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Friday, February 23, 2007

I've been working on a pilot for a speculative fiction series I've been pitching, but for the very best of reasons I suddenly have to rethink it completely. I've been working on a 55 page five-act 55 script for a 44 minute pilot, and stressing about the fifth act being too short. Now I find myself in the exciting world of pay cable. I have sixty whole minutes to tell my story, with no act breaks.

This is first of all a relief, because the story has been resisting being put into five acts. But I need to rethread my head a bit. I need to rethink my whole story, see where I can go deeper, see where I might have shied away from something transgressive. I need to pick the story apart and see if I've gone for bigger, harder act outs than my story really wants or if the five act framework has forced me to make the wrong story choices.

But at a deeper level, I wonder what kind of structure I should be using. Just because the story doesn't have act outs doesn't mean it shouldn't have twists and turns. Is there a natural pulse to pay cable episodes? Should I be thinking in terms of four acts? Three? Should the story take a new turn every ten minutes? Every fifteen?

And what about secondary stories? In my broadcast version I'd avoided B and C stories -- I sort of had an "A story and an A story," where the speculative fiction and mundane aspects of the show came together in one storyline -- though later episodes would probably have had mundane B stories and spec fiction A stories. But sixty whole minutes seems to demand we pursue the lives of some of the secondary characters for their own sakes. And, because no act breaks, it's much easier to weave those in.

I expect a lot of creative carnage. But one nice thing about starting the pilot before anyone asked (= paid) me to is that I can now go into a longer script treating the earlier broadcast version as research. I don't have to use any of it that no longer applies. I can treat the whole thing as research. On the other hand it may be that all I have to do is strip out the act outs and continue in the direction I was going creatively -- with more latitude and more breathing room.

This is exciting!

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I've been reading your blog for about a year now, and always been mildly mystified when you write about "act outs". This post has suddenly cleared up my confusion - "act outs" are not some essential but mysterious element of story structure after all, they are just ad breaks.

Here in the UK I watch mostly BBC, where there are no ad breaks. Although I sometimes think I can spot the "act outs", this is usually only in imported shows or ones planned for export.

My suggestion for your quandary, is therefore to get and watch some good hour-long BBC material and see if that gives any extra insight into an appropriate pacing and structure. Examples in a speculative genre might be the reinvented "Doctor Who" and its somewhat flawed cousin "Torchwood", but there's a lot to choose from at

By Blogger Frank, at 3:45 AM  

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