What level are we on?

You may have written these fabulous dramatic scenes. If they don’t play within a larger story context, your work may still feel shallow and be easily forgotten.

If, however, you create a complex dramatic fabric, the audience will feel that what they are seeing is larger than the scene they’re in. It will keep them engaged and make your story powerful and memorable.

Sounds great. But how to achieve this?

(I am warning you here that there will be a massive spoiler for fans of THE WIRE who haven’t completed SEASON FOUR yet. Go no further than the heading “YOU GONNA GET GOT”)

First of all, you need to understand how your story elements work on various levels.

The more levels you touch simultaneously, the more profoundly your story will resonate.

Don’t know what I’m talking about?

Well, let’s first look at the various levels a story element can work on:

  • scene
  • sequence
  • act
  • story

A storyline can continue across movie sequels, so here’s another level:

  • movie franchise

For television, “story” often means “episode”, so we have even more potential plot levels:

  • episode
  • season
  • series


There’s a moment early in Toy Story II when Woody has just saved Wheezy and he’s about to go back into the house. But he slips from the back of Buster and falls on the ground. A girl finds him.

This moment plays on the following levels:

– Within the Scene, it terminates the previous scene (Getting Wheezy back in the house) and starts a new one (Woody as an item in the Yard Sale).
– Within the Sequence, it is the start of the climax in Act Three of the ‘Saving Wheezy’ sequence.
– Within the Story, it is the start of the Inciting Incident, which really kicks off Toy Story II as Woody is being taken away by the toy collector.

Woody Falls

Structurally the Wheezy Rescue sequence is one of the finest examples of multi-level storytelling. Not only does it deliver a complete Hero’s Journey in only about 3 minutes, the events around Wheezy foreshadow what soon will happen to Woody on a bigger scale. The structural design has tremendous power, yet it is elegant and inconspicuous for the non-professional.

Successful screenwriters do this stuff all the time, often completely instinctively. As a matter of fact, in order for a movie to WORK, there are some points where you just have to deliver on more than one level.

Most key turning points operate on no less than three levels: the Scene, the Sequence and the Act.

How? The climax of an act at the same time usually climaxes a sequence and a scene as well.

Here is an example of how the same story element can play a role within a scene spanning 5 minutes as well as almost an entire TV series, spanning 5 years:

(Haven’t seen SEASON FOUR of The Wire yet, but planning to? If you’re a pro and don’t mind spoilers, read on. Otherwise stop here.)



Fourteen minutes into Episode 2 (Season One) of The Wire,  Bodie says “Anybody who spend their time witnessing shit, you gonna get got.” The context: a witness has just been murdered to protect the empire of drug lord Avon Barksdale. Bodie is a loyal pawn in Barksdale’s network and he’s condoning the murder by defending the rules of ‘the Game’, i.e. the world of drugdealing.


This line of dialogue may only seem a humble beat in the scene, but it sets up the start of the character’s storyline as a loyal player within the Barksdale empire. The line also foreshadows the way Bodie will go out three years later.

The subtext is: “I will not witness, because I don’t want to die.”

You can see this line of dialogue as an Act One Turning Point for Bodie’s journey. Over the course of four seasons of The Wire, Bodie will play the Game by its rules and not collaborate with the cops.  Because he doesn’t want to “get got”.

This single line of dialogue works on at least three levels:

– Within the Scene, it represents a simple beat.
– Within the Season, it sets up Bodie as an obstacle (and potential target) for the police as well as a threat to the softening D’Angelo.
– Within the entire Series, it represents the End of Act One for Bodie’s story and it foreshadows Bodie’s exit in Season Four.

You still don’t know what I’m talking about? Well, back to square one.

Or you’re gonna get got.

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