Frank Daniel's sequence approach
Of the structural theories I researched, this one strikes me as providing the most
practical help for a screenwriter. It also has the advantage of being conceptually
elegant compared to some of the other theories of dramatic structure.
Films are (or were previous to digital cinema) distributed on reels each 8-10 minutes
in length. In the early days of film, writers were advised to use a structure that would
allow for a natural narrative break at the end of each real. This was particularly
important until the late 1920's, because most theaters only had one projector and the
audience would have to wait while the projectionist changed reels. Feature films
used about eight reels, so they had eight narrative sequences. Frank Daniel, who
headed the film programs at Columbia and USC, suggested that using eight
sequences of 10-15 minutes is still a reasonable way to structure the narrative of a
Frank Daniel described dramatic tension as either a chase—someone wants
something badly but is having trouble getting it— or an escape—someone
badly wants to get away from something but is having trouble escaping.
The sequence approach divides a film into three acts: a first act comprised of two
sequences, a second act comprised of four sequences, and a third act of two
[1st Sequence] First, a hook to excite the viewer's curiosity. Then, the exposition
answering who, what, when, and where. Show a glimpse of the life of the protagonist
before the story gets under way. This first sequence ends with the inciting incident.
[2nd Sequence] Protagonist tries to reestablish the status quo disrupted by the inciting
incident, fails, and is faced with a worse predicament. […] this sequence poses "the
dramatic question that will shape the rest of the picture." This is the end of the first
[3rd Sequence] The protagonist attempts to solve the problem presented at the end of
the first act.
4th Sequence] The solution from the last sequence is seen to fail, and the protagonist
tries one or more desperate measures to restore the status quo. The end of this
sequence is the midpoint/first culmination/crisis, which brings a major revelation or
reversal. The audience should be tempted to guess the outcome of the story.
[5th Sequence] The protagonist deals with the ramifications of the first culmination.
Sometimes new characters are introduced, or new opportunities discovered in the
fifth segment. This segment may also deal heavily with subplots.
[6th Sequence] Last sequence of the second act, and the second culmination. The
protagonist has exhausted all the easy courses of action, and directly addresses the
central dramatic question. The audience should be tempted to guess the outcome of
the story, although the obvious answer may often be a mirror opposite of how the film
[7th Sequence] The apparent solution of the central dramatic question in sequence F
shows its problems here. The stakes are raised. The effect of a long dangling cause
may occur. The story is seen in a new light, and the protagonist might need to
reverse his goals.
[8th Sequence] The tension created by the inciting incident is truly resolved. Consider
this resolution in light of the hints from the first and second culminations. Any
remaining subplots are resolved. There may be a brief epilogue. The last sequence
may in some way (visually?) recall the first sequence.
Many movies use the following elements to create a satisfying narrative:
Optionally, start with a short, exciting hook, which creates a question in the mind of
Give the audience enough exposition that they know the who, when, and where of
the story. Establish the status quo of the characters' world.
An inciting incident unbalances the status quo in such a way that the protagonist
feels compelled to fix things.
The protagonist will attempt to solve the central dramatic question in the easiest,
most obvious way. This problem is too difficult for the easiest solution, so the
protagonist's initial solution fails. This is the start of the second act.
The protagonist devises a more complex, ambitious (or desperate) plan, which can
be brought to fruition only after completing a series of sub-tasks. This culminates in a
false climax, and a reversal. The outcome is not what the protagonist hoped, or he
learns something that changes his goal.
Repeat the last step as needed.
Often a brief epilogue shows the new status quo established by the protagonist's
The protagonist would realistically try the easiest or most obvious solutions first.
Repetition and variation are interesting.
In each scene, the audience should be asking: will the protagonist get what he so
badly wants or not?
Moving the audience repeatedly between hope that the protagonist will get what he
wants and the fear that he will not creates dramatic tension.
Source: http://paulgorman.org/writing/dramatic_structure.php (Retrieved