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What's the Difference Between a Scene and a Sequence?

20 January 2016


 January 20, 2016
Category: Uncategorized

For years, I had a vague idea of what constituted a scene. It seemed to be a moment in a book or film where people talked, and maybe, something happened. I would write these vague “scenes” hoping they were doing what they were supposed to.


Then I heard the word “sequence” and thought, “That must be a bunch of scenes linked together!” (I was right)


Still, these smaller building blocks of my larger story were very mysterious. Some scenes were long, and some short, but as to what they actually were, and how they created sequences, I couldn’t be sure. Consequently, when I had a problem scene or plot point, I had no idea how to fix it.


Here’s the most common definition of a scene:  A unified piece of action, in one location, with a beginning, middle and end.


Here’s the most common definition of a sequence:  A series of scenes with a beginning, middle and end.


So, in breaking them down, we can see that particular scenes have their own three part structure, and when linked together, can create larger sections of plot that also have three part structure.


For example, say you have a scene in your novel where your heroine finds a key in a gardening shed. She looks at the markings on the key and sees that it is for a safety deposit box at the local bank. This is a scene– it’s a unified piece of action (her finding the key) in one location (the garden shed.)


But let’s say this scene is part of a larger sequence in your story. Here’s a possible outline of the scenes in this sequence…

  1. She arrives home to her recently deceased mother’s house, so she can sell it. She discovers her mom was a hoarder.
  2. She tries going through all her mother’s possessions, but gives up. She only wants one thing.
  3. She goes upstairs to her mother’s jewelry box and takes her grandmother’s necklace. While she puts it in her pocket, she hears something in the backyard.
  4. She goes out to the yard. The garden shed door is open and she moves toward it.
  5. Inside the garden shed, she finds a key to a safe deposit box at the local bank.
  6. She goes to the bank, opens the safety deposit box and discovers a birth certificate for a child she never knew her mother had. She has a sister.


This is a sequence. See how it’s made up of individual scenes, each moving us forward to the next scene (creating cause and effect?) The beginning is the woman arriving at the house and deciding she can’t go through all her mom’s stuff. The middle is her taking the necklace, hearing something in the yard, going out to the shed and finding the key. The end is when she discovers the birth certificate and realizes she has a sister.


Again, each specific scene in the sequence moves the story forward, and the sequence itself has its own internal structure and carries the plot into a whole new arena–“Oh my God, I have a sister!”


Take Action!  Just by understanding how scenes and sequences work, you can start looking at your story structure and strengthening these building blocks. Do your scenes have their own beginnings, middles and ends? Does each scene lead to the next (create cause and effect/move the story forward?) Do you have larger sequences that use these scenes to create even bigger turning points in your plot?


Storytelling is really a series of smaller structured moments that create larger structures. Scene, to sequence, to overall story.


Remember, the magic number in writing is three. Set up, development, resolution. Beginning, middle, end.


Happy Scene and Sequence writing!


xo Pat

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