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    Monday, September 25, 2006

    Acting Out

    Four acts, five acts, six acts a peso, all for more ads, stand up and say so.

    It’s getting more complicated every day for new writers to stay on top of the shifting act structure of American television, or at least American television of the four major networks. If you wrote a spec scrip for say CSI, you wrote it in a four act structure with a teaser on the front end as a hook. However, if you send that around it isn’t going to the people at CSI, it’s going to people at shows like Numb3rs or Criminal Minds, because no one reads specs of their own shows. They read specs of shows that are in a similar vein to see if the writer knows basic structure and can adhere to the characters of a given show. The problem with this is that Numb3rs or Criminal Minds are using a five act structure imposed to garner more commercial airtime. So, does this mean that they might be unsure your capable of adding another “:don’t turn the channel” act out to a script you’ve fine tuned to only have four? This very basic element changes the story. Where you might have had a nice scene of character building in say Act 2, you would have to split that up and change the whole story, adding another piece of “peril” that wasn’t there before to conform to the new act structure.

    Now, the new five act structure works somewhat OK in action driven series, and in some cases this still isn’t enough. Shows like Lost and Desperate Housewives now employ a 6 act structure, ABC has actually mandated all its Dramas now use this structure regardless of their “speed”, so that the more character driven shows get hacked up and are less effective by it. Luckily there are still a few hold out to this. According to a USA today article from last year,, “producers of CSI, Law & Order and ER refused to go along. Fox uses it only on Bones.” And it would seem David E. Kelley is also not convinced for very good reasons, which he expressed in the same article.

    "There's no opportunity to develop any kind of storytelling momentum," Kelley says, fearing that quiet scenes of dialogue will never hold up to increasingly loud — and frequent — commercial breaks. "High-octane shows, or puzzle shows, will be immune to it.

    "If a knife is plunged into someone's sternum, you pay attention," Kelley says. "But for shows that don't depend on violence or melodramatic scenes, it's tougher to compete in a six-act show than in four acts, or in 41 minutes instead of 45 minutes. You have to be a little more aggressive with them, musically or filmically, just to get people's attention back."

    Karen Woodward, in the Weekender edition of the Cynopsis newsletter, which is an e-mail newsletter and daily overview I get in my inbox, looked at this a while back.

    “In the past, shows have been structured into four acts, but now they’re being structured as five or even six. The constant breaks are frustrating, but it’s more than that - this new structure affects the whole art of storytelling. “Moving to the five-act structure not only cuts the amount of time we have to tell the story, but changes the way we have to tell it,” says one writer on a popular drama. “More things have to happen in each act.”

    “In a four-act structure, the 2nd act break (at the half-hour mark) has to have the strongest hook: “That’s when they arrest someone,” says the writer. “But if you move to five acts, the 2nd and 3rd act-outs would have to both be really strong, which complicates the story.” Essentially, the 2nd act break would provide the twist, and then the 3rd act break has to put a twist on that twist. “[For example], at the end of the 2nd act, the person being arrested would end up to be a transvestite, and then at the end of the 3rd act they’d have to die… and you have to do all that in less time then you had before.”

    I felt like I was missing the boat on this since I don’t have a TV and oddly didn’t notice it on shows that I watch like Lost, probably because I’m still a fan and don’t structurally critique a show unless I’m doing it specifically. The other day I was reading Jane Espenson’s blog, which I do daily or by post, and she mentioned having run into the five act structure with Tru Calling and The Inside and now again on the script she’s currently writing. I’m assuming it’s the Battlestar Galactica script she’s working on. However, even for a prolific TV writer such as herself, she made no mention of the new six act structure, so even she’s been awakened to it I dare say at this point.

    I’m feeling a bit torn about all of this. The new spec pilot I’m working on adheres to the old 4 act structure plus teaser, like all of me spec pilots do. Now I’m thinking I may need to go back on the rewrite and cut it up into five, which seems to be what Sci-Fi Channel is looking for these days and this is something primarily designed to pitch to the likes of them. Now, maybe I’m already using the five act structure, if you count the teaser, but I really don’t know. Maybe I’ve written everything in a five act structure and was just ahead of the curve somehow. I have to get a hold of one these scripts to find out. I don’t think I am. The old four act structure use to have a teaser, four acts, and a tag, like Homicide.

    Bottom line is that network television is allowing advertisers to once again control the nature of the stories being told. The networks wonder why they can’t make solid dramas anymore and it’s because they’re competing with the likes of the HBO and Showtime which give viewers what they want, a one hour drama that plays like a movie where the action is inserted for reasons of story and moving it forward just when it needs to and not just when it needs to go to commercial.

    My brain hurts now. Must break life into smaller digestible bits so that it doesn’t stick in my craw. Espensen turned me onto this fact so I started looking things up. It would appear every one knew about this a year ago. So much for hiding in the cabin.

    [UPDATE: Jane Espenson just followed up her post of yesturday about 5 act structure with this bit today: "In other news, a follow-up on yesterday's five-act post. I've received two emails from working writers with completely contradictory information on the future of episodic tv structure. I am informed both that Bones has gone back to the four act structure after an attempt to work with five, and that new ABC drama pilots are being written with SIX acts (although with no teaser)! Well! So, I guess, the wise thing is probably to let your story dictate your choice! How many times does your story turn? That's how many act breaks it can have!"
    So, I think I'll just stick with what I know for now and try not to fret.]


    zenzer said...

    Damn. That stinks. What structure does Battlestar use? I have only watched it on DVD which I have decided is the best way to watch TV these days.

    Fabricationist said...

    Battlestar Galactica uses the five act structure. If I remember right, it sort of cuts the forth act into two pieces, the later of which is shorter and used as a wrap-up.

    Alan Gratz said...

    Looks like Sorkin's Studio 60 is four act w/ teaser. As I watched tonight, I counted four commercial breaks--although I swear the first night skipped the first commercial break. I'll have to go back and re-watch that episode, but I think they pushed on past to try to retain viewers on the premiere. Then again, it will probably re-air with the break in there.

    Studio 60 is great stuff, by the way. At this point I would sit through an hour of a Sorkin show about the people who compile the names and numbers for the phone book.

    Tonight's episode led off with the main show title, then the teaser, then broke to commercial. After that, there were three more commercial breaks to the end, so: teaser, break, act one, break, act two, break, act three, break, act four.

    I figure if there's anybody in Hollywood who can write however he damn well pleases, it's Aaron Sorkin. Studio 60 now has the distinction of being only one of two shows Wendi and I tune in for when it airs; the other is Veronica Mars, which has its season premiere tomorrow (Tuesday) night. Everything else we NetFlix, including BSG. (Although, admittedly, we would still watch BSG when it airs if we still had cable.)

    Everything else we can wait for.

    Keep up the writing, Greg. I'm still waiting for your big break so one day I can call you up and beg to pitch a spec script on whatever show you're working on.

    Seriously. Get back to work you bastard.

    Fabricationist said...

    If I work any more, the trained monkey who types my stuff will pass out. As it is now, he's only good for about four hours from his first shot of whiskey. The cheeky bastard keeps writing his own stuff on the side and'll probably make it before I do.

    If It wasn't for Veronica Mars, I'd probably swear off TV. If I had a TV. Here's to the interwub, and the Wi-Fi signal that someone forgot to latch down.