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Talentville Bar & Grill : Television Writers' Lounge
Television story arcs

Helen Crofoot
Posted December 1, 2014 9:45 AM

I am struggling with structuring my TV pilot.  In the reviews that I've purchased here, each reviewer (overwhelmingly helpful reviewers, I might add) has said I need to improve the structure.  I am still way down a steep learning curve with all this and reading all the books I have as much as I can, mostly The Screenwriter's Bible, but I was hoping perhaps someone here could give me some advice too. 

My problem is that I have two protagonists and a clear story arc for the series, but I am struggling to fit the pilot into a neat three act format.  As I have been writing, I have often said to myself, "That (plot point/idea/character) will come out in later episodes."    Is it necessary to force individual TV episodes into a three act structure? I feel that from other TV scripts I have read, they do not worry about structuring episodes this way, but since I am such a beginner is it necessary in my script?

Ian Gillespie
Posted December 15, 2015 9:32 AM

Yes! And, no!

Pilot episodes almost always follow a quote-unquote "three act structure" in the sense that they have a clear beginning, middle and end - introduction/inciting incident in Act I; fleshing out the plot and building the conflict in Act II; resolution/denouement in Act III. While some series - like Game of Thrones - may abandon this structure as the series goes on, it is almost universal in my experience that pilots maintain the structure to a significant degree. But this is just with respect to storytelling.

On a more formal level, TV pilots (even many done for distribution channel without commercial breaks) use some variation of the "teaser+four acts" structure (or, in decreasing order of common use, "four acts", "five acts", "teaser+five acts"). This structure was initally created so writers could write to the commercial breaks - with each act having its own intro/hook and "act break" - but it also maps on to the well-known "eight sequences of a feature film" type breakdown. Essentially, the idea is that even if any episode cuts between locations, characters or storylines, it should be comprised of roughly four or five relatively self-contained 10-15 minute sequences (each with their own beginning, middle and end) in order to make the end product digestible by the audience. A TV show is about half the length of a feature, hence half as many sequences.

As for how this maps on to the larger story you have in your head, that's a far more complicated question, but I offer a little non-expert advice.

-Think about what relatively self-contained story you could tell from your larger intended narrative that would introduce your world and characters and kick off the larger plot, regardless of whether you initially considered that to be the first ~10% of your story.

-Play big attention to hooks and ct breaks. These are, pardon the pun, make or break.

-Consider where you are starting your story. Is there a way to jump in at a moment of action, conflict or drama? Should consider using a flasback, flash-forward or other non-linear form of story telling? Is there a self-contained incident apart from the "meat" of the story that could be used as a teaser (like when a murder mystery shows a victim being killed before the main characters are even brought into the story)?

-You definitely want your Act I (or teaser+Act I) to introduce you characters and world and feature the first inciting incident. Consider starting Act II by setting up your B-story line, if you have one. By the end of Act II, your main plot should typically be fully established and underway. Act III is a great place for "lowest point" or "long night of the soul" moments for your lead character. The act break/end of Act III often shows the glimmer of hope that the protagonist has found a way out of his/her dilemma, or resolved to take on the challenge ahead - "I know who the killer is. (Dum, dum, dum)"  or "Fuck it. Let's roll."

Of course, all these concepts/ideas/maxims are just that: concepts/ideas/maxims. They are not rules. Ultimately, I always believe, the specifics of the story you are telling come first.