5 Questions About Scene Sequences

In many ways story structure is a fractal pattern. The same patterns we find on the macro level of the entire story arc also repeat themselves, within an ever-tightening spiral, from scene structure all the way down to sentence structure. Somewhere in between story and scene, we find scene sequences.

Within the story’s larger narrative, scene sequences bring a series of individual scenes together into a distinct narrative section, united by focus, location, and/or theme. Most writers instinctively and effortlessly employ the sequence as a way to execute character goals that require more than a simple one-shot solution. The result is both the opportunity for big set-piece scenes (such as we would usually hope to find at the three major plot points) and/or complex thematic discussions and character evolution.

Screenplay Syd Field

Screenplay by Syd Field (affiliate link)

Not too long ago, Wordplayer Eric Troyer emailed me about scene sequences:

I just finished Syd Field’s book Screenplay. [H]e wrote about something I haven’t seen before in quite the same way: sequences…. I don’t believe you’ve explored this before. If not, it’s something that might interest you. If so, I would love to read about it in your blog some time.

This made me realize the only material I’ve shared on scene sequences was in an interview on someone else’s podcast years ago when my book Structuring Your Novel first came out. Since I couldn’t find that interview anywhere, I decided now would be a good opportunity to talk about this important (and very fun) structural technique.

In his book (which is just as great for novelists as for screenwriters), Field introduces scene sequences by saying:

A sequence is a series of scenes connected by one single idea, usually expressed in a word or two: a wedding; a funeral; a chase; a race; an election; a reunion; an arrival or departure; a coronation; a bank holdup. The context of the sequence is the specific idea that can be expressed in a few words or less.

5 Questions (and Answers) About Scene Sequences

Let’s take a closer look at scene sequences by examining them in light of the following five questions (which were originally asked me in that interview I can’t find).

1. How Does Scene Structure Fit Into the Overall Idea of Story Structure?

Because scene sequences are built upon scenes, let’s first take a quick look at how individual scenes can be structured within the story’s larger narrative.

Although scene structure is an aspect of story structure that is sometimes overlooked, it’s a deeply intuitive concept to grasp. Classic scene structure, as encoded by Dwight V. Swain in his book Techniques of the Selling Writer, breaks scenes down into two parts: scene and sequel.

The “scene” section focuses on the protagonist taking action, while the “sequel” section focuses on the protagonist’s reaction to the outcome of his or her previous actions. The balance between action and reaction is a chief tool for maintaining a story’s credibility and the readers’ suspension of disbelief. For every action, there must be a reaction. For every scene, there must be a sequel.

From there, we can further break scenes and sequels down into three parts apiece.

We break the scene down into:

1. Goal.

2. Conflict.

3. Outcome (or, as I like to specify, Disaster).

And we break the sequel down into:

1. Reaction.

2. Dilemma.

3. Decision.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (affiliate link)

The scene/action half begins with the character enacting a goal. He wants something. This desire is what drives the scene. Without a character goal, the scene will end up meandering and purposeless.

That goal must then be met with conflict. In this sense, conflict is nothing more or less than an obstacle. It’s something preventing the character from reaching the scene goal.

The outcome will be the resolution of that conflict, one way or another. Either the character reaches her goal or she doesn’t. I like to put the emphasis on disaster in the outcome because we don’t want characters to achieve their goals too quickly or too easily. If characters achieve too many scene goals in a row, they will inevitably achieve their ultimate story goal—and the story ends. You don’t want to give characters a straight road to their end goal. You want to push them sideways with scenes that end in disasters or “yes, but…” half-disasters.

Once you’ve hit your character with this scene-ending disaster, you will enter the sequel/reaction phase, in which you must then give the character enough space to react to whatever just happened. How does he feel about what just occurred? What is he thinking?

From there, the character progresses to dilemma. Whatever just happened, whether it seemed good or bad, will create a new problem—a new wrinkle in the character’s plan to reach her overall story goal. She must analyze her new dilemma.

Based on that, she will then make her decision. The decision will translate directly into the next scene’s goal.

If you get the basic structure of your scenes set up just right, every moment in your story is like a train on a track. Every moment perfectly influences the next.

2. What About Scene Sequences? How Do You Take Your Individual Scenes and Build Them One Upon Another to Create an Entire Story?

The scene sequence offers an important progression from the simple idea of scene. When focusing on the microscopic level of individual scene structure, it can be easy to start viewing each scene as a complete unit unto itself. This isn’t necessarily problematic, since the smallest integers of story are what slowly build up to a solid overall story. However, you can get hung up on the small stuff and start feeling like each scene is living in its own little vacuum.

This, of course, isn’t the case at all. Every scene must be integral to the story as a whole.  Every scene must matter to every other scene. Sometimes, you can take this principle a little further to start creating scene sequences.

A scene sequence can be thought of as a little story within the story. A scene sequence will have a unified focus, usually one we can sum up simply. As Field described in the quote at the beginning of the post, your sequence could be about a rescue, a wedding, a trial, or a battle.

Scene sequences should be given a defined beginning, middle, and end. They should have a mini-plot arc of their own.

As an example, think about the sequence in the original Toy Story movie in which the toys Buzz and Woody initially attempt to return to their owner Andy. The sequence begins when they’ve jumped out of Andy’s mom’s van and gotten themselves stranded at the gas station.

Toy Story (1995), Walt Disney Pictures.

From there, we can see a linked chain of several different scenes in which they’re attempting various gambits to catch up with Andy at the restaurant Pizza Planet: they bum a ride on the Pizza Planet truck, they sneak into the restaurant, they spot Andy—and then the sequence ends when they get stuck in the claw machine with the Little Green Men and are “won” by the evil neighbor kid Sid.

Toy Story (1995), Walt Disney Pictures.

Each segment of this sequence is a scene in its own right. The characters are faced with a series of dilemmas, which prompts a series of new goals, which are then met with conflict. First, they have to find a way to get to Pizza Planet, then they have to get into Pizza Planet, then they have to locate Andy, etc.

These multiple related scenes combine into a distinct episode within the story—unified by the overall goal of trying to catch up with Andy while he’s still in town. In essence, the little scenes have become a bigger scene, which when combined with other “bigger scenes” becomes the entire story.

3. How Do Scene Sequences Affect the Major Plot Points?

More often than not, the First Plot Point (25%), Midpoint (50%), and Third Plot Point (75%) will be sequences rather than just standalone scenes. This is because major plot points are major moments within the story. They’re the set-pieces. They’re the big, juicy, interesting moments that readers wait the whole book to get to. You’re rarely going to want to buzz on by those major plot points in a single scene. The plot points will comprise big and involved events. As such, they’re likely to take place over the course of several scenes—a scene sequence.

This is always worth thinking about as you’re planning your major plot points. If an event comes to mind for one of these beats, but it’s something comparatively small that you can execute in a single scene, you might want to dig deeper. See if you can find something a little more involved, a little more complicated, a little more dramatic.

This is not to say plot points must be part of a sequence. Not all stories will require every plot point to be that in-depth. Study how other authors utilize scene sequences around their plot points, and listen to your instincts in your own writing.

One other thing to realize about the relation between scene sequences and plot points is that the very length involved in sequences—which can span as much as a hundred pages—allows for a little more flexibility in the timing of the plot points. Ideal story structure places the plot points at the 25%, 50%, and 75% marks within the story. This leads some writers to obsess about landing each plot point smack on the money.

However, in longer works of fiction, such as a novel, the pacing and thus the timing is more flexible. If any part of your major plot point sequence lands at its pertinent quarter mark in the story, you’re probably safe. This is because the scenes in that sequence are all connected. They roll their momentum one into another, which allows readers to still get the sense of the structural beat’s impact, even if the timing isn’t perfect.

4. Should There Be a Specific Number of Sequences Per Story?

No, there absolutely doesn’t have to be a specific number of sequences. Aside from the fact that every novel varies in length and pacing, how authors sequence their stories is very much a personal choice. The story must dictate where its going and what needs to happen.

For example, C.S. Lakin’s family saga Intended for Harm is told in the unique format of fifteen-minute segments of a family’s life over the course of thirty years. In this case, even though each scene is integrally related to the others, the unique format means there aren’t many sequences.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have the massive fantasies, such as those by Brandon Sanderson or Patrick Rothfuss. These books are packed with tremendous sequences in which plans are being enacted or battles are taking place. Big books like this might include upwards of forty or more sequences.

5. Do Sequences Have to Be Any Specific Length?

Nope to this too. Sequences don’t ever have to be any specific length. Technically, a sequence is simply more than one scene linked into its own little mini-narrative. A sequence could be formed of as few as two scenes. Or as in the above-mentioned big fantasy books, certain sequences might encompass a hundred pages and contain dozens of scenes. The final battle in Brent Weeks’s The Black Prism spans the entire Third Act and is comprised of a plethora of little scenes.

The length of your scene sequences will depend on the story you’re writing, how fast or slow you want to pace it, and how many big set-piece scenes you’re trying to work with.


Scene sequences can be one of the most delightful integers of story structure to work with, since they offer both the same tight control of an individual scene’s structure, as well as the vast creative possibilities of developing larger memorable units within the overall story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of some scene sequences you’ve included in your latest story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. My work in progress has eight sequences. Each sequence has five scenes, so a total of 40 scenes.
    Example – Sequence one – setting up the story (stasis)
    Scene 1 – Protagonist unchanged
    Scene 2 – Theme stated
    Scene 3 – Link event (relating to the antagonist)
    Scene 4 – Discovers a goal but hampered by old world life.
    Scene 5 – A realisation that stasis = death (not in the literal sense).

    Interesting to read that there does not need to be a specific number of sequences. I’m now left wondering if my outline is too rigid. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

    Thanks for the great post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      My brain is always happy when things are proportioned this perfect. :p But it won’t break the story if there’s an plus or minus scene here or there. This is especially true the longer the work. A short story or novella (or movie, come to that) has less margin for error than a long novel.

  2. Eric Troyer says

    Most excellent, Katie! I could easily see that many stories would have scene sequences for each of the four parts of the story – Act 1, first half of Act 2, second half of Act 2, Act 3. And possibly with smaller sequences within those larger sequences. But as you point out, some plot points are subtle, so I could see that not every story would fit that format.

    And the more I think about it, I realize that in some stories there are scene sequences happening simultaneously, especially when a story has different POVs.

    Thanks so much for posting on this. I’m slowly getting my mind around scene structure and this will help me in that journey. (Hopefully, I’m at least at the Mid-point by now! Oh, I can see my reflection in the window! Maybe this is it!)

  3. Those vacuum scenes you spoke of are why I quit pantsing. Left to my own devices, I create small, emotional literary pieces that are related mostly in that they contain some of the same characters. My first novel is a mess of these. As an INFP, I seem to posses little innate logic.

    A scene sequence (guess it’s rescue) from my current novel:
    *MC and lover (got together in first book) and friends go to MC’s house to pick up MC’s mom.
    *They see minor antagonists staking out the house, so MC goes in the back way.
    *MC finds main antagonist and ex-mentor in house. They tell MC he must come with them to know where mom is. MC demands answers. MC realizes main antagonist is more dangerous than he thought. Main antagonist attacks MC.
    *Lover saves MC. MC defeats ex-mentor, and they escape house with friends. Car chase with minor antagonists. MC and friends escape.
    *MC worries about main antagonist endangering everyone he loves. Processes defeating ex-mentor. Gets a motel room with lover to plot finding mom.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I do find it helpful in my own writing to be able to label sequences with a single word, like you’ve done here, and like Field suggests. I helps me see where I might be wandering off point with certain scenes.

      • That’s actually something you just taught me today! It’s pretty easy to divide them into labels now that I see it. My first act is Escape, Prepare, Rescue, Sage, Quest. The fulfillment of the Quest is the midpoint. This makes m so happy!

  4. Neat. This seems to be how I write and I thought I was doing something wrong. When I first began working on my novel I wrote several key scenes. Next I put them in chronological order and filled in the sequences. Before I knew it, I had an outline.

  5. I actually see this in a somewhat different light. The scene sequence is more, in my view, a build up to a major change in direction of the plot (plot point, if you prefer).

    In your Toy Story example, the sequence you describe leads up to utter failure and the characters having to switch their approach and another sequence. I.e. it leads (in a way through a rule of three here: they get a ride [success], they get to the restaurant [success], they find Andy [only to fail]).

    I wouldn’t say that the fail/fail success or succeed/succeed/fail is necessarily required but it often crops up and you see it more often in stories than you realise.

    Just a thought.

    As always, a lot to digest from your writings.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. The sequence is a larger version of the scene (and a smaller version of the story), in that it follows a distinct arc as well. It isn’t defined merely by a topic (“rescue”), but by the fact that it changes the plot in a more significant way than just the changes wrought by the individual scenes..

      • Hi,

        Thanks for your reply. It is always good to look at the story elements afresh.

        As a complete aside, if you want to do something a bit different, do post on the “rule of three”. I’d be interested on your views on this element of story writing.

  6. Another great post and right on time (I’ve been meditating on the power of sequences myself lately.) I guess my question is — when is a scene NOT part of a sequence? When I first read this post, I thought you might ultimately say that each 12.5% unit was a sequence of sorts since it needs its own forward momentum to get to the next station…does that make sense? Thanks again for raising the bar!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In that a sequence is unified by a specific focus, a scene without a sequence will lack that identity. It’s not uncommon to see stories in which *no* scene exists outside of a sequence, but as in my example from C.S. Lakin’s uniquely formatted formatted book, you can also have stories in which no scene *is* part of a sequence.

  7. I’m one of those who wondered if I was doing something wrong when a scene (or sequence) that I was sure qualified for FFP or midpoint, etc, just wouldn’t fit at the right percentage place. I do usually go with my instinct, and I suspect that it’s because the sequence was long enough for, as you say, some part of the sequence to land at its pertinent quarter mark in the story. Whew! I’m also going to be checking my plot points for scenes that are too small and dig deeper.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, this was something I recognized I was doing in my own stories, which led me to the realization that the timing was more fluid than we sometimes think.

  8. I’ve been thinking about this concept the last couple of weeks so I’m really glad to see your post today. I’ve been writing a memorial scene for a cozy mystery that was getting a bit too big and sprawling and difficult to keep track. I broke down the event into what I thought were vignettes but as I got into it, I realized that they could each be scenes in their own right. Beyond the service itself, and noticing who is crying and who looks bored, I reorganized conversations to maintain focus on the reasons why they’re talking (gathering information/context about the victim, unofficially interviewing a suspect, enjoying food while watching a secret mistress expose the nature of her relationship with the victim). By thinking of it in terms of a sequence of events rather than just the one overarching event, it’s made it more fun to write and hopefully more fun to read as well.

  9. rnguyengloria says

    This is super helpful – particularly the note about plot points being made up of sequences, rather than having to be confined to a single scene. Will tuck this one away for later…

  10. This is helpful in the point that I must admit I’m a fluid storyteller, akin to the old grandpa on the porch. He tells a good story, but it rambles along with unnecessary information. It’s time I tightened my story. Thanks !

  11. “If any part of your major plot point sequence lands at its pertinent quarter mark in the story, you’re probably safe.”
    A useful insight – thanks!

  12. Thank you this made years of trying to figure out if I’m plotting the right way or the wrong way finally end. Turns out I have been writing this way on my own, though it helps to know I’ve been following this formula on my own and it’s not only correct but that it’s not something people just “know” how to do. Even so, I’m now going to I use these tips as a way to sieve my story into something more homogeneous and tightly packed. Thanks for making my week!

  13. I’ve been reading Stephanie Bond’s serials. They remind me of soap operas. I wonder if you could call these sequences and that’s the draw that satisfies? I think she has a better marketing strategy than stand alone short stories.

  14. How does a scene sequence differ from a chapter? Especially when most current novels have different chapters telling different, parallel events with different point of view characters?

  15. Dadgummit Katie!

    You’re making me think again and you know this hurts my brain. I will confess that sequences are one of those things I kind of put on the shelf as something I’d probably just fall into with an otherwise will structured work. Now I see some real strengths in considering them. Not enough to stop marching through my current draft, but something to look at in revision and definitely to consider when I’m laying out my next work.

    I did appreciate your comment about there being some play on the percentages for the plot points. I’m a little worried my current work looks like its going to be a bit front heavy. I’m thinking because its fantasy, and using a fair number of unusual elements, this is to be expected. I don’t take what you said to endorse my approach, I think you’d need to read the novel to know I’m not using this as an excuse to go infodump crazy, but I did take your comment to mean I might just be ok. I’ll have to see what the beta readers say.

    Let’s see, I’ve whined. I’ve drug you through my book. What am I missing? Oh yes, a question. Let’s say your working with multiple, shifting point of views. Does it make more sense for the sequences to thread together, which each sequence following its POV, or should they stay contiguous and complete across the POVs. I can see advantages to both, and even choice “c” which is a little bit of both. What does Queen Katie say?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      To be honest, sequences aren’t something I think about a whole lot in my own plotting. They just are. :p

      But, yes, a sequence can definitely span multiple POVs, as long as each POV’s scene is related to the sequence’s unifying topic. It’s also possible to interweave multiple sequences from different POVs.

  16. Thank you for writing this blog. You are really helping me become a better writer, and especially this post was interesting. I have just startet book number two in a series of five, and my pantsing days are over, thanks to you. No more Miss Nice Writer who gives her characters what they want in chapter one, from now on they go from disaster too disaster. I even think one of my favorite snitches (a drug addict with a sister he is trying to keep clean) will have to die, instead of getting a happily ever after. Just have to prosess that thought a while before executing it.

    You are an inspiration, keep it ut 🙂

  17. Tasha Hackett says

    Whew! It’s fun to read a “New” concept and find that I have used this, just didn’t have a name for it.

    I really like your suggestion that if the main plot points can be accomplished in a single scene, it’s worth digging a little deeper. I love that we authors have the capacity to invent and grow and adjust and change our stories.

    Ps. I just finished Dreamlander this weekend, (to the detriment of my family’s meals–I served them pop tarts and cereal because I was much too busy finding out what was going to happen with Chris and Allara.)

  18. You’re Toy Story answer to question #2 just got all my ducks in a row! Thank you!

  19. Thanks, this was so helpful! I recall reading about scene sequences before, maybe in McKee’s book Story, but it didnt really click. The Toy Story sequence is a good, clear example- you can see how each little scene is a mixed “Yes, but” disaster, and each little sequel is just implied. I also like the simplicity of labeling, which makes it easy to see unnecessary, unrelated scenes in my own work that should be moved or cut. Thanks for another great article!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The simplistic labels are my favorite part too. They help make sure the the sequences really *are* simple (as they should be), so matter how complex the individual scenes may be.

  20. Wow, very helpful thanks, especially the relationship between sequences and plot points. You’ve said there is no ideal number of scenes in a sequence or length of a sequence. What is the ideal length of a scene? I know they should vary and read somewhere its between 500 and 1500 words but I’ve got a couple of scenes in my WiP that are 2,700 words and worried this is too long although when I read them back they feel right to me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Scene length varies as well. Really, it’s a pacing choice. Genre convention can play role as well.

      • Ah – I hadn’t considered the role genre plays but now you point it out it’s obvious. I’m writing a character led historical story so guess I can afford some long scenes but if I was writing a thriller lots of short scenes would be the norm. Feel more comfortable about what I’m doing now. Thanks.

  21. Usvaldo de Leon says

    This might just be a nomenclature issue, but I’m wondering about stacking sequences. For example, the character wants to meet a person. This begins the sequence of trying to accomplish that. But then they are thrown into an asylum. So now the new sequence is: get out of the asylum, then meet the person.

    How would I think about that? In Toy Story, as mentioned, if getting back to Andy is one sequence, there are three sequences stacked underneath (as I recall): Get to the restaurant, Get out of Sid’s house and get back to Andy’s room.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Stacking sequences” is a good name for it, IMO. I like to think of story as a spiral–story itself is the macro iteration, but then we spiral down through smaller and smaller and more and more exclusive segments. Sequences and scenes are two of those smaller “spirals,” but they’re really arbitrary divisions in some respects. So we can have scenes within scenes (which is really what the sequence is) and sequences within sequences. Indeed, we even have stories within stories once we start creating serial fiction.


  1. […] In between the beginning and the end, writers must employ many craft elements to carry the reader along. Laurence MacNaughton shares 8 suspense-boosting techniques, Janice Hardy has an easy tip for avoiding infodumps in dialogue, Debbie Burke has 6 tips to speed up the pace, James Scott Bell dives into deep backstory, and K.M. Weiland answers 5 questions about scene sequences. […]

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