The Five Act 60 Minute Drama Script

In session 3 we learned how to transpose three part structure onto a four act script, but with 60 minute TV drama trending toward five act scripts, we need to discuss these, too.  They’re complicated because they don’t have to follow any one rule.  If you’re writing for an existing show, get a script to see how long each act runs in pages.  If you can’t get a script, you’ll have to time the show as you watch it and make your best guess.

Let’s do a page-oriented breakdown of a real script from a five act TV show Castle:

  • No Teaser
  • Act 1:  p1 to p6
  • Act 2:  p7 to p20
  • Act 3:  p21 to 32
  • Act 4:  p33 to p41
  • Act 5:  p42 to p55 (END)
  • No Tag

Now, how do we impose three part structure onto that?  If you look around the Internet, you may find sites claiming there is no three act structure in TV.  Why?  Because, these sites maintain, TV is told in four or five acts, but they’re completely wrong!  Don’t fall for that.  All great stories have a beginning, a middle and an end.  That’s why we’re teaching you to impose a three part structure onto a multi-act script.

The above breakdown reveals that act one really isn’t an act:  it’s just a long teaser, and there’s no way it finishes introducing characters and plot elements.  Act two finishes that job and ends with an event that locks the main character into the rest of the story.  Therefore, act one and act two combine to make up Aristotle’s first part or introduction.  And right on page 20 is an event that locks the protagonist into the rest of the story.

Acts three and four make up the middle of the story, and act five is the third part or end (resolution).  Look where act three ends—on page 32.  That’s close to the halfway mark (in reality, the first half of a script tends to run longer than the second half because introduction requires more time and endings show go faster to increase excitement).  Sure enough, on page 32 the protagonist decodes a clue that puts her on the antagonist’s trail, and that signal a shift in momentum.

At the end of act four on page 41, there’s an event that locks us into resolution:  the protagonist knows who the antagonist is but isn’t sure she can take him.  At the end, the antagonist is in jail, and after a short dénouement the episode ends.  See how the three part structure fits onto a five act script?

It’s possible to have a five act script go like this:  first part is act one; second part is act two, three, and four; third part is act five.  The only hard part there is finding the halfway point.  Is it at the end of act two or act three?  Acts three and four will probably be compressed, so it will likely fall at the end of act two.  Five act scripts usually have a very compressed act.
A five act script could also have a teaser and tag.  Just like four act scripts, these get included with the first and fifth acts.

Just as we saw in the above five act script (which is typical), four act scripts tend to have longer first parts and shorter third parts.  Again, this is because it takes more time to introduce things, and in the last half, to build excitement, events need to be sped up or rushed along.  It’s very rare to see a TV script divided into perfectly proportioned segments.

A note on page count, while 53 to 60 pages is a normal range, some shows run much longer (as long as 70 pages), which some requite an exact page count (55 pages, but this is very rare).  Again, try to find a script for the show you’re writing for, and if you can’t get one, watch a show with a timer and make your best guess.

Four acts?  Five acts?  It’s an illusion.  All stories are told in three parts.  Each act is its own unit and must end on a cliffhanger or significant note, so you’ll have to read scripts and get a feel for how to do that.  But Aristotle’s three-part structure rules TV drama.  It always has, and it always will.

Some five act shows have a first act that matches four act scripts and contains the entire first part or introduction.  Acts two, three, and four are the middle part or conflict section, and Act five is the third part or resolution.

With this five act structure, the only hard part is finding where to place the halfway event.  If act three and act four are short, the halfway point may fall at the end of act three.  If page 30 of a 60 page script isn’t anywhere near the end of an act, you may need to just stick the halfway event as close to page 30 as you can. 

These tips came from the workshop

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