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09/24/2006: Nothing Lasts Five-ever
I've had two letters recently asking me about the new five act drama structure that's popping up more and more often. People are wondering if it's here to stay and how, or if, it affects writers of specs. Great questions!
Well, I first encountered the five-act structure at Tru Calling, which actually changed over from four acts to five. And then at The Inside, there was also a five-act mandate. The pilot I'm writing right now? Five acts. It's the thing. Half-hour comedies are also being affected. They used to be two acts or sometimes three. Now some are four!
The change is being driven by the networks, who want, I assume, the additional commercial break. But it is affecting more than commerce. It's actually changing the shows. And it will change your spec. Here's why:
The act breaks are the most important moments in your show. They are the moments of suspense that bring you back, and the moments at which revelations and decisions change the direction of a story. Adding an act break is like adding a new joint between your wrist and your elbow.
You can, if you want, think of one of the act breaks under this new structure as a sort of pseudo act-break. The second act break used to be the biggest, most important break, coming as it did, at the geometric center of the show. But now it's more likely to be the third act break that really makes the big story turn. And the second act break may become less prominent -- an exciting moment along the way, but not a big story pivot. A moment that under the old system wouldn't really have deserved the musical swell and the fade out.
Of course, we aren't always happy with how that pseudo break looks once we've written it. As a result, I do believe that shows are actually getting bendier. We're putting in more turns to accommodate more commercial breaks. How weird is that? Now, shorter acts with more turns can be a fine thing. Stories move faster and shock more often. Of course, they may not feel as deep. We replace the slow deep-water turns of the big fish with the sharp surface jitters of the waterbug. This makes it sound like I don't like the new system, but actually my personal internal jury is still out. It's just different, that's all. Like that new arm joint. Hard to control... but there's a new place for pretty bracelets!
If you're writing a spec for an existing show, follow whatever it's doing in its most recent episodes. And pay attention to the breaks as you study the produced eps. Is one of them a pseudo-break? Or does the story turn at every juncture?
And if you're writing a spec pilot -- well, I'd go for the modern five-act look. It shows you've been paying attention to the latest trends. And try to sneak the depth in anyway.
Lunch: The "dynamite roll" at a local sushi joint. Awfully goopy for sushi.