Sequences and Setpieces

So if you follow this blog, you might know that I have developed a lot of very methodical, analytical systems for tackling different aspects of writing, but I'm still working on a system to help me get through the first draft.  Last week, fellow muse Veronica sent me a lifeline when I really needed one- a link to Alexandra Sokoloff's wonderful blog which features screenwriting tricks for authors.  Alexandra talks a lot about how writers can use the three act structure used in movies to craft a well plotted novel.  I'm familiar with the three act structure, and even some of the components within it- the inciting incident, the call to action, complications, reversals, the climactic scene-  but Alexandra was able to break it down further, providing me with a structure that seemed manageable and clicked with my linear brain.

I set to work plotting using the index card method.  This is a freewheeling brainstorming session where you just start jotting down ideas for scenes within your novel, one per card.  At this point you're not trying to organize the scenes in any order, you're just brainstorming ideas.  I always start every novel with a few of the major scenes in my head, so I wrote those down first.  Then I started imagining others.  What conflicts to the hero and heroine face that keeps them apart?  What plot problems do they solve together? 

Once I had a fair number of scenes on cards, I started playing with order, moving them around on a giant corkboard.  After two days work, here's what I had-

As you can see, there's lots of scenes lined up in a neat order at the beginning.  There's another neat row of scenes that connects the dots at the end.  But the middle was still- murky.

Don't worry, I had a detailed synopsis of the entire plot by the next day.  How?  By thinking of the book in terms of sequences and setpieces.  Turns out the three act structure isn't just three acts, it's really four.  And within those four acts are eight sequences of three chapters each (2 sequences per act).  And each of those sequences revolves around a key location or event that all of the scenes relate to.  Each sequence leads to a setpiece, one of the key scenes in your novel. This made perfect sense to me.  I didn't need to come up with 30 scenes at once to fill my murky middle.  Thank the heavens for that because just writing about having to come up with 30 scenes to fill a gaping hole in the middle of the book is making me nervous.  Instead of one big, overwhelming middle, I just needed to figure out the key scenes and the build the sequence that would lead up to it.

I am going to paraphrase what I found most useful, but you can do your own crash course in plotting by reading Alexandra's website.

Imagine a novel as four acts:

Act 1- we meet the characters, discover the problem the main character must solve, and see the character initially resist getting involved, but ultimately come to the point of no return where the character must take action.  This section should make up approximately 25% of your novel, and may include  two sequences of three chapters each, with each sequence leading to its own revelation or mini-climax.  The sequences will likely include a primary location or event that the scenes relate to or take place in.

I realized I already use sequences in my writing, I just never thought of them in that way before.  In BANDIA there is an opening sequence involving a series of scenes that take place at a party, a party where the main character's life is altered by a series of events and chance meetings.  In SPIES, I have a shorter sequence that takes place around a surveillance of a cheating husband that leads to a discovery of a much more personal nature.

By the end of the second sequence of Act 1, there should be no turning back for the character.  Indeed, this setpiece is often referred to as the point of no return.  By this point, the reader should have a good idea of what the book is going to be about.

Act 2, part 1- the next 25% of your novel is the first part of Act 2.  This is always the trickiest part of the book for me. This is where the character takes active steps toward solving the book's primary problem, but is thwarted by obstacles and failures (hopefully involving the antagonist).  In this section, you might have a training sequence (think the Karate Kid) or a series of scenes where the main characters are gathered (think the Blues Brothers or even the A-Team).  This a great place to plant things that will pay off later, such as important knowledge or skills your character will need in the climax.

For my romantic plots, this part of the book will showcase the growing awareness between the hero and heroine, while still moving the mystery plot forward.  The climax at the end of the second sequence of Act 2, part 1, is the midpoint of the book.  At this point, the setpiece should be a key revelation that changes the main character in some way.  Ms. Solokoff describes a common variation of this scene in screenwriter vernacular as "sex at sixty," because it's not uncommon for the change to be the main character realizing he or she has romantic feelings toward the love interest (60 is the midpoint of a 120 page screenplay).  I've dubbed it "kiss at 150" for my purposes.

Act 2, part 2- the next 25% of your novel is a continuation of act 2, with escalating conflict, bigger obstacles and bigger failures as your character hurtles towards act 3.  Here, it is not uncommon for the main character to fail so badly that it appears all is lost, leading to a crisis of faith.  Act 2 usually ends with the main character regrouping and coming up with a new plan of attack.

Act 3- the final 20-25% of your book is the final showdown in which your character solves the primary problem or changes goals.  The first sequence in act 3 often involves getting to the showdown in time to prevent something bad from happening, and the second sequence will usually be the showdown itself. 

And ta-dah!  You have a book!

I know what you're thinking.  Won't my writing feel formulaic if I follow this structure?  That's what I thought too. But they say you should know the rules before you break them, right?  And you don't have to follow this structure exactly.  There's lots of room to deviate.  I found it extremely helpful when I needed to plot a book in a hurry.  I'll use it again whenever I need a jump start when faced with a blank page.  When you have no idea what comes next- try thinking about your book in terms of acts, sequences and setpieces.


FANTASTIC post! I'm a huge fan of Alexandra Sokoloff and actually break things down form myself using a complications worksheet that gives me questions to answer for each part of the book. The thing I never grasped until recently was how to tie all that to location, and how important it is to maintain the movement by using those setpieces.

Love the way you use teh index cards for this!


Not only helpful, but EXTREMELY helpful with blow-by-blow of using index cards and also laying out the novel in 4 acts. Sorry, low-firing (grammatically challenged) synapses due to sleep deprivation from son with pinkeye (gah!) and new kitten's midnight antics. Does Calgon still exist?

I've never seen this breakdown, and have looked into structure quite a bit - I find it fascinating, especially because I'm a plotter, too. This is not only fun, but useful, too!

Glad you found this helpful. I feel like I'm FINALLY starting to get a handle on the moving pieces that make up a story. I feel another checklist coming on...

Sometimes it is just one sentence that is the gem one needs to make a work in progress, or section thereof, to click. I found it here. Thanks.

Oh my gosh, this was so helpful! Thank you! I have been struggling with plotting for a while lately and have found that to be a problem because I have been more of a character driven plot but then sometimes I dont know where my characters need to go next! This helps a lot! Thanks! :)

Glad you found this post! Happy plotting!

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