Literature has a healthy and long tradition, stretching back to the days of Ancient Sumeria and the Epic of Gilgamesh. So when it comes to story structure, if you ask ten different authors how to structure a novel, you’ll get twelve different answers. But one of the more recent models is the Eight Sequence Structure.
“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” — Ernest Hemingway
In my recent discussion of novel structure on Damyanti Biswas’ The Daily (W)rite blog, one of the commenters, Joy Pixley (whose wonderful fantasy short-story work can be seen at Tales of Eneana), mentioned that she was “not totally convinced that every novel has to follow the same three-act structure.”
On this blog, I tend to default to the Three-Act Structure for simplicity’s sake. It has perhaps the longest literary tradition, having been first detailed by Aristotle in his Poetics, and for most beginning writers is perhaps the easiest structure around which to wrap one’s head: Beginning, Middle, End. What could be easier?
But by no means is this the only way to structure a novel. So with thanks to Joy for giving me a reason to depart from the Three-Act Structure for a change, let’s talk about the Eight Sequence Structure.
Before I begin, though, let me say that there’s no law that says one must use this or that structure, nor is there any divine decree that one must work within the strictures of a formula. Structure should be a flexible tool, and (like any tool) should only be applied as needed, not used as a crutch. As E.M. Forester once said: “[Structure] has only one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.”
History of the Eight Sequence Structure
The Eight Sequence Structure is a relative newcomer on the scene, having grown out of the needs of screenwriters in the halcyon days of young Hollywood, when “film” still meant celluloid film and projector reels. In those days, the reels had to be changed manually every 12–15 minutes, and so each feature-length (90-120 minute) film came with eight distinct reels. These reel-changes were not always as smoothly done (with only one projector) as in later days (with multiple projectors). As a consequence, to keep the audience on the edge of their seat and looking forward to the next reel of the film, screenwriters adapted their storytelling style to introduce peaks and cliffhangers at these reel-transitions. This tradition has continued into modern screen-writing, and one can still—for the most part—clearly break a modern-day film into eight distinct 12–15 minute sequences. This approach was elaborated by Frank Daniel, who headed the film programs at Columbia and USC, and then codified by his disciple, Paul Gulino, in Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach.
Beyond screenwriting, the Eight-Sequence Structure has also been adapted by novelists in various genres to the storytelling needs of modern literature. Since modern audiences are already (often subconsciously) so familiar with the eight-sequence structure, a traditional novel told through this structure can hit the peaks and valleys of the readers’ expectations with a similar kind of “cinematic” precision.
Relationship to Other Dramatic Structures
Generally speaking, the Eight Sequence Structure need not be a distinct tool from other Dramatic Structures, and one will often find advice that specifically nests the Eight Sequence Structure into the Three-Act Structure. But it’s a versatile tool and can also stand-alone, or be combined with other structural story-telling techniques. As always, experimentation and innovation are at the heart of creativity, so don’t feel constrained.
The Eight Sequence Structure
Modern novels in most genres trend to about 40–60 scenes (50,000–80,000 words). There are exceptions, of course, but for our purposes, we’ll play to the averages.
Each sequence can be thought of as a mini-story: asking and resolving a dramatic question (that is, resolving the question in a way that leads organically to the new dramatic question in the next sequence). Thus, each sequence has a discrete beginning, middle, and end, and a specific story-telling goal to accomplish.
The Eight Sequence Structure can be laid out as follows:
This is the opening hook that excites the reader’s curiosity, followed by any (brief!) exposition answering the who, what, when, and where of what’s happening in the story. A peek into the life of the protagonist before the story gets under way gives us an idea of the “normal world,” before that world is disrupted by the story action. This first sequence then ends with the inciting incident or point of attack: the thing that happens that disrupts the normal world of the story and encourages the protagonist to take action.
At this point, the protagonist attempts to reestablish the “normal world” and correct the disruption introduced by the inciting incident. But the hero fails, and is then faced with an even worse plight. It is in this sequence that the dramatic question of the story is posed. In a traditional three-act structure, the end of this sequence would correspond to the end of Act One.
The hero now tries to resolve the problem that’s been presented. Exposition left over from Sequence One is often brought out here. By now the hero is locked into the situation and can’t just walk away: the stakes are too high and there’s a lot more to lose now. He considers the problem vis-à-vis his options and presents a hopeful-looking solution. But….
The hero’s solution from the last sequence fails at the beginning of this one, and a new and greater obstacle to success is introduced (in accordance with the principle of “rising action” in a story). The hero then goes on to make one or more desperate attempts to restore the status quo of the “normal world.” The end of this sequence represents the midpoint or crisis, and brings with it a major revelation or reversal. The reader should be guessing now at how the story turns out. The midpoint crisis often reflects the ending: in a tragedy (the hero fails/dies), then this is a low-point for the hero. In a comedy (the hero wins/lives), this sequence often ends with a small victory.
Here, the protagonist deals with the aftermath of the mid-point crisis. And this is also where most stories bog down. Often, a strong subplot is needed to take over for a while, to maintain reader interest. You’ll still want rising action, but often new characters are introduced, or new opportunities are discovered in the fifth sequence.
In a traditional Three-Act Structure, this would be the end (or near the end) of the Second Act. The sequence builds tension to the second, greater crisis, returning from Subplot Land with a bullet. The greatest obstacle, the last option, the highest/lowest moment and the end of the main story tension all come in this sequence. The hero has done all he can reasonably do, yet the outcome is still in doubt. The obvious answer might be exactly opposite to how the story really ends.
Here is where we usually see a last-minute plot twist. Any new tension is established fully and briefly, along with any necessary exposition. The apparent solution of the central dramatic question from the last sequence shows its weaknesses here. The stakes are raised, and the effect of any long-dangling plot thread may be felt. The action is simpler and fast, with rapid, short scenes and no elaborate set-ups. The story is seen in a new way, and the protagonist needs to change or reverse his goals. The twist (if there is one) comes at the end of this sequence or the top of the next one.
Now the story is hell-bent for leather and a final resolution of the story question. Clarity about the consequences is essential. Clip the yellow wire and all will be well. Clip the red wire, and the hero, his love interest, his best pal, and the rest of the Tri-State Area will be nuclear barbecue.
For more idea- and character-driven stories, we can still have complex emotions and deep philosophical ideas in this concluding sequence, but clarity is key and the story tension must be resolved, for good or ill.
The final resolution should be considered in relation to hints from the first and second crisis moments in Sequences Four and Six, and any remaining subplots from Sequence Five should be wrapped up. There may be a brief epilogue, and/or you may recall some element from the first sequence here to “close the circle” of the hero’s story. Alternately, there may be a lead-in to another story if you’re working in a series.
And that’s all there is to the Eight-Sequence Structure.
What about you? Do you structure your novel beforehand? What method do you use to get that draft done? Let me know in the Comments.