As an LA native, most of my IRL writing buddies are screenwriters. I’ve learned so much from them. The way they break down and analyze story is fascinating to me. One of the things they swear by is a method that involves considering a story in sequences. I started using sequences (albeit clumsily) in my first published novel. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first book I wrote using sequences was the first book I sold.
Screenwriting wisdom on this topic can be quite prescriptive (see links below for more detailed reading on this subject). Many experts talk about eight sequences, and correlations are drawn between the eight sequences and standard three-act structure.
Imagine you’re writing on a TV show. Each episode needs to have an arc, and the entire season needs to have an arc. Now apply that to a book, imagining each sequence as an episode and the entire novel as the season. Thinking about it like this reframes a novel as a series of sequences, each contained within the overall arc of the novel.
Deconstructing this: In the beginning of the book, you have an introductory, or setup, sequence, that is usually a few chapters long and ends with an inciting incident. Within this sequence, you should have an arc. The next sequence contains the inciting event and ends with the break into act 2, etc. When you’re considering these as sequences, you’ll start thinking of them as cohesively linked scenes that combine to create a small story within a story. Each sequence should stand relatively on its own; it should have its own conflict, character arcs, and plot arcs. You should be able to answer all your usual book questions inside each sequence. i.e. “How is the main character different at the end of this?” and “What stakes-raising event happened at the midpoint?”
No sequence should leave the MC in the same place she occupied at the beginning. No sequence should end without the stakes being significantly raised. Each sequence should have its own tone, too. For example, one sequence might be about questioning witnesses to a murder and contain a number of scenes where an FBI agent travels from place to place, interrogating people. The midpoint would contain a significant piece of information that raises the stakes, and there should be some fascinating, shocking ending of the sequence that leaves us on a heart-pounding cliffhanger so we run to the next sequence, eager for more. The tone of this sequence could be dark, suspicious, uncertain, as the detective learns new and disturbing information. One way to unify these scenes as a sequence could be with weather, imagery, use of language and characterizations, in addition to content.
At the beginning of a sequence, you’re introducing us to this new chain of events. Each sequence should begin with the feeling that this is a whole new world. If a sequence is about running from the newly discovered villain, the protagonist is living in a whole new world where the identity of the villain is known and the villain has determined to kill him. If the sequence is about a newly minted couple discovering their feelings for each other, think about how different in tone this sequence would be from the one before, which was likely about searching and uncertainty. Each sequence carries dangers of its own, and each sequence needs to both resolve things and create new problems. The only sequence that generally doesn’t create new problems is the final one.
Some additional reading by people way smarter than I: