An effective way to drive the narrative forward.
The Pixar movie Up is one of my favorites. Beyond the wonderful characters, surprising adventure, and strong emotional core, there is the script itself. Written by Bob Peterson and Pete Docter from a story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, and Tom McCarthy, it is a master class on story structure.
One thing the script does so well is pose a question at the end of every sequence. For example, here is a scene-by-scene breakdown of the movie’s first act with sequence breaks:
SEQUENCE: THE OPENING
00:00:40–00:02:35: Newsreel footage of Charles Muntz, “The Spirit of Adventure,” and Paradise Falls. Watched by young Carl Frederickson in a movie theater. Muntz accused of fabricating skeleton of “The Monster of Paradise Falls.” Muntz’s goal: To “capture the beast alive.”
00:02:35–00:05:05: Carl imagining himself as Muntz, then hears a voice: “Adventure is out there!” From a rickety, abandoned house. It’s Ellie, who is as big a fan of Muntz as Carl is. [4:28: She gives him her grape soda pin and says, “You and me, we’re in a club now.”] Trying to retrieve his balloon, Carl falls. Ambulance.
00:05:00–00:07:10: Carl in his room at night with broken arm. Ellie shows up with his balloon and shares with Carl “My Adventure Book.” [“Cross your heart!”] Her goal: To go to Paradise Falls. [6:35: “Only I just don’t know how I’m going to get to PF.”] Carl sees his balloon. “That’s it. You’ll take us in a blimp. Swear you’ll do it. Cross your heart. Cross it!” And Carl’s first word: “Wow.”
00:07:10–00:11:30: Carl and Ellie’s life together montage. Key plot points: (A) Wedding. (B) He gets a job at a zoo selling helium balloons. © They want to have children, but find out they can’t. (D) Set sights on Paradise Falls, but those plans laid aside due to a series of financial setbacks. (E) Now old, Carl plans to surprise Ellie with tickets to go to PF, but Ellie dies.
Carl has made a promise to Ellie to take her to Paradise Falls because of her childhood dream of building a clubhouse right next to the falls. Major Plot Point: Ellie dies.
Question posed at the end of the sequence: How to fulfill the promise to Ellie?
SEQUENCE: THE HOOK
00:11:30–00:13:30: A day in the life. Carl wakes up — alone. Descends the stairs. Breakfast. Cleans artifacts of Ellie. Note: Grape soda pin. Note: Multiple locks on door to suggest trying to keep the world out. Heads outside and sits on his porch, revealing his house is surrounded by mammoth construction zone.
00:13:30–00:15:10: Carl watches construction all around him. “Quite a sight, eh, Ellie,” looking skyward. Mail: “Shady Oaks retirement home.” Conversation with construction foreman where he learns that the Boss will double last offer to buy Carl’s house. Carl: “You can have my house… when I’m dead.”
00:15:10–00:17:30: Carl watching TV. Knock on door. Meet Russell, member of the Wilderness Explorers. He’s missing merit badge: “Assisting the elderly” badge. His goal: To get the badge in order to become a Senior Wilderness Explorer. Note: “There’s a big ceremony and all our dads come…” Carl sends Russell away to look for a “snipe,” a big bird Carl makes up to get rid of the kid.
00:17:30–00:18:25: A construction truck hits Carl’s mailbox. Carl accosts a worker, who is trying to help, injuring the worker. Witnesses gather, along with police car, and Boss stares at Carl.
00:18:25–00:19:25: Carl summoned to court. Dropped back home by policewoman — “You don’t look like a public menace to me.” Touching the mailbox, Carl asks, “What do I do now, Ellie?”
After an altercation with the building crew, Carl finds himself kicked out of his house.
Question posed at the end of the sequence: What is Carl going to do now?
Notice how both questions (1) sum up the end point of each sequence, thus capping off the mini-story, and (2) provide a natural transition into the next sequence, raising the specter of ‘what’s going to happen next’.
Think of it this way: The last scene in the sequence closes the door on that set of scenes. The question the scene raises at the end opens the door to the next sequence.
In combination, a sequence which ends with a question, either stated out loud by a character (as Carl does at The Hook in Up) or implied through action, contributes to the story’s narrative drive.
Takeaway: In your own story when you get to the end of a sequence, see if there is a specific question about where the plot might go to hook into a reader’s imagination, generate curiosity, and spur them to turn the page… and onto the next sequence.
To read my June 2009 analysis of Up, go here.