Monday, January 20, 2014

Frank Daniel's Sequence Approach

Once a writer has a general notion of STORY STRUCTURE, s/he moves on to a more detailed working out of screenplay structure.  Legendary dean of both USC and AFI, Frank Daniel broke down a movie's structure into eight sequences.

"A typical two-hour film is composed of sequences – 8 to 15 minute segments that have their own internal structure – in effect, shorter films, but inside the larger film.  To a significant extent, each sequence has its own protagonist, tension, rising action, and resolution – just like a film as a whole.  The difference between a sequence and a standalone 15 minute film is that the conflicts and issues raised in a sequence are only partially resolved within the sequence, and when they are resolved, the resolution often opens up new issues, which in turn become the subject of subsequent sequences." (Screenwriting, Paul Gulino, pg.2)

The sequence approach divides the film into eight sequences.  The First Act has two sequences, a Second Act has four sequences, and a Third act has two.

(Click on each of the SCREENPLAY TERMS below for a full definition.)

First sequence

Excite the viewers curiosity with an OPENING IMAGE and HOOK.  Present EXPOSITION explaining the who, what, when, and where of the story.  Show a glimpse of the life of the protagonists before the story gets underway - the STATUS QUO. This sequence generally ends with the inciting incident or POINT OF ATTACK.

Second sequence

The protagonist tries to reestablish the STATUS QUO disrupted by the POINT OF ATTACK, fails, and must face a worse predicament.  The protagonist's WANT is defined, as so, the sequence poses the DRAMATIC QUESTION that will shape the rest of the story.  This is the END OF THE FIRST ACT, and with it the MAIN TENSION is firmly established.

Third sequence

The protagonist makes a first attempt to solve the DRAMATIC QUESTION and fulfill his/her/their WANT, but fails.  SUBPLOTS are established.  This sequence often includes the first major SET PIECE of the movie, which explores and exploits the MAIN TENSION or COMEDIC TENSION.

Fourth sequence

Here the protagonist often attempts, once again, to restore the STATUS QUO and fails.  The end of the sequence is the midpoint or FIRST CULMINATION.  It often brings a major REVELATION or REVERSAL.  So, a major element of this sequence is audience PREPARATION for this culmination. The audience should be tempted to guess the outcome story.  The STAKES are raised.

Fifth Sequence

The protagonists deals with the AFTERMATH of the first culmination.  Often new characters are introduced for new opportunities are discovered.  The protagonist's NEED (as opposed to WANT) becomes a force and complication in the protagonists choices. The sequence may deal heavily with SUBPLOTS, such as a romantic subplot, and may give the audience a break from the MAIN TENSION of the main plot.

As with other sequences, this sequence may have its own TENSION, WANT and central QUESTION that gets resolved at the climax of the sequence.  However the MAIN TENSION and MAIN DRAMATIC QUESTION remain unresolved.

Sixth sequence

This is the last sequence before the END OF THE SECOND ACT.  The protagonist has exhausted all easy courses of action and must address the central dramatic question head on.  Forces pushing the protagonist to a CHARACTER CHANGE become impossible to ignore.

The MAIN TENSION resumes it's intensity, and is seemingly resolved in the CULMINATION at the sequence climax. This may be a "dark night of the soul" in which the protagonist feels that all is lost, or it may be a victory that leads to a bigger problem and THIRD ACT TENSION.

SUBPLOTS are generally resolved in the sixth and seventh sequences, before the climax that resolves the central DRAMATIC QUESTION and ends the story.

Seventh sequence

The apparent answer of the central dramatic question proves premature.  The STAKES are raised on final time.  A new THIRD ACT TENSION is established that will answer the dramatic question once and for all. The story seen in a new light, and the protagonist might reverse his/her/their goals.  Often this long sequence ends in a FALSE ENDING/FINAL TWIST.

Eighth sequence

The TENSIONS created by the POINT OF ATTACK are finally resolved.  Any remaining SUBPLOTS are tied up.  The final image may recall images that opened the film.

I write this blog in order to connect with intelligent, ambitious, and creative people. If you leave a comment, you will inspire me to write more. If you liked the article, please share it.


  1. Thank you very much for your interpretation and explanation of the SEQUENCE APPROACH originally created by Frank Daniel. Your article is clear and simple which is surely better than the book written by Paul Gulino.

    1. You are welcome. I'm glad the summary was helpful for you. :)