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Creating A Pilot: Story Structure – Lesson Three

January 26, 2015

Writing for TV is different than writing for film. The idea of separating your story into a three-act-structure has come under fire. It can be helpful for the beginning writer to learn, but it isn’t necessary. As long as you follow Campbell’s Hero’s Journey your story should evolve nicely. As for television, every show is broken up into acts. Not for story structure purpose, but for commercial purposes. Depending on whether your pilot is a comedy or a drama it will have 4 to 6 act breaks for commercials.

Let’s start with a drama. Dramas have between 5 and 6 act breaks, depending on the network. A CBS drama has 5 acts and ABC has 6. The breakdown is different as well. CBS opens with a teaser (the setup of the episode story) followed by four more acts. ABC has just 6 acts (the setup and the opportunity combined in the first act).

Comedies have 4 acts with each network giving a different breakdown. The show either has a teaser followed by two acts and tag (an outro that usually puts a cap on a particular punch-line in the show), a teaser followed by three acts, or three acts followed by a tag.

Aside from act breaks, your TV pilot should also have a minimum of 2 separate storylines, preferably 3. Your A story should take up the majority of each act, about 60 percent. Your B story should take up about 30 percent, and your C Story 10. Let me make it clear that this separation should be present in every act, 60/30/10. If your show only has two storylines then each act should carry those storylines in a 60/40 breakdown. Most importantly, when writing for television, every act, excluding the last (unless it’s a season finale) should end in some sort of cliffhanger. You want to make sure you bring them back from the commercial break; otherwise they’ll be flipping through channels looking for something more interesting to watch.

The best thing you can do to help improve your writing, read as many scripts as you can get your hands on. If you like writing comedy, read scripts of long running, popular comedies. The same goes for dramatic TV shows, read those drama scripts. Know the difference between a serialized show and an episodic. Perhaps that’ll be next week’s topic. Until then, happy writing!

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