Things I Learned From My Wife's Screenwriting Education, Part I


My wife Kimberly went to USC for her MFA in screenwriting. Along the way and afterwards, she recounted many of the things they taught her in that program to me. It turns out that a number of them are helpful things to know in corporate life. Here's one of them:

The 8-sequence structure of screenplays

Most people are familiar with the 3-act structure of human narrative. I used to be skeptical about why all narratives had to be 3-act until it was explained to me that they don't; it's just that human brains only comprehend narratives well in 3-act structures. Narratives which are missing one or more of these acts will tend to seem broken or have something missing when recounted to a human mind.

In screenwriting, the 3 acts are broken down even further into 8 sequences, with 2 sequences in the the first act, 4 in the second act, and the final 2 in the third act. They are:

First Act:

i) show the protagonist in his natural environment

ii) introduction of the central conflict and the point of attack

Second Act:

iii) rising action and elaboration of the conflict

iv) false hope as it appears that the conflict will be resolved

v) hope is revealed to be false, falling into the point of greatest despair

vi) protagonist takes control of his fate and works towards resolution

Third Act:

vii) central conflict is resolved in dramatic climax; false ending

viii) true ending, or denouement

(the next time you watch a film, pay attention and see if you can spot these sequences - they are in almost all films)

In films this structure is used to draw the viewer in and engage their interest; at work it can be useful as a method of describing a problem and proposing a particular solution. For example, it can be used to concisely describe things in just 8 sentences:

i) "As you know, we have arrangement A of nature B."

ii) "Recently, we've found that event E has occurred and disrupted nature B."

iii) "Further, this means that arrangement A is now wholly untenable."

iv) "At first, we assumed it would be a simple matter of using Easy Fix F to restore arrangement A."

v) "Unfortunately, we failed to anticipate complication C, which prevented us from doing so and made the problem worse."

vi) "Therefore, we have decided to resort to More Difficult Fix M in the hopes of improving the situation."

vii) "Having prepared More Difficult Fix M for execution, we have found that it is indeed working and arrangement A+ has been achieved, which is for now an adequate state."

viii) "Additionally, we have found A+ to possess additional nature N+, which we did not anticipate and has yielded Bonus Consequence Q."

It turns out that this 8-sequence structure is extremely useful in narrating anything in a way that maximizes the other person's emotional connection with the subject. This makes it a great structure to follow for expository writing because readers engage with it in the way that people engage with the narrative of a story. Additionally, if you are operating under a conciseness requirement but want to make sure you aren't too abrupt, this gives you a good maps of what major points you need to hit at a minimum.

Next: More things I learned from my wife's screenwriting education

Originally posted here on 2009 Apr 18, by Yishan Wong.