TV ain’t the movies. And believe it or not, TV scripts look, read, and are structured differently than movie scripts. ScriptFaze already posted guides on how to structure dramas and sitcom scripts, but before you do the work to get everything LOOKING right on the page, it might be useful to consider how TV programs are actually STRUCTURED -- and what your acts and act breaks should accomplish.
Here’s my best shot:
DIVIDING YOUR TELEVISION SCRIPT INTO ACTS
Whatever type of script you’re writing, it’s helpful to think about your story in terms of a number of ACTS stuck between a series of commercial breaks. Most programs also begin with a short, highly-comedic or highly-dramatic TEASER which stands alone from the rest of the episode, but also sets up the main storyline or theme of the script. Many shows also end with a similarly short outtro that pays off a lingering joke or plot point, called a TAG.
Half-hour sitcoms tend to unfold in the following manner:
Whereas hour-long shows usually unfold like so:
The FIRST ACT in a TV show tends to be longer than the final acts, and in half-hour programs there are usually 15-18 scenes in the overall show. In hour-long programs that number raises to around 25. The teaser and the tag are usually comprised of just 1-3 scenes each.
The rule of thumb is that one page of writing generally equals just under one minute of air-time, so hour-long dramas tend to be about 60-70 pages long, and half-hour sitcoms tend to be about 40-50 pages. If that math seems crazy, read the post on how to structure a SITCOM.
Shows that are written for paid-channels (and don’t need to be timed out with commercial breaks) tend to be a little longer, but the act-break structure is handled in exactly the same way, in part because many cable shows will end up in syndication on other stations that DO have commercials.
So—now that you know the MATH, what kind of STORY should you squeeze into each of your TV acts?
Unlike in movies, there is NO ONE WAY to structure each of your television acts. Generally speaking, however, your TV script should be divided into a generally REACTIVE first half of the script, in which your lead character for the episode is being motivated to do things by external forces, and a generally ACTIVE second half of the show, in which your main character has had enough, figured something out, or is simply inspired to take charge, and will now PUSH the plot themselves and boldly go forth on their own inspiration.
An INCITING INCIDENT, similar to that in a feature film, should occur in the beginning of the first act (or the teaser), and should set your story in motion, and each act should be shaped by progressing A, B & C plots.
Most importantly of all:
Remember—TV shows are paid for by commercials. YOUR JOB as a TV writer is to get your audience to SIT IT OUT and to keep watching until your show resumes. We accomplish this with the cliffhanger.
A cliffhanger can be an ‘A-plot cliffhanger,’ such as when a main character has just been shot or gotten themselves fired for showing up to work naked, or it can be a ‘B-plot cliffhanger,’ such as when your protagonist has just been kissed by her long-term crush, or her estranged mother has shown up unannounced. Whether your cliffhangers are plot-based or emotional, they always need to be there, right smack dab at the end of every act.
Be careful to arrange your scenes so that your big, juicy, flashing-question-mark moments fall right at the end of every act. No structure device is more important to television writing than this. If your act breaks and your cliffhangers are working, your script will begin to feel like real-deal television.