a button, but there was a time when a single reel of film wasn’t enough to hold an entire movie. So there was a person whose job was to go into the projection booth and change the reel at a certain time.
Eventually, this was instantaneous and audience members weren’t even aware the reel was being changed. But way back when, in the early, early days of movies, changing the reel wasn’t an easy task.
In fact, it required multiple breaks in the movie to give the projectionist enough time to swap the reels — kind of like a commercial, but without the ads for toilet paper and cars and prescription drugs and the latest Apple Watch.
During these breaks, audience members were left in the dark as they waited for the movie to resume. And if they weren’t enjoying the movie, they could decide to just leave the theater, which is every screenwriter’s worst nightmare.
The screenwriters of Hollywood knew that a roughly two-hour movie would require eight reels that could hold 15-minutes of film, so they started writing to those reels.
And that’s how the 8 sequence structure was born. Since then, it’s been one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets.
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What is 8 Sequence Structure?
8 sequence structure is the idea that a feature-length movie can be broken down into eight parts (AKA: sequences) (AKA: reels).
Basically, a two-hour, 120-minute movie can be broken down into eight sequences that are roughly 12 to 15 minutes each.
Some screenwriters like to think of these sequences as self-contained “mini-movies” because they each have a beginning, middle, and end of their own. Back in the days when film reels needed to be changed, screenwriters would write to a cliffhanger so that audience members wouldn’t up and walk out of the theater because they were bored.
Technologically, 8 sequence structure is no longer necessary — theaters don’t need eight different film reels to show a movie anymore — but the idea of the eight-sequence structure has endured.
Nowadays, call them what you will — sequences, reels, sections, parts, mini-movies — the point of eight-sequence structure is to make developing, outlining, and writing your screenplay easier.
The thought of writing 120 pages is daunting, but writing eight sequences… now that seems much more manageable.
8 Sequence Structure vs. 3 Act Structure
The beautiful thing about 8 sequence structure is that it fits neatly into the traditional 3 act structure that dominates Hollywood storytelling.
3 Act Structure
- Act One is the beginning and covers roughly 25% of the story
- Act Two is the middle and covers roughly 50% of the story
- Act Three is the end and covers roughly 25% of the story
When you break that down further into 8 sequence structure: the first two sequences make up Act One, the next four are Act Two, and the final two comprise Act Three.
8 Sequence Structure
- Act One = Sequences 1 and 2
- Act Two = Sequences 3, 4, 5, and 6
- Act Three = Sequences 7 and 8
This kind of structural breakdown is especially helpful when writing the middle of your screenplay.
Act Two is the longest part of the story and typically sucks up plot like a hungry vacuum. A lot of writers end up stranded in Act Two because they’re not sure how to get their characters to the finish line.
But with 8 sequence structure, Act Two is just four different sequences (or stories, if you will). And it’s much easier to write four little stories than one big one.
Breaking Down the Eight Sequences
Naturally, even though movies are vastly varied in subject, genre, and tone, the eight sequences can be summed up by what they contribute to the story.
Sequence 1 = Introductions
The first sequence is our introduction to… well, everything. In this first section of the movie, we meet the characters, get to know the world they’re in, see hints at upcoming conflicts and tension, and learn the basic premise of the story. Sequence One typically ends with the Inciting Incident.
Sequence 2 = Dilemma
After the Inciting Incident, there’s usually a period of time in which the protagonist considers the Call to Action. They debate whether or not to leave their familiar, comfortable world and proceed into the unknown. That’s what happens in this sequence, though it will look different in every story. By the end of Sequence Two, the protagonist is on the journey that will take them to the end of the movie and there’s no turning back.
Sequence 3 = First Obstacle
This is the start of Act Two; the protagonist has officially entered the new world. During Sequence Three, the protagonist faces their first real obstacle, new tensions and conflicts arise, and the stakes are raised.
Sequence 4 = Midpoint
Some might call Sequence Four, along with Sequence Three, the “Fun and Games” of the movie. These two sections deliver on the “Promise of the Premise.” In Sequence Four, the protagonist faces another obstacle or dilemma that comes as a direct result of what happened in Sequence Three. This sequence usually ends with the Midpoint.
Sequence 5 = Twists & Turns
Sequence Five usually contains the twists and turns of Act Two. This is when secrets are revealed, relationships are tested, tensions rise, obstacles get more challenging to overcome, and protagonists are really put to the test. In this sequence, the protagonist typically rebels against whatever growth they’re confronted with, wanting instead for things to stay the same.
Sequence 6 = Culmination / Low Point
All of Act Two culminates in this: Sequence Six. Things have steadily gotten more and more difficult for the protagonist, all leading to the Culmination or Low Point. At the end of Sequence Six, the protagonist finds themselves at a point of Culmination (positive) or a Low Point (negative) that directly leads to the next sequence: the Climax.
Sequence 7 = Climax
This is it. The big moment. The massive fight scene. The come-to-Jesus moment where your protagonist must change or die. Everything is on the line and the stakes have never been higher. It all happens in Sequence Seven, and we, the audience, learn whether or not the protagonist “succeeds” or “fails.”
Sequence 8 = Resolution
Sequence Eight is the narrative epilogue. It’s what happens to your characters after their success or failure during the climax, including a look at how they have been impacted by that success or failure. In this sequence, the journey we’ve been on since Sequence One comes to an end. And… fade to black.
8 Sequence Structure Examples
Now that we’ve covered what 8 sequence structure is in theory, let’s look at some case studies featuring well-known movies.
Case Study #1: La La Land
The Oscar-winning musical romance about an aspiring actress and up-and-coming jazz musician is 123 minutes and breaks perfectly into the eight 12 to 15-minute sequences.
Sequence 1 = Meet Mia
At 17 minutes, this first sequence is a little bit longer because of the opening song and dance. But story-wise, Sequence One covers everything we need to know about Mia. We see her at work at the Warner Bros. coffee shop, at an audition, at home with her friends, and post-Hollywood party when she finds out her car has been towed and ends up in a jazz bar.
Sequence 2 = Meet Sebastian
Next, La La Land backs up to introduce Sebastian, showing his day leading up to his first run-in with Mia. We learn about his obsession with jazz, meet his sister, and see him go to the restaurant where he plays upbeat Christmas tunes until he can’t take it anymore. Sequence Two ends with Seb ignoring Mia when she tries to talk to him.
*Sequences 1 and 2 cover the first WINTER section of the movie*
Sequence 3 = Mia and Sebastian reconnect and get to know each other
This is the start of Act Two and this section includes the pool party, the song and dance that is A Lovely Night, the walk around the Warner Bros. backlot, and their first trip to the Lighthouse to listen to jazz. The final scene of Sequence Three also serves as the first scene of Sequence Four — Mia finds out that she got a callback audition…
Sequence 4 = Falling in love
… and they make plans to see a movie together. Seb sings wistfully on the Hermosa Beach pier in City of Stars, and the rest of the sequence is taken up by their movie date at the Rialto that culminates in a kiss at Griffith Observatory.
*Sequences 3 and 4 cover the SPRING section of the movie*
Sequence 5 = Double down on their dreams
In Sequence Five, Mia and Sebastian help one another commit to their dreams. Mia writes a one-woman show and, after a run-in with an old bandmate, Sebastian decides to join a pop-jazz group. The sequence ends with the song Start a Fire when Mia and Seb start to both figuratively and literally drift apart.
*Sequence 5 encompasses the SUMMER section of the movie*
Sequence 6 = Trouble in paradise
Sequence Six sees the happy couple torn apart. First, Mia and Seb get into an argument during what should be a nice surprise visit. Then Seb forgets about a photo shoot, which causes him to miss Mia’s one-night-only play. Mia, distraught by the low turn-out, says it’s over. She’s going home to Nevada.
Sequence 7 = The audition
In the big climax of the story, Sebastian drives to Nevada to find Mia and tell her about an audition she landed because of her play. She explains why she wants to give up on acting, but he convinces her to return to LA for the meeting, which is the song Audition. Sequence Seven ends with Mia and Sebastian in Griffith Park, wondering what their future will hold.
*Sequences 6 and 7 are the FALL section of the movie*
Sequence 8 = Five years later
The epilogue of La La Land takes place five years later. We see that both our protagonists have achieved their dreams — Mia has become a famous actress and Seb has a successful jazz club, but they’re no longer in each other’s lives. The bulk of this sequence is the rightfully named Epilogue song, in which we see what could have been. In the end, Mia and Sebastian go their separate ways, better for knowing each other.
*And Sequence 8 is the final WINTER section of the movie*
Case Study #2: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
The first installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is a great example of a longer movie that can be broken into 8 sequence structure. With a total runtime of 143 minutes, the eight sequences end up being roughly 17 to 20 minutes long.
Sequence 1 = Welcome to Port Royal
The first sequence includes the prologue scene with Young Elizabeth and Young Will, during which Elizabeth takes his pirate medallion. Then, in the present, we meet Elizabeth Swan, Will Turner, Captain Jack Sparrow, and Commodore Norrington. After Norrington’s promotion ceremony, Elizabeth faints from the heat and her oxygen-restricting corset and falls into the sea. Jack jumps in and saves her.
Sequence 2 = Attack on Port Royal
Jack manages to escape the dock, only to get locked in a sword fight with Will at the blacksmith workshop. He ends up in jail and Elizabeth contemplates Norrington’s marriage proposal from earlier as day turns to night. But, under the curtain of night, the Black Pearl wreaks havoc on Port Royal. This sequence ends with Will unconscious on the street, Jack still stuck in jail, and Captain Barbossa deciding to keep Elizabeth on the Black Pearl despite her attempt to invoke parlay.
Sequence 3 = Assemble the crew
Norrington refuses to listen to Will’s idea about how to get Elizabeth back, so he goes to Jack and springs him from jail. Together, the two steal a ship and sail off to Tortuga. There, Jack buddies up with his old pal Gibbs to assemble a crew. Meanwhile on the Black Pearl, Elizabeth has dinner with Barbossa and learns the terrifying truth of the pirates’ curse.
Sequence 4 = First attempt to break the curse
Jack and his new crew catch up with the Black Pearl on the Isla de Muerta, where Barbossa tries to break the curse by using Elizabeth’s blood. It doesn’t work because she isn’t the child of Bootstrap Bill Turner, and the resulting fight ends with Will rescuing Elizabeth and leaving Jack to be captured by Barbossa’s crew.
Sequence 5 = Pirate battle!
Will and Elizabeth return to the ship, while Jack manages to stay alive by taunting Barbossa with the information of whose blood he needs to break the curse. Eventually, the Black Pearl catches up to the Interceptor and there’s a fierce battle between the two pirate crews. The Interceptor is blown up, leaving Elizabeth to believe that Will is dead.
Sequence 6 = Stuck on the island with all the rum
Surprise! Will isn’t dead. He makes a deal with Barbossa, but it backfires, and the crew of the Black Pearl maroon Elizabeth and Jack on a tiny spit of land in the middle of nowhere. Elizabeth and Jack get rip-roaring drunk, and Jack wakes to Elizabeth burning the rum to make a smoke signal. Norrington rescues them and Elizabeth accepts his wedding proposal so he’ll agree to go after Will.
Sequence 7 = The battle to end the curse
This Pirates of the Caribbean movie has an incredible Sequence Seven, by which I mean that the entire sequence is the climax of the movie. Jack convinces Barbossa’s crew to attack Norrington’s men before sacrificing Will. So the cursed pirates rage an all-out battle against the British that includes a Troy-like diversion with a pink parasol and dingy. Elizabeth manages to free Gibbs and the rest of the crew, but they leave her behind in favor of taking back the Black Pearl. Inside the cave on the Isla de Muerta, Jack picks a fight with Barbossa that turns into an epic sword fight that ends with Will breaking the curse just as Jack shoots and kills Barbossa. Outside, the broken curse causes the remaining pirates to surrender to Norrington’s crew. Sequence Seven ends with Jack realizing that he’s been left behind by his crew once again.
Sequence 8 = Jack escapes and returns to the Black Pearl
In the resolution of the movie, Will and Elizabeth watch grimly as Jack is about to be sentenced to death back in Port Royal. But in a bold move, Will throws caution to the wind — he confesses his love for Elizabeth and risks his life to help Jack escape the gallows. The two end up cornered, but when Elizabeth chooses Will, Norrington decides to let Jack go free. He makes one last illustrious speech, purposefully trips over the ledge, and falls into the sea. Will and Elizabeth kiss as Jack returns to the Black Pearl and steers his ship toward the horizon.
Case Study #3: When Harry Met Sally…
Nora Ephron’s beloved romantic comedy is a great example of how 8 sequence structure can contract to accommodate a movie with a shorter runtime (all hail the tight-90).
Sequence 1 = When Harry and Sally drive to New York
This first sequence includes grapes, a debate about Casablanca, days of the week underpants, and the first of many incredibly complex meal orders. Most importantly, it introduces the thesis of the movie — the debate about whether or not men and women can be friends. Sequence One ends with Harry and Sally going their separate ways in New York, expecting to never see each other again.
Sequence 2 = When Harry and Sally run into one another at the airport
In the second sequence and last part of Act One, Harry and Sally find themselves on the same flight and end up continuing their argument from years before — but are not even close to becoming friends yet.
Sequence 3 = When Harry and Sally finally decide to be friends
Ten years after the story began, Harry and Sally both find themselves single again when they spot each other in a bookstore. After a long chat about relationships, they decide to start a friendship.
Sequence 4 = When Harry and Sally both “get back out there”
This is the “Fun and Games” of When Harry Met Sally. It’s the Casablanca scene and the batting cage scene and the scene at the MET with the funny accents and, most importantly, the orgasm scene at the deli. In this sequence, Harry and Sally become better friends, but they also both start dating again.
Sequence 5 = When Harry and Sally deny their feelings for each other
Harry and Sally dance at a New Year’s party and find themselves cheek-to-cheek, feelings clearly swirling in the air as the countdown to midnight begins. So in a hilarious attempt to set each other up with someone else, Harry and Sally go on a double date with their friends Jess and Marie — Harry with Marie and Sally with Jess. Things are not going well, to say the least, and by the end of the night, it is Marie and Jess who end up in bed together.
Sequence 6 = When Harry and Sally both deal with their exes
Though Harry and Sally both say they’re “fine” in regards to their respective break-ups, during this sequence they both end up falling to pieces. A run-in with his ex-wife leaves Harry angry about a wagon wheel coffee table, and a phone call from her ex-boyfriend leaves Sally tossing Kleenex around her apartment with reckless abandon.
Sequence 7 = When Harry and Sally sleep together and it’s super awkward
OMG! Harry and Sally finally act on their feelings for each other and have sex… but afterward, it’s incredibly awkward. So awkward that they can’t even be around one another. In fact, Sequence Seven ends with Sally slapping Harry at Jess and Marie’s wedding.
Sequence 8 = When Harry and Sally kiss and make up
Harry tries to apologize to Sally, but she’s not having it. Both are completely and utterly miserable without the other. In the end, Harry runs across New York City to a New Year’s Eve party where he confesses his love for Sally just after midnight. She returns the sentiment, they kiss… and live happily ever after (with the chocolate sauce on the side, of course).
Tips for Using 8 Sequence Structure
When looking at a story in terms of the 8 sequence structure, keep these things in mind.
Name Your Sequences
First, try to name your sequences. This applies to the sequences that make up Act Two in particular. As you saw in the case studies above, giving the sequences a distinct name can help focus your story, especially when you’re trying to come up with enough plot to fill out those murky middle sections.
Use it Just for Act Two
In fact, a lot of screenwriters who utilize 8 sequence structure only use it for Act Two. Acts One and Three usually come together pretty easily, what with them being the beginning and the end. So, if it helps, just use 8 sequence structure to break down Act Two. Ignore sequences 1, 2, 7, and 8 if you want.
Sequences are "Mini-Movies"
It can also be helpful to think of each sequence as its own story, or “mini-movie.” In that way, each sequence should have its own beginning, middle, and end, and its own goal for the protagonist.
Each sequence should build on the last, rising in intensity until culminating in the climax of the story and resulting resolution. The end of one sequence should serve as the beginning (or the basis) for the next, and so on.
8 Sequence Structure Isn't an Exact Science
And more than anything else, remember that 8 sequence structure is not an exact science.
Traditional 8 sequence structure is based on a two-hour, 120-minute movie. But some movies are shorter than that and some are longer. In these instances, the sequences are adjusted accordingly.
Even the suggested “rules” of what each sequence contains is a rough idea. Some movies have Inciting Incidents that occur in the first scene of the story, while others don’t have a Midpoint at all. Others have short resolutions, meaning that sequence 8 is significantly shorter than 12 to 15 minutes long.
At the end of the day, 8 sequence structure is just one way of looking at story. If you find it helpful, great. If not, that’s okay, too. There are many other story structures out there — even ones that are pretty unconventional — so do your research and find which one works best for you.