Three vs. Four - Complications Ensue
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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Q: From the technical point of view, what is the difference between the one-hour episode Four act structure and the feature three act structure?
The difference is huge. Not because three acts are different from four. In feature structure, the second act is often twice as long as the first, and there's a flex point in the middle; so you could just as easily call it four act structure. The difference is that act structure in features is only a way of looking at a screenplay. There aren't really three acts. There is just beginning stuff, middle stuff, and end stuff. You could just as well treat your screenplay as having seven acts. Personally I find seven acts more useful than three or four. So long as you're spinning a good yarn, you don't have to worry about structure. You only use structure to figure out why your pacing seems off.

TV act structure is real. A TV episode is chopped up into bits divided by commercial breaks. That means you have to end each act on some sort of powerful moment that leaves the audience wanting more -- an "act out." The lengths of the acts have to be roughly the same, too; you can't have a four minute act or a fifteen minute act. TV writers struggle with their acts and act outs. (Except for Amy Sherman-Palladino.)

I have chapters in both my books going into some depth about feature act structure and TV act structure, so check those out for further info.

Oh, and ... four act TV structure is on its way out. Most new dramas are five acts. Some writers used to four acts hate this, but they have to suck it up because the network wants shorter commercial breaks. I have noticed that five act structure often seems to seem to conclude its story at the end of the fourth act break, but then take the story one step further -- emotional fallout, interpersonal aftermath -- rather than stretching the old middle from two acts to three.

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2 Comments:

Even the five act structure is on the way out - every pilot I've read this year has been six.

By Blogger Shawn, at 10:29 AM  

And to further complicate things, I often write features in three equal acts of 30 pages each...

By Blogger Bill Cunningham, at 2:29 PM  

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