You’ve read my thoughts on links, yes? Links are the bones of your story.
Now it’s time to put some flesh on them. And, in this slightly tortured metaphor, that flesh is made of, er, sequences…
Links nail your film’s purpose. They’re its narrative spine.
Sequences are your film’s detail, its texture, its substance.
Sequences should also be stories in their own right. More on this under ‘Internal Story’ below.
A strong sequence has two main elements:
- A (global) story reason for being in your film
- An internal story of its own
This may sound obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget:
You need to know what each sequence in your film aims to achieve, and why it is at that particular point in the film.
If you don’t know, your audience won’t. In fact, even if you do know, your audience still may not. Worse still, it’s possible to think you know – and to be totally, totally wrong.
So let’s start by clarifying two points:
- If a sequence is in your film because it’s interesting, or because it’s beautiful, or only now possible, or because it’s been there from the start of the project – then you need to find a better reason. You need a story reason.
- If a sequence is located at a particular point in your film because the film’s emotional or visual rhythm demands it, or because that’s where it feels right, or because it didn’t belong anywhere else – then you need to find a better reason. You need a story reason.
‘Story reason’ may seem like a slippery concept. After all, different people mean different things by ‘story’. Click on these links to find more on what a story is – and, just as importantly, what it isn’t .
If you’d rather stick on this page, then let me just say this.
Interest, beauty, narrative voice, emotional rhythm, intuition, shock value, and a host of other things are not the same as Story.
Really, they’re not. A story is this:
- a mission which the audience can associate with (the beginning)
- with a defined, measurable outcome (the end)
- which we arrive at via a series of set-backs or unexpected changes of direction (the middle) all of which point continually towards the outcome
If you have sequences that are not part of your story, then no matter how interesting / exciting / lyrical / moving / amazing they are, no matter if they fit perfectly with the film’s emotional tone or narrative voice, they simply don’t belong.
Think of it this way. If you could take the sequence out, and the film’s basic narrative is unaffected (its beginning, its twisty-turny-but-aimed-at-an-outcome middle, and its end) – then what is that sequence accomplishing? What is its story reason for being there?
If you don’t find a story reason for each sequence, your audience will complain that the film feels adrift or unfocussed. They will wonder where they are going, and why. They may not identify that a particular sequence doesn’t belong in the film, but that doesn’t matter; it’s still the cause of the problem.
This doesn’t mean you should throw away the sequence. It just means you need to work harder to give it a meaningful function.
It’s easy to get attached to material for all the wrong reasons.
We end up thinking a sequence works because we want it to work. But your audience aren’t interested in your production backstory. They couldn’t give a damn why you want the sequence there. They only care about their experience.
If you’re trying to tell a story (as opposed to making a magazine show, say), then everything in your film needs to feel like it’s part of that story. Even if the content is actually a sidebar, you need to make it feel like it belongs.
Each sequence should set up a strong desire to move on to the next phase of the journey. That’s a sequence’s job.
When the sequence ends, you need to feel that you are a step closer to achieving the film’s overall mission.
Sure, it’s smoke and mirrors. But if you want your film to really sing, then smoke and mirrors are vital. Learn how to use them to maximum effect.
Once you know how your sequence drives the film’s story forward, you can move onto the detail.
A good sequence has a similar structure to the film as a whole. In this case:
- Surprising process / result
(In fact, documentary stories are like fractals; they have a similar structure at every level of detail. The whole film behaves similarly to each of its 5 or 6 ‘big ideas’, and so does every sequence. Even individual paragraphs have a similar structure – see “The Power Of Three” on the hints and tips page.)
The main difference between a sequence-level story and a whole film is that you only need one twist / set-back / surprise in the middle, not a series of them. But just like a whole story, the sequence needs to set up an expectation, then deliver a surprise, then conclude by reflecting back on what has changed since the sequence began.
Unlike a whole story, within a sequence your set-up and pay-off are actually links – they pick up from what came before, and deliver you to what comes next.
This is good news, because it gives you huge flexibility. It allows you to vary how you start and finish your sequences. Perhaps you don’t need that pay-off – because it’s basically part of the set-up for the next sequence. Perhaps you don’t need a separate set-up because the conclusion to the previous sequence makes it obvious where we’re going and why. Perhaps, since your film’s story is now crystal clear throughout (it is crystal clear now – isn’t it?), so you can get creative and have a junction that’s driven entirely by music, not by words.
Mix it up a little. Have fun.
But never lose sight of the sequence’s story reason for being there – and never forget that each sequence must have an internal story of its own.