By Arun Fulara. Posted on July 27, 2015
"I am a HUGE proponent of the concept of sequencing as the hardest thing to perfect in your writing, and is the key ingredient that all "great" screenplays have in common. Some might have better character or better dialogue while having a little more weakness here or there etc, but if the sequencing isn't right, nothing else will really elevate it from "good" to "great."
How long was the film 48 Hours? Was it two days long? Of course not. But it felt like a story that transpired over two days, even though we saw less than two hours out of those forty-eight, right? The choice of which moments from the time period in your story to use, the choice of scenes that best -- BEST -- tell your story, and the order in which you arrange them, is sequencing. That's overly simplified, but not much and it's really the bare-bones explanation that works.
You don't tell every single thing that happens in your entire story, you select when to start, when to stop, and what moments and people etc are the elements necessary for the story you want to tell, and the selection of different moments would tell a different story even if the "plot" was the same. And when you arrange those selected scenes together, what do you put right up alongside this or that scene? How do you not only pick the right scenes, but know just how to arrange them so they speak to one another, so that the combination of what THIS scene says and what THAT scene says becomes something bigger and deeper and more meaningful that speaks to the entire story?
That's what sequencing achieves, and let me give you what may be the single greatest example of sequencing in film, and the example that was taught to me years ago that in one instant gave me complete insight into the nature of sequencing and why it is the way a screenplay truly speaks.
In Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, there's the scene near the beginning when primitive humans have learned to use a piece of bone as a tool, to dig and to kill and to dominate other living things with. The ape-man hurls that bone into the air, and what happens? It turns into a spaceship.
The choice of the image of that bone in the sky, or the image of that spaceship, each have their own meaning and each are symbolic of man's journey toward greater knowledge, but when you put that bone alongside that spaceship, you get brilliance. Because what is that? It's the summation of human history.
The film starts with early humans huddled in a cave, dominated by their environment and weak and starving and afraid of the darkness. Then came knowledge, the simple realization of a tool and how to use it, and man had learned the crucial step of taking that tool and combining it with aggression, and now man was no longer dominated by his environment, he was learning to dominate the environment himself.
And that's how we got to space. Nothing else need be said. A lesser filmmaker would have gone from the bone to the first human settlements and then to one war and then another war, and then on and on with a montage of history showing the same message over and over -- man learns to use aggression to dominate his environment, man dominates the environment more, man dominates his environment more, etc etc etc.
Not Kubrick. Because he knows how film speaks, he knows the language is found in picking this scene, picking that scene, and placing them side by side in such a way that magic happens. The bone becomes the spaceship, two simple images that alone had no such power to awe us, but together they said everything we needed to know to get from the dawn of man on Earth to mankind in outer space.
For a more recent example of this, look at The Dark Knight -- Batman, in search of the Joker, tosses the crime boss Maroni off a fire escape and breaks his leg(s). Intercut with that sequence of events is District Attorney Harvey Dent holding a loaded gun to a suspect's head and flipping a coin, threatening to shoot the man if he doesn't answer questions. Batman learns from the mob boss that nobody is afraid of Batman anymore, because of his rules -- he has become ineffective as a symbol now, and his presence in Gotham seems at this point to be causing worse suffering and death, and he doesn't know how to combat it. So he decides he must pass the torch to Dent, a man without a mask who can be a new hero to the city. But Dent is basically torturing someone, and when Batman arrives (fresh from his own torture of a criminal) he admonishes Dent, telling him he cannot do such things as a hero who represents the citizenry.
Batman's actions alongside Dent's, coupled with the mobster's warning and Batman's warning to Dent, combine for a powerful bit of storytelling. Alone, each scene has its internal meaning, but together like that they say more than they ever could alone, and in turn speak to broader themes.
So whatever else stands out in different great screenplays, I think the one ingredient that is in the mix and makes everything else work, is sequencing. Without good sequencing, the other ingredients will lack the right flavor, and your story won't find it's true voice.
Non-linear storytelling definitely involves an added layer (or a few added layers, actually) to the creativity involved in sequencing.
I've only written a couple of film screenplays that use mild non-linear elements, but I'm working on an original TV series that actually tells the entire story (over several years) both in linear fashion starting at the beginning, and backward from the final moments (years later). So I'm writing the narrative in two directions, basically, carefully selecting reveals for the backward sequencing in order to avoid giving TOO much away, and to make each episode's opening flash-forward revelation align with the introduction of related elements, characters, information, etc. And I tell you, it's VERY hard and frustrating at times.
Another series I wrote is set in both the past and the present, so each episode is mostly in the past, but each Act ends with a short scene (or sequence) in today's time, showing where the characters are now and how it relates to their past. That's a simpler process, since really it just involved me outlining the story I wanted to tell, and then establishing a decades-long sequence of events, most of the key moments being during a specific decade/era and then the rest mostly being during the present-day (or rather, the 2000s).
Then I had to pick my sequence for the series, which basically involved matching corresponding events from past and present, a process made easier because the point of it is to show a series of historical events that parallel modern events, so at the outset I already had my outline of key events and narrative from each period that essentially correspond with one another.
Really, then, this latter example was just like sequencing for a standard story, except the timeline is longer and when you select those scenes and moments to string side-by-side and into clusters etc, there's an added bit of attention to the way they speak to one another, since you've got that extra layer of relevance and representation going on between past and present, for example. But it wasn't too difficult to construct, since it only has an appearance of being non-linear when I assembled the parts -- the story itself is entirely linear, and from one perspective it's being laid out in a linear fashion but in two distinct pieces. The viewer will merely be witnessing two stories that overlap in relevance, and so to demonstrate the relevance they are seeing the stories at the same time, in an alternating fashion.
I find that it makes it easier if I play with the non-linear elements in a way that gives me a linear context. You are assembling a puzzle in front of the viewer, yes? But you didn't create that puzzle one piece at a time, unassembled. You first created the singular, assembled picture, didn't you? Then you broke it up into those individual pieces, selected out the pieces that -- when assembled to produce segments of your full picture -- will reveal enough of the full picture for the audience to see and understand and experience it as a whole. So that table filled with broken-up puzzle pieces, which you begin to assemble slowly, piece by piece, revealing more and more of this and that part of the picture, is known to you and you are able to assemble it because you've already seen the big picture. The big picture is how it began.
That's the way I approach non-linear storytelling. First I know what the big picture looks like, or at least enough of it that the gaps and missing pieces are left where I know I can afford the empty space to be filled in with spontaneous inspiration or what a network wants changed or for other writers to provide plenty of stand-alone extra stories etc. I have my through-line and I know enough about the puzzle that I can then carve it up into pieces and mix them all up, and maybe assemble the puzzle in a random order that first provides just a bit of the center, to get that core going. Then I'll reach out to dabble around the edges a bit, showing just one far side's boundaries.
The audience comes to understand the central element first, then those boundaries and outlying parts to the story that may not be immediately, obviously relevant to the center, but they know it will come to define the limits and reach inward to enclose the full picture. Reveal slowly, deliberately, and have some surprises thrown into the mix -- that big empty space above the main character that you thought would be full of sky or friends starts to take another form, and you see an unexpected image of danger falling toward them, for example.
I know I'm pushing the comparison a bit far, but the puzzle is exactly the way I like to think about non-linear storytelling. It helps conceptualize it, I feel, and to understand the different ways to build that image for viewers. Any storytelling could be compared to the puzzle, obviously, but I think it works best for non-linear because we all understand that puzzle building sometimes requires stepping back and finding those non-linear construction moments, when you leave the big piece you were building and start to assemble another portion not yet directly connected, or you move out to the edge for a while, to get your bearings.
And another advantage to the puzzle comparison is that it clarifies an important point about non-linear storytelling: use it when you NEED to or when it's the BEST way to assemble and reveal your story. For example, regarding non-linear storytelling for a tale that involves an unexpected previous bit of information that you are trying to build to with the big reveal, it makes sense to avoid fully constructing the puzzle image in one long, big, unbroken assembling. You want to have that moment when you've got several different areas partially assembled, enough that something is there and the viewer can almost but not quite fill int the blank spots in their mind, and then you reach in with those missing final pieces and get that great "ah ha!" reaction.
It's the "wow moment" you're building to, and non-linear storytelling works best when on some level there is the wow moment. It doesn't have to be a literal twist ending or something quite so major. Some reveals and wow moments are indeed a sort of gasp-inducing final piece of the puzzle -- like Memento's shocking revelation, that is in fact the beginning of the story since it's told in reverse. But other wow moments might just be that moment when it all comes down to the theme or the fulfillment of the arc that defines the narrative -- like Jules in the diner scene at the end of Pulp Fiction.
Had the latter film been entirely in linear fashion, the Jules arc would have come full circle in only the second portion/chapter of the film, and we'd have ended the film with Butch's final resolution of his arc, which would have all been far less fulfilling to viewers because it loses a significant element -- the wow moment. When Jules has his revelation and chooses to speak directly against all of the violence and dishonesty from the preceding scenes of the film, putting it squarely into a simple Biblical narrative about the weak who are preyed upon by the tyranny of evil men, it makes us stop and say "wow" because we didn't expect this, did we?
Likewise, Memento's tale really only works when you tell it backward, right? On the DVD, you have an option to watch the film in chronological order -- and how does it work? Not that it's a bad story by any stretch, but in terms of TELLING that story, it's clear that the best option is, without any doubt, reverse order, right?
So the puzzle example applies and clarifies this, because if you imagine a puzzle that's an image of your family, how far into assembling that puzzle do you need to get before it's pretty obvious what it is? Is there any advantage to assembling it in different, initially unconnected parts, to keep the big picture away from the viewers? Probably not.
Consider this example further. If this image of your family includes one member who has something terribly wrong with them, but they are surrounded by a happy, supportive family, you'd want to assemble it how? By first showing that member with the problem, and then revealing that smiling family, building that image of the support network. If there is an uncle who is glaring sideways at him/her, you may reveal that uncle right after showing us the person with the problem, so we see adversity before seeing the family rally around him/her; or you might wish to wait, and to reveal that glaring uncle later, as an obstacle that arises to the family harmony.
But what if this portrait instead has a smiling family, but some of the smiles are less happy, and one woman is not smiling at all, but instead looks off to the side at something unseen? What if at the edge of the image, there's this one person who has something wrong with them? What if the woman sits beside a man who is her husband, and in the distance behind the family there's a small tree house? Perhaps the person at the edge of the image is staring longingly at the tree house, and the woman is watching this person with an unhappy gaze while her husband doesn't notice, smiling and oblivious.
Now, how do you assemble THAT puzzle picture? Do you start at the tree house, then go to the woman and husband and person off-image, then the rest of the family, all in a linear fashion? Or do you begin with the unhappy woman, show her unknowing husband, and then show the person off-image, and only THEN begin to assemble the tree house in the distance, alternating between fully filling in the tree house and the person off-image, as you also fill in the family life around that unhappy woman?
That's a puzzle you have to think about a lot more, right? You may wish to use the non-linear storytelling, to reveal elements slowly and out of order. Knowing when to use non-linear storytelling is important, because many writers just assume that non-linear storytelling is right for their film and try to shoehorn their tale into a chronological fashion that's not suited to telling their tale. A lot of new writers and filmmakers seem to do this, assuming there is inherent artistic superiority to non-linear storytelling or using it as a gimmick that overshadows the story they are trying to tell.
But if you imagine your story as apuzzle that you are building to reveal the image to another person, it helps to understand how to best put that picture together and when you are better off sticking to a traditional reveal as opposed to something more non-traditional.
Picking the right puzzle pieces is also helpful as a comparison, I feel, because it helps visualize the need to really carefully select the best scenes that will get across the point and the story. For a simple imagea of George Washington on a one-dollar bill, how many portions of Washington's face and the body of the dollar bill do you think you need to convey that image to the viewer? Probably very few. What if it's a one-dollar bill beside a note saying, "For services rendered, and worth every penny," on a table by a bed? Imagine that photo on a big jigsaw puzzle. Now imagine which portions of that image are the bare minimum that you need to have put together, in bits and pieces, for someone looking at that puzzle to get the idea of what the full image is and get the point?
In your mind's eye, can you see the mostly unassembled puzzle, with Washington's eye and a part of his wig plus one corner of the bill declaring "$" while the rest is missing entirely? Can you see the note, just two square corners visible and then the body of the text, a few letters missing and most of the paper around the text gone? And can you see the edge of a pillow, the ruffled covers hanging over one part of the edge of that bed, and nothing more? Only a few scattered portions of this puzzle assembled on a big table, but you can see the message and the image, and you can imagine what happened the night before and the people who might be involved, yes? What if around the edges, the corners of the puzzle, you can see a single long flat edge of the puzzle that reveals a motel door slightly ajar, a woman's foot lingering as the rest of her is invisible outside the door? And what if the other side of the image, down near the bottom corner of the puzzle in just a few assembled pieces, there is the bloody hand of a dead man, hanging limp over the side of the bed?
Less than half of the individual pieces of that puzzle would be necessary, revealing only a few portions and corners here and there of the objects and places in the entire image, in order to convey the whole setting, yes? You tell that scene with only the parts most needed to demonstrate what happened, with the most interesting and mood-setting selection of puzzle pieces to show us. You might choose Washington's eye, staring out at us like a silent witness to whatever carnage too place in the motel room. Or maybe you choose to reveal just his mouth, angled so that it appears there's an ever-so-slight knowing smile on his lips.
The choices you make in which pieces to show us of a scene, a moment, a day, a life, these have to be placed and revealed with attention to how you want that image to open up for us, and the more you can convey with less pieces, the better. Less is more, right? Which is why non-linear storytelling sometimes is the wrong choice -- sometimes, only showing us that one portion and time period and perspective, in a way eluding to the other missing segments, is far more interesting. Sometimes we actually learn more and come to understand your theme and characters better when you DON'T show us what happened between that woman and troubled off-image person long ago in the tree house. That they have a secret history together, and that it pains her to see him/her now, is perhaps enough, perhaps MORE than if you had shown us the secret. The subtext, usually, tells us much more than the outright reveal.
There are lots of other examples, 8 1/2 probably being among the most obvious, in which non-linear storytelling and reveals in fact work wonderfully and are the best option. I am a fan of non-linear storytelling that's done well, and some of my favorite films and filmmakers make frequent use of non-linear storytelling.
Christopher Nolan is among my favorite directors and writers, and his films Following and Memento are two of the finest examples of very non-traditional sequencing at its best and most effective. Those are stories in which the non-linear sequencing is a full part of the entire conceptualization OF the story and events themselves. It goes deeper than just the reveal and the "ah ha!" and the wow moments, it gets to the point that in those films the non-linear sequence wasn't just the best way to tell the stories -- non-linear sequencing became the active way in which we understood the narrative. The character arcs only existed in a fundamental way through those choices in non-linear sequencing.
And that, my friend, is non-linear sequencing at its best, the purest example of the way sequencing is the language through which film speaks to us."
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