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Monday, November 25, 2019

Scene vs. Sequence vs. Act




If you are like me, you've probably heard the terms "scene," and "act," and maybe even "sequence" at least a dozen (if not a hundred) times without anyone explaining what they actually are. For most of my writerly life, I've heard about the 3-Act Structure, without anyone explaining to me what an act actually is. Sure, they may tell me what story parts go in which one, what happens, but they don't tell me what it actually is. Like, why is that stuff an act? What makes this a scene? And what is a sequence? 🤦‍♀️

So with this post, I'm hoping to help others with that, explaining what these things are, structurally, after all, they are structural terms.

(Though, as I've acknowledge before, much of story structure can get down to how you decide to slice and dice it, and people use different terminology, making writing terms a bit slippery, naturally.)

Scene

If you don't have an exact understanding of what a scene is, you probably at least have a vague one, thanks to the scene selection menu on movies or the high school play you saw being rehearsed in the auditorium as a teenager.

A scene is a unit of action that takes place in a single location and continuous time. When the location changes, or the time jumps, or in some cases (particularly in plays) when a new set of characters enter the location, it's a new scene.

In Guardians of the Galaxy, the opening scene is when Peter is a kid and his mom is lying in a hospital bed dying from cancer, and it ends as he runs outside and is abducted.

Then we jump to 26 years later on a different planet--a new scene.

Seems simple enough, right?

But here's the thing, for a scene to work structurally, it actually needs to do more than that. The scene is a structural unit, perhaps even more so than a setting unit (time or place), but often, people only define it using setting terms, like we have so far.

In reality, a scene follows the same basic structure of the overall story.


And it typically breaks down in similar ways (or usually should).

Open with a hook
Establish the setup (where and when we are and what characters are in the scene)
Have a rising action with complications
Hit a climax
Have a falling action or denouement

You can even break this down further (remember how I said it depends on how you want to slice and dice it?)

Hook
Setup
Inciting Incident (or what you may think of as "plot point 1")
Rising action with progressive complications
Crisis moment (or what you may think of as "plot point 2")
Climax
Falling action

You could even add a midpoint in there.

About a year ago, I broke down how I thought about scene structure.

Now, some people like to think of the climax as a "turning point."  In this sense, "climax" and "turning point" are simply different perspectives to view the same thing.

There are also other ways you can slice and dice it that I haven't yet added on my blog. A very popular one is often referred to as "scene and sequel" which goes like this:

Part 1 (Action):
- Goal
- Conflict
- Outcome

Part 2 (Reaction):
- Reaction
- Dilemma
- Decision

Some writers argue these are two different scenes, and others say they are two parts of one scene. Once again, it comes down to how you want to slice and dice it and how you define scene. Certainly these parts could be written to obtain the same shape, either together, or individually, which bring me to a point I talked about earlier this year: this story shape permeates everything.

Find which slicing and dicing method works best for you. Some click with me and others don't so much.

Just remember that a scene typically takes place in a single location and a continuous time and structurally has that shape.

If it does not have that shape in some way, it probably falls flat.

(For a full breakdown of how that shape works in a scene, go here.)

If you watch the opening scene of Guardians carefully, you will see it follows that shape.




However, keep in mind that like everything in writing, rules can be broken. This is generally how scenes work and how you get them to work consistently, but there are occasions where you can bend the rules.

Sequence

A sequence is a step up from a scene but smaller than an act.

A sequence is made up of scenes that are building up to a somewhat larger climactic moment or "turning point."

Because a sequence includes multiple scenes, it is not bound by a single location or time frame.

Let's say you are writing a story where at some point, the viewpoint character is kidnapped.

You might start with a scene where the kid is playing at the park and is approached by a predator who wrangles her into a moving van and ties her up. (Notice how that completes that story shape.)

The next scene jumps to the moving van slowing down, with the girl still tied up in the back. She's afraid of where she is going to go next, but as she listens, she realizes that her predator has actually been pulled over by police for speeding. She tries to bang around and cry for help, but she has a gag and isn't aided.

Next, we cut to her in the predator's dingy basement where two other girls are, every victim untied and ungagged. She talks and cries to them and tries to get out, but they are completely locked in. There is no way out.

Those three scenes make up a sequence, a "kidnapping" sequence. Notice how the sequence escalates, the viewpoint character going from being safe at a park to being kidnapped and locked in a basement.

It follows this same shape.


If you slice and dice it, it will have these same elements:

Hook
Setup
Rising Action
Climax
Falling Action

You can have more than three scenes in a sequence and you can have two.

Since I used Guardians of the Galaxy as an example earlier, let's grab a sequence from that as an example. At one point in the movie, Peter, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot are thrown into prison, where we will have multiple scenes. We have a scene about them getting "checked in," a scene about them interacting with the other inhabitants, and a scene where Peter wakes up in the night and saves Gamora (meeting Drax). You could call this the prison-initiation sequence.

Notice that it too follows that shape. Hook, setup, rising action, climax, falling action.

Act

An act is bigger than a sequence but smaller than the whole plot.

An act is made up of sequences that are building up to a larger climactic moment or "turning point."

It follows the same shape on a bigger scale.

Maybe in our story about the kidnapper, the kidnapping is plot point one of the whole story. So previous to that were sequences about the characters' ordinary lives and their smaller problems within that. That means from the beginning to the end of the kidnapping sequence is the first act.



If you slice and dice it, it will have these same elements:

Hook
Setup
Rising Action
Climax
Falling Action

You can have more than three sequences in an act and you can have two.

In Guardians of the Galaxy, I would say the first act ends just after the prison-initiation sequence. We've been introduced to the main characters and now have a new goal, which will start the next rising action.

Even though I think scenes are talked about ambiguously, I have to say that acts are talked about even more ambiguously. Most people just follow the 3-Act structure, with beginning, middle, and end. Sure, you can slice any story that way, I guess, but for me, that often doesn't tell me enough about what an act actually is. What it means, is that there should be a climactic moment near the end of the beginning, near the end of the middle, and near the end of the end.



If the midpoint is a big climactic moment in its own right (or at least, if not the midpoint, leading up to the midpoint), I would personally view it as having four acts.


(By the way, I'm aware my images aren't necessarily in the right proportions 😅)

And you can actually have even five or six or possibly seven acts--if you are hyper-focused on a main plot with little or no subplots and lots of twists, turns, and climactic reveals. But that's a bit more intensive than I want to get into today.

I would recommend taking this concept of an act and using it to benefit your perspective of your story. If you want to stick to the 3-Act Structure, because viewing it that way works best for you, great. Just remember that you need this same shape for the beginning, middle, and end. If you have a big climactic moment that is or near the midpoint, you might want to view your story as having four acts, each with this structure.

The point is that each unit is rising, climaxing, and falling within bigger rising, climaxing, and falling units, as the story escalates overall.

If you have a part of your story that doesn't seem to be working, or seems to be flat, or bottoming out wrong, use this to troubleshoot the problem. Check that your scene follows this shape. Check that your sequence follows this shape. Check that you have multiple acts that follow this shape. These shapes need to be inside the overall plot shape.

Overall, each act should be more intense than the previous act.

Overall, each sequence should be more intense than the previous sequence.

Overall, within a sequence, each scene should be more intense than the previous scene.

Generally speaking.

Of course, if you have subplots or secondary plots (as most do), you may think of having multiple plot lines that do this. So if you have a scene introducing a subplot, it may not necessarily feel more intense than the scene literally before it, but rather, within each plot line, the intensity increases.

Confused? Hopefully not. Just remember the shapes and the units--the rest is all in how you want to slice and dice.  

NOTE: Black Friday is this week, and if you are looking for some writerly gifts, I have a list of recommended books here. As you may have noticed, I don't use ads on my blog, and I put my own money into it every year, but, I use affiliate links, which means anything you buy off Amazon through the link, I get a very small cut of 💖 In any case, have a great week, and Happy Thanksgiving to those in the U.S.



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