Lateral Screenwriting: Sequences

Of the surface approaches to structure that I have looked at, the Sequence method is my method of choice. This is because it offers the writer the ability to manage the story as it is written and keep centered along the way.

by Lee Matthias

(Continued from Part 2)

While its main benefit is in writing the second act, any time one can work with bite-sized chunks of a narrative, it is a good thing. In Chapter 13 we identified certain characteristics and goals associated with specific sequences manifesting in the form of keywords and phrases that can be used to build our individual sequences.

The first act sequences have the following keywords associated with them:

The First Act Sequences

Sequence A Keywords –setting up; people; setting; arena or milieu; hero in his normal world; problem of the story; defining image; establishes tone or mood; dramatic tension

Sequence B Keywords – setting up; playing field; primary dramatic tension; deepen the tone or mood; hero set on a path; taking on the job of resolving; tension escalates

So these are our watchwords in writing our opening. We can employ them in our thinking and planning as we begin the process of entering our stories. By applying them to scene sequences that each run a maximum of about 15 pages, we can get control of our stories and make immediate progress. Failure to Launch But what if you can’t open your story? What if you can’t find a way to get in? What if you can’t write word one? Screenwriter, Ruth Gordon (with husband, Garson Kanin, co-wrote PAT AND MIKE, and ADAM’S RIB) once asked author W. Somerset Maugham:

“What if you sit down one morning at your desk and you can’t think of anything to write?” He replied,“Well, my dear, in that case, I sit down and write,- ‘W. Somerset Maugham, W. Somerset Maugham, W.Somerset Maugham, W. Somerset Maugham, W. Somerset Maugham’… until something occurs to me, and it always does.” – Garson Kanin, interviewed by Pat McGilligan, Backstory 2, p. 104.

So you can try that. But if you do, remember, Maugham is spelled with a g-h. But, seriously, in the same book, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green suggested: “Sometimes at the very beginning of a project, if we can’t get going, we don’t begin at the beginning. That’s one little technique. We pick a scene somewhere along the line where we hope we already know the characters, and just write some dialogue. That often gets us moving.” – Backstory 2, p.86. Oldies are Goldies :D

I did that very thing with my first novel. I had what I felt was a great story, but every attempt to enter it failed.

They all just seemed to me to be too pedestrian, too pat. Without really thinking about it, I decided to just start writing from a point where I knew well what had to happen. As it turned out, this was about 40 pages in from the eventual beginning of the book.

I wrote the entire novel from there, and by the end, I knew my characters so well that I was finally able to go back and make what had been a dull opening interesting. It was through my people! Hollywood makes movies out of sequence all the time. There’s no reason that the writer can’t write the script that way, too.

Without really thinking about it, I decided to just start writing from a point where I knew well what had to happen

But what if you have no idea even of what happens to start your story? How does that story with no beginning begin? We aren’t, here, talking about the first act, we’re talking about the first few pages–the first ten pages, at most.

Well, first ask yourself what the latest possible moment is in your story concept at which it must begin or the audience won’t know something crucial. Find that point that must be in the story. I’m not talking about starting at your hero’s birth, here.

This is why plot wags the tail of character. It–plot–has to hit the character with the story problem.* (Footnote 18/3) I mean something directly necessary for the plot to function, the story’s dilemma to be posed. Then, if you can, try to find an earlier point before that. Got one? If so, try it again.

Continue, if necessary, until there are just no more. Begin there. Begin there even if it is the last place you would open your story (sequentially, and structurally, it better be, anyway). Now for the fun part… When you do, find some way to make it immediately–on page one–interesting. Don’t say you can’t! You can! Find the most off-the-wall event, something involving a stranger, right out of left field, and shove it into the midst of whatever utterly dull thing is going on at this point in the tale that nothing story-dependent could precede.

If you can find no other way, invent an unrelated event that has some kind of visual interest and force it into your opening via intercuts so that the two somehow come together. Whatever happens as a result of that forced combination, then, must somehow push your character from the dull half toward the next interior-to-the-plot scene. You’re on your way!

First ask yourself what the latest possible moment is in your story concept at which it must begin or the audience won’t know something crucial.

New York PoliceLet’s say you need a guy to find something out that starts the plot rolling. Let’s say he later will get arrested by police, but not before he causes something else to happen.

So,the guy’s in a room, talking on the phone, and he starts to hear some of the information. Let’s say it takes a while to get it all across. So, you intercut that with an old lady who is filling up her car at a gas station somewhere. She struggles through it as the guy listens and talks in that room.

Finally she’s done, and as she hangs up the pump nozzle and goes for her keys, she drops them. The guy talking on the phone is told something important to the story and writes it down. Then, as she tries to pick up her keys, her glasses fall off and she promptly steps on them, smashing them utterly.

Now, she finds her keys, but she can’t see. The guy now has the key piece of information, and he is trying to puzzle it out as he continues talking. The lady starts her car and drives out of the gas station, across six lanes of heavy traffic, and straight into the wall of a building. It happens to be our guy’s building. And the car and his desk are now having intimate relations.

So the guy jumps up, throws down the phone, and rather than help the old lady who is sitting behind the wheel looking around, trying to figure out what happened, he runs away. She doesn’t see this,but, instead gets out of the car and stumbles toward the desk where the phone receiver is, still off-the-hook. Her hearing is still fine, so she hears something from the phone, and as her hand grabs for the desk to stay on her feet, she picks it up, puts it slowly to her ear, and says, “Call the police!”

The caller hangs up, but the phone has a record in its memory of the last call, and later, when the police are sorting it all out, this will play a crucial role in our story.

Voila! Your dull, static, opening which you otherwise would never have used gets an injection of visual interest that plays directly into the plot. The insertion of the unexpected event out of left field was, of course, a case of lateral thinking in action.

-Lee Matthias
(from his book “Lateral Screenwriting”,
Publishing, June, 2012) 

I am a writer with three published novels, others on the way, a nonfiction book in the works, several screenplays written and in development.

During and after college, I worked as a theater projectionist and manager, in public relations, and as a literary agent selling to publishers and producers. Two heads are better than one, so I keep a human skull on my desk for inspiration (and a second opinion).

I currently work as a computer network administrator in government. I’m married and the father of two daughters. “I’m a computer professional: I don’t lie, I manage information.”

Photo Credit: Marwa Morgan – Sergio Lora

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