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  • The Book of Acts

    August 3rd, 2007Jane EspensonDrama, On Writing, Pilots, Teasers

    Eric in West Hollywood wrote in a very long time ago, with a question that I’m finally getting around to answering. He asks about the act structure for a one-hour drama. Eric:

    In your opinion are five acts a blip or a trend? If I’m writing a [spec] pilot, should I write it in four acts? And which act break is the most important?

    Ooh, those are great questions. Most hour shows seem to have gone to the five-act structure now, although the show I’m currently working on (Battlestar), is still holding to the older four-act structure. It’s hard to tell, of course, if something is a blip until it blips out, but I think this has the feel of a something more permanent. Networks like commercial breaks and they like a longer opening sequence to hook viewers, and those impulses have created the additional act. (I hear that some shows are even toying with a six-act structure, although I wonder if, in that case, maybe that first act feels a bit like a teaser and that last act like a tag.)

    The nice thing for you spec pilot writers is that the transition is still transitioning. You can choose with complete freedom whether to tell your show with four or five acts. I’d suggest that you let your story determine that. Look at how many times it turns, and number your acts accordingly.

    As to the most important act break, that’s a very interesting question. I’m going to rephrase it a bit, and ask how the four-act act breaks line up with the five-act act breaks. Traditionally, the end of act one is the moment that defines the main problem of the script — the obstacle the characters face. This should still be the end of act one, certainly not any later. The end of act three in a traditional four-act show is often the “all is lost” act break. I’d suggest that the end of act four plays this role in a five-act show, certainly you don’t want it earlier. So it’s not that you’re tacking on an extra act of set-up at the beginning, nor an extra act of resolve at the end. The new act is made out of the cloth in the middle.

    Unfortunately, it’s hard to get more specific than that, because shows differ so much in what they require out of an “act break moment,” so you’ll have to do some exploration of this on your own, by playing with your own story. And remember, it’s all right if the length of your acts varies. Acts early in a script are often longer than later ones. I’ve seen first acts that are over twenty pages long and final acts as short as five or six pages. If the reverse is happening with your script, that’s a bit strange. You might want to have that looked at.

    Try, as much as you can, to let the natural shape of your story determine how it fits onto the pages. Let the demands of page-count and the number/placement of acts keep you from formlessness, but don’t let them dictate your story.

    P.S. thanks to Loyal Reader Lilia for the fine gift!

    Lunch: a “Boston Cream Pie Cupcake” from Big Sugar Bakeshop. I love self-contradictory treats.

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