The difference between a sequence and a scene

I’ve been reading a lot of screen-writing manuals (as research for a novel, not because I want to write screenplays). And it’s been pretty fascinating. The nice thing about screenplay books is that they’re incredibly prescriptive. One of the most popular ones–Save The Cat–says that your second act turning point MUST occur on page 25. Not on page 23, or on page 27…page 25 is where it’s got to be.

If I was actually trying to write screenplays, I imagine I’d find it infuriating. But since I’m a novelist, I think it’s actually a bit nice to have a book that’s unafraid to give real advice. Most writing manuals are a bit froofy and guarded. There are too many examples of famous and beloved novels that contain some really bizarre decisions. For instance, what is up with Wuthering Heights? Why is it told as a weird story-within-a-story? And why does it leap forward, halfway through, and begin talking about the children of the protagonists’ in the first half?

So novel manuals are afraid to say anything definite. But that means they just don’t say anything at all. You come away from them thinking that the way to write a novel is to just read a lot of novels and then write a novel. Which is fine. It’s even true. But you don’t need a book to tell you that.

Turndown_Sequence_by_maxduff           One interesting thing that I learned (from Save The Cat) was this distinction between scenes and sequences. The author, Blake Snyder, describes a sequence as a part of the movie where the dialogue is intercut with a lot of action (an action sequence, a sex scene, a negotiation, the operation of equipment, driving a car, etc.)

I thought about this when revising my novel Enter Title Here. In This Beautiful Fever, there are maybe two parts that I think of as being really locked-in: places where everything falls away and I feel really gripped by the narrative. And they both have what I’d call a sequencey feeling to them: there’s an interplay of action and dialogue and internal monologue that works really well. When writing them, I thought of them as setpieces and I used them to anchor what I thought of as the “acts” of the novel.

In Enter Title Here, I feel as if these sequences are more common, but still limited in number. There are maybe six or seven of them.

It’s tempting to say that novels need to have both scene and sequence, but I’m not sure that’s true. There are definitely novels that are all sequence. For instance, Emile Zola’s Nana has roughly eighteen chapters and each of them is basically this fantastic ten thousand word setpiece. In one of them, she’s performing a play. In another, she’s spending all of some dude’s money. Etc. Etc.

Grapes of Wrath* is also much more sequence than scene. Not only is it intercut with these fast-moving impressionistic chapters that are a bit orthogonal to the main plot, even the main plot often has a lot going on (I’m thinking of, for instance, the strike, or the Joads’ midnight drive across the desert).

I would say that Mrs. Dalloway is also mostly sequence. There’s never a moment at which people aren’t somehow in motion.

It’s also tempting to say that sequence is better than scene. I think there is something to that. Sequence certainly engages the interest in a certain kind of way. But plenty of novels work very well without it. Evelyn Waugh’s comic novels don’t really contain any sections that aren’t just two people conversing. I’d also that Jane Austen is much, much more dialogue than action. Even when people are strolling and talking, the environment never really impinges on their perception.

*Speaking of Grapes of Wrath, the other day I was thinking about Ma Joad lying on the floor of the truck during their ride across the desert and I got chills. Oh man, I’m getting chills right now, just writing about it! That book is really, really awesome. I was also thinking that there is some alternate reality where Grapes of Wrath is indisputably the greatest American novel: the alternate reality in which the Steinbeck’s socialist revolution actually came to pass. There’s such an element of prophecy to the book. When it closes, you can feel that something has to change: that there’s no way this rotting system can totter on for even another five years. But, unfortunately, it did. It tottered on right into the modern day. So Grapes of Wrath has to content itself with just being a wonderful novel, rather than a piece of our history.

Comments (



  1. Morlock Publishing (@MorlockP)

    My girlfriend has been working on a screenplay at the same time that I’ve been working on my novels, and our various advice books are often found sitting in the bathroom, on the dining room table, etc., so we often pick up the other’s books. I’ve noticed the exact same thing that you have about the screenplay advice, and have had the exact same response:

    1) DAMN, this is formulaic
    2) …but that’s not ENTIRELY terrible, is it?

    > And they both have what I’d call a sequencey feeling to them: there’s an interplay of action and dialogue and internal monologue that works really well.

    In one of the GF’s books there’s a reference to the “pope in the bathtub”, which is a way to give visual interest to an otherwise boring conversation: instead of the pope and the cardinal talking over a desk, put the pope in a bathtub.

    I’ve not used that technique much, but even thinking about it does lead one to use more “walk and talk” style scenes: one character is underneath a large piece of earth moving equipment working on a bearing while having a conversation with someone who’s handing him tools, etc.

    > I thought of them as setpieces and I used them to ** actor ** what I thought of as the “acts” of the novel.

    I think you mean “anchor”. 😉 It’s amusing how the human mind works. Like you, many of my typos are thematically correct ones – talk about movies, and I’m more likely to type “actor” for “anchor” or “film” for “fine”.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yeah, I don’t really mind the conscious use of formula, actually. Too many books follow a formula without even knowing they’re following a formula, which leads to a vague, muddled mess. Except I don’t call it formula, I call it submitting myself to the “models” for fiction (I learned this slightly-nicer terminology from Samuel Delany’s book). I don’t really think there’s that much need for structural and plot innovation. I mean, it’s possible to innovate there, but it’s not necessary. One can produce interesting, intelligent, and innovative fiction while still using a three-act structure (and it’ll be much more readable than if you try to do so without some kind of plot structure to corral the reader’s attention).

      P.S. That ‘pope in the bathub’ book is one of the ones I read–it’s _Save The Cat_

      I thought that it’s hard to have a ‘pope in the bathtub’ in fiction, because, unlike in film, one cannot show two things at once. You can only read one sentence at a time, so you’d actually just be switching back and forth between the pope and whatever’s in the background. Also, you’re usually anchored to a point of view, so the details that enter the narrative should be the ones that impinge on the character’s mind (usually for psychological / practical reasons)

  2. irscriptwriter

    The bad thing about screenwriting books that tell you an act turning point needs to occur on a specific page is that they’re wrong. Yet, simultaneously, the glut of such books sends novice screenwriters down a path of 1) despising the formulaicness, 2) fighting the formulaicness 3) giving in to the formulaicness and, eventually, 4) realizing the formulaicness was wrong to begin with, therefore 5) forging their own path. Seemingly, steps 1 through 4 can be avoided, but there’s so many books and gurus espousing those steps, that it makes it difficult. A tricky conundrum for novice screenwriters, it can be.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I really think there’s power in the formula, though, as long as you realize that the formula by itself is not enough. The formula is (basically) only about plot. But stories aren’t even mostly about plot. I see plot as almost a sideshow. It’s just a trick to get people to keep reading. So you put in a good-shaped plot, and then you make sure the characters, settings, concepts, visuals, dialogue, etc. offer something new.

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