Book Review: Screenwriting – The Sequence Approach (Paul Joseph Gulino)

The premise of this book is that big films are made up of little films called sequences, each lasting 8 to 15 minutes. Each sequence consists of three parts: setup/beginning/situation, development/rising action/complication, and partial resolution.  Each partial resolution creates anticipation as it “opens up new issues, which in turn become the subject of subsequent sequences.”

The book explores the following four tools used to build anticipation and or tension:

  1.  Telegraphing/Pointing/Advertising: Common examples are appointments and deadlines as well as preparations (ex: packing a suitcase). This also serves the important function of helping orient the audience as to where they are in the journey.
  2. Dangling cause: Expressions of intent in which the effect is not felt until later. Common examples include warnings, treats, statements of hopes or fears, and predictions.
  3. Dramatic irony: Occurs when the audience knows more than one (or more) of the characters and is waiting to see what happens when the truth is revealed.  Can create suspense or comedy.
  4. Dramatic tension:  Occurs when neither the audience nor the characters know how a problem will be resolved.

A typical film has 8 sequences (2 in Act I, 4 in Act II, and 2 in Act III) serving the following function:

  1. Act I
    1. Sequence A
      • Open with an exterior long shot or interior close up to orient the audience.
      • Hook the audience immediately by rousing curiosity with a puzzle
      • Give a sense of what the protagonist’s life would be like if the events that led to the story had not interfered. This includes the “rules of the world” so that the audience knows what is possible, what to hope for, and what to be afraid of.
      • End with an instability that forces the protagonist to respond to an inciting incident
    2. Sequence B
      • Whatever solution the protagonist tries to solve the inciting incident from Sequence A should lead to an even bigger problem that frames the dramatic question that shapes the rest of the film
  2. Act II
    1. Sequence C
      • First attempt to solve the problem that arose at the end of Sequence B
      • Note that you can either (a) solve the problem but in the process create a new, bigger problem, or (b) make the old problem even worse
      • Here, the protagonist often switches from reluctant hero to driven hero (or vice-versa)
    2. Sequence D
      • Offer a glimpse of the actual resolution of the dramatic question or its mirror opposite. The protagonist may be able to choose freedom, but does not do so for an important reason.
    3. Sequence E
      • Opportunity to introduce new characters and/or subplots
    4. Sequence F
      • Often a low point, but could also be a significant reframing of the main tension
  3. Act III
    1. Sequence G
      • Increasingly high stakes, often at a frenzied pace leading to an all hope is lost moment
    2. Sequence H
      • Final resolution often triggered by a major twist
      • All instability must be conclusively settled and all subplots must be closed. This is the “and they lived happily ever after” part. (Or, unhappily ever after).

Other useful tips:

-          “Coincidences that hurt a protagonist tend to work in drama, and are viewed suspiciously if they help.”

-          “… it must seem as though what the movie is what happens despite what the characters want or expect.”

-          “Human nature being what it is, chances are the man will do the easiest thing first, and only if that fails will he try a more difficult course of action.” Often characters have no other choice, or a choice between the lesser of two evils.

-          Try to “smuggle” exposition (background information the audience needs to know) as a subtext of underlying action (arguments where people attack and defend, persuasion, seduction, reassurance) and NOT as an explanation

-          Create believability through foreshadowing (which the author refers to as the use of motifs that are later paid-off)

-          Audiences occasionally need “recapitulation scenes” to review important information they may have missed that sets up future action

-          Character arc = In the face of major challenge, the protagonist must give up her (known) want to obtain her (unknown) true need. Only then will she realize the fundamental truth that is the theme of the story.

-          Subplots have three main functions: (a) plot function – to help or hinder the protagonist, (b) thematic function – to show variations on the theme by presenting alternative ways of solving problems, and (c) structural function – to retard/delay the main plot and thereby intensify it

McKinsey Presentation Tips – Gene Zelazny at Wharton

In the Spring of 2001, McKinsey presentation guru Gene Zelazny shared public speaking insights gleaned over his forty-plus year career (video at bottom of post).  Here, I have summarized his very well structured tips:



1. The only thing that matters at the end of your presentation is the answer to the question: Did I accomplish my objective.

2. Nervousness is natural and should be viewed as a sign of respect for your audience.  Accept that you will make mistakes.


I. Define the situation

A. Objective: Why are you presenting? What do you reasonably hope to accomplish? What do you expect from your audience?

  B. Audience: Who are the key decision makers with authority to say yes or no? How interested do you expect them to be in your recommendation? How knowledgeable are they about your topic? Why would they say no?

  C. Facts/Message

  D. Scope: Your material should be no more comprehensive than the minimum needed to accomplish your objective or the time your have with your audience.

  E. Media/Facilities: Use the simplest, most-appropriate tools for the task.

II. Design the presentation

A. Structure the story

1. Body: Do not chronologically recreate the months long discovery process you endured to find the recommendation. Start with the overall context (see II.A.2) and use the body for support.  The exception is when you have an audience that will be hostile to your recommendation and they need to be taken there more slowly.

2. Introduction: You want to light a fire in the first minute.  Use the PIP (purpose + importance + preview) approach.

3. Ending: Repeat your recommendations. Give your action program to turn your overall recommendation into reality. This includes: people responsible, time required, costs, etc.  Last, finish with Next Steps.  Note that the next steps should not be premeditated; instead, document the next steps that emerge from the discussion.

B. Sketch the storyboard

1. Visuals (based on Zelazny’s book: Say it With Charts)

a. Select the chart form

b. Write titles that ARE the message/point you want your audience to know

c. Use graphical treatment (ex: contrast) to draw attention to your message

(“Take responsibility for your point of view.”)

2. So-what

3. Transitions

C. Produce visual aids & handouts

III. Deliver the presentation

A. Rehearse: Once alone in a room out loud. Once in front of three or four constructive colleagues.

B. Set up the facilities: including physical setup, room layout, lighting, etc.

C. Set the tone

1. Competence

2. Conviction: You must believe in what you are recommending or someone else should present.

3. Enthusiasm/energy

D. Apply delivery skills

1. Verbal: natural, conversational word choice

2. Vocal: expand your range

3. Visual: open body language, natural gestures, and effective eye-contact (FYI: It is OK to occasionally refer to notes, but put them down when you are not referring to them.)

E. Work with visual aids: If your slide is complex, you will likely want to get close to it and point out the elements you are describing.

F. Handle questions: It is appropriate to say “I don’t know.”

1. Try to anticipate the three most difficult questions you will get from the most difficult people in the audience.

2. Listen the the question completely

3. If the question has multiple parts, it is OK to write down the parts

4. Pause to think

5. Repeat the question only if people were not likely to have heard it. Do not rephrase the question unless you must and, if so, you need to ask for permission to do so.

6. Assume everyone is interested in the answer so balance the eye-contact with the entire audience. (Tip: If you want to move on from the questioner, finish your eye contact with someone else.)

7. If you get a very difficult question, try to avoid saying, “I’ll get back to you later.”  Instead, it is OK to say, “I don’t know.”  Or, even better, consider reaching out to the rest of the audience to see if someone else has the answer!


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