Learning and Writing your First Television Screenplay (Part 3)!

Hello Readers and Writers,

I’m writing you today from a place of cautious optimism about this nightmare called Covid19. Optimism about the science-based approaches and the vaccines, which are now finally starting to turn a corner in this fight against the virus. After getting my first vaccine shot, a most unique experience, I now feel like things may actually start to improve slowly. Far from being out of the woods with new waves predicted as well as new variants of concern we still have a long way to go in the fight but there is at least subtle optimism for a light at the end of the tunnel. I hope history remembers this time when we finally started to get a handle on things and our leaders listened to the science and health professionals.

Television versus Film

I realized in Part 2 that many of the concepts I wrote about were in relation to Film. Most of the fundamental concepts from Film still apply to Television however in this article we will go into more differences that I have learned about.

From an outsider looking in, It’s hard to imagine what it is really like in a writer’s room of television production. It’s hard to really grasp how hard some of these folks work, especially in the days of creating 22 episodes or more in one season.

One thing is for sure, you need to be in Hollywood (or Hollywood North: Vancouver or Toronto) to work in television. You have to be in that room. Now, I all know what you are thinking, the pandemic has not only changed our lives but has actually changed the way people work. I’m not an expert but Zoom sessions I’m sure are being conducted for writers’ rooms somewhere. So Television writing may finally become a thing where remote writers can work from home but still connected enough to make the writer’s room work. I don’t know. Perhaps some other writers currently working during the pandemic can shed some light on this. Once the pandemic either is wiped out or becomes endemic then things may get back to a new “normal”. Being in the writer’s room and having normal work hours is a much different experience than sitting in your home office writing your own spec scripts for film. So in that respect Television writing is also different. Television requires more collaboration. At least that is the impression I have.

Act Structure

One of the questions I had, when I was researching how to write my Star Trek script, was where to put the act breaks. As we already discussed in Adam Skelter’s take on the Three act structure, Television scripts can actually be broken up into more acts. Why the extra acts? I’ve come to the conclusion on two things about this.

One: More acts can mean more condensed stories or arcs within the episode but they must end with a cliffhanger.

Two: More act breaks allows network television to insert more commercials (for network-based content equalling a total of 8 commercial breaks for 60 minutes of television. 11 Breaks for two-hour miniseries or movie)

Special thanks to Bob Saenz pointing this out to me about having 9 Acts + 8 commercials back when I started to learn about this.

If your not familiar with Bob, Bob Saenz has worked in the industry for a very long time, He has a ton of experience, is down to earth and gives you the no nonsense approach to screenwriting. I have come to appreciate his unique persepective and he goes out of his way to donate time to the Screen Writing group on Facebook. Thank you Bob!

He recently published a book for newbies and all aspiring writers and I encourage you to check it out!

Title: “That’s not the Way it works!”
Available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon!

     

Television ACT Structure

The Television ACT structure varies. This depends on what network and which show. It also depends on whether it is a traditional television network or a streaming platform. Modern network shows are generally thought of as 9 Acts with 8 Commercial Breaks in Network Television and a 60-minute episode is 42 minutes in length (approx) with the rest of that 60-minute pie being commercials. In the Streaming world, shows do not have to use the 9 ACT structure and can vary wildly. The main reason for so many Acts in network television? Cliff hangers before commercials so the audience comes back to the channel to continue watching and they don’t get bored with too long of an act.

In my written Star Trek example using structure from the 1990s television, Star Trek, mostly used what I can figure out to be a Five ACT structure. Modern Structures can have more or fewer Acts depending on the length of the show. I wrote “Star Trek: Falcon” similar to that formula but added the Sixth Act for a Teaser ending of the Pilot Episode. I also choose not to include too many cliffhangers between Acts because my target was streaming and not a network but the original Star Treks were written with the network in mind. ACT FIVE is all about segway or teasing the audience (and any producers) into the show, and showcasing possible story arcs for the next episode without giving away too much. Also to note, ACT TWO and THREE are essentially the upper half and lower half of a traditional ACT 2 in a Film.

The structure I used was:

TEASER/COLD OPEN –  Teaser/trailer of the Episode – most times the inciting incident – First Hook
ACT ONE – The Second Hook and sometimes the inciting incident (if not previously initiated in the hook)
ACT TWO – The fun and games, discovery or planning
ACT THREE – All is lost moments, or major issues and needing to come up with a new plan.
ACT FOUR – Main battle and Resolution of the story.
ACT FIVE – New World and Preview of a new story in the next episode

In the old days each Network episode was a one-hour episode can equal approx 42 mins 59 secs. That’s about 7 pages on average per Act (however page counts varied in different acts usually in the second and first acts than the third) per the Six act structure I’ve written, whereas the original star trek the next generation episodes were five or even seven acts depending on the script (but usually five as I’ve read through a few).

I didn’t write my Star Trek: Falcon with network in mind so I wrote it as two (aprox) 60-minute episodes as one two-hour episode (a pilot).

And before I get a mailbox full of email, yes my script is 140 pages. It’s long and unedited. It’s a long first draft and needs to be edited down further to 120 pages or less when I get some time. I haven’t spent any real time editing it or polishing it or re-writing it before publishing. Normally I wouldn’t do that but how much time does one actually spend on Intellectual property one doesn’t own or will never own? Plus I make no money from it and it was a learning experience. IT was simply an exercise in creating something I enjoyed as well as something educational.

Was this the correct way to write something like this? I don’t know for sure if there’s any right way but it felt right. I’m still learning the in’s and outs of structure and I was fairly happy with the outcome of my first attempt. I was just happy to be able to complete a good first draft of the script based on that structure and that’s okay. Something is working and that’s a good sign. (I’m totally open to edits and other advice from television writing experts here!). Please don’t shoot the newbie! Let’s move on.

The 9 ACT Structure

When I first heard about a 9 act structure I got completely confused. I still have trouble with it from time to time and have to refer to other’s notes on occasion. I mean how the heck do you write 9 ACTs? Where is the midpoint? Where is the Rising Action, Falling action, and the all is lost moment and then the reversal? (Sorry, I’m channeling Plato here). Seriously, 9 Act’s? Are they really necessary?

It turns out that some of the genres that I do not watch on a regular basis use this 9 ACT structure. Timelife and Hallmark movies to name a couple of examples.

Well, let’s dig into it a bit further because there isn’t a lot of information on this out there but I did manage to find an article explaining this a bit more.

I’d like to refer to Final Draft’s Blog article of which some of this info was taken which can be read here in more detail: Final Draft 9 Act Screenplay

Essentially, What you are doing is breaking down bigger ACT structures into what I’ll call mini ACTs. This will make more sense as you see the structure. In film these can almost be called Sequences rather than acts. Sequences are when an Act is broken down usually into three parts per act. Like a mini-story within each act.

Keep in mind: One page of screenplay equals approx one minute of screen time for film or television.

Network Television 9-ACT structure for a 2 hour TV Film 120 mins minus commercials)

ACT ONE – Usually 18-20 pages – Largest of the ACTS – Includes the open and main hook and brings us up to right before the inciting incident.

COMMERCIAL BREAK ONE – 2 mins

ACT TWO 12 pages – inciting incident – hero sets out on the journey. Consider ACT ONE and TWO as all part of ACT ONE in a Film screen play.

COMMERCIAL BREAK TWO – 2 mins

ACT THREE8 to 10 pages – Fun and games – Cliff hanger ending

COMMERCIAL BREAK THREE – 2 mins

ACT FOUR – 8-10 pages – Tension building – Biggest plot twists – leading up to Mid point.

COMMERCIAL BREAK FOUR – 2 mins

ACT FIVE – 8-10 pages – Protagonist failure but carrying on rising action until the Midpoint – A major plot point occurs

COMMERCIAL BREAK FIVE – 2 mins

ACT SIX – 8-10 pages – Protagonist is failing – Falling action – leading up to the reversal

COMMERCIAL BREAK SIX – 2 mins

ACT SEVEN – 8-10 pages – All is lost moment – Falling action – Rock Bottom.

COMMERCIAL BREAK SEVEN – 2 mins

ACT EIGHT – 8 pages – Reversal – Protagnist Recovers – Gains new information – A new plan

COMMERCIAL BREAK EIGHT – 2 mins

ACT NINE – 8 pages – Resolution & Conclusion – New World

COMMERCIAL BREAK NINE – 2-3 mins

If you do the math here, The most content for this 2-hour Movie of the week or Television episode is:

Aprox. 98 minutes max (98 pages) = 1 hr 38 minutes
Commercials equal the remainder = 22 minutes of commercials minimum.

Streaming versus Network

So in the end what matters is what medium you are writing for. Network television or Streaming or both. No commercials in streaming and lots of commercials and cliffhangers on network television. They can vastly affect your writing in terms of constraints and structure depending on the genre as well. I would say practicing both types will help you understand how to write for both these formats. Getting good at both is a step in terms of developing your writing career however if you are just writing for fun, aiming and concentrating on the story may all you be interested in. For me, I write mostly sci-fi and fantasy/Action-adventure. I’m going to keep experimenting with streaming because I feel there is a bit less of a constraint. I do not intend on being in a writer’s room, at least it’s not in the plans to be but if it happens, at least I’ll understand what they are expecting.

Television versus Film as a Writer

Although I’m just getting started in writing, I’ve found myself attracted writing more towards the Film medium recently as that medium allows me to create a story within the confines of 105-160 pages and I love the 3 act (or 4 act) structure. It’s simple, less confusing and I can focus more on the story than formatting. I do love creating worlds and characters though so both Television and Film definitely have an appeal. I tend to be a “projects” writer, however, meaning that I am a person who loves to create something great from scratch, put all my energy into it, polish it and hand it in and then move on to creating something new after a break (unless I truly fall in love with the idea and there is sequel potential). Essentially I can get bored quickly. I think Film is and has always been a very attractive medium in that it allows me to do that type of “project” type of work. It also allows for not disrupting or uprooting my life for a career in Film like it can in Television. For one, I don’t live near Lost Angeles or Vancouver, but Toronto is about an hour and a half drive for me in heavy traffic which isn’t ideal given my individual needs (the occasional meeting wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility, however). With Film I can write from home and make my own schedule. Although it would be fantastic to collaborate with other writers and actually be in the television writer’s room with other writers, logistics for me dictate that it’s probably not going to work out. I’d love to try however given the opportunity especially if television writers are now working remotely. These are just some of the questions that you need to decide when pursuing a “career” in writing. Writers in Television shows typically are also paid a salary and are on staff. Your work doesn’t always shine through the many voices either which can be disconcerting to some. Television writer’s income is limited but at least they have a steady income and good television writers are treated very highly whereas Film projects are far and few between, writers have less prestige and sometimes income can vary dramatically. Television writers face a lot more pressure for deadlines especially if writing for a current show that airs each week whereas film writers can usually take their time (to an extent). Although the number of episodes per season in television has dropped dramatically, the intensity and number of rewrites probably haven’t. Deadlines for Films can be daunting but it depends on the production schedule. Also, You are only ever concentrating on one film script (usually), not several episodes or writing assignments at a time like in Television. Deciding what your individual needs are, your situation and your style may go a long way to helping you decide which to go into. For me, I’m open to both but only time will tell which one grabs my attention as a writer more and which fits my needs. There is a definite appeal for both.

Television versus Film as a viewer

Ask yourself which you like better and why. It’s okay to like both as a viewer and the creators and studios always love new fans!

So what are the differences to me you might ask?

Television dominates my viewership these days. Why? Because I own one at home. Long before covid, I felt I could get a very intimate and on my own terms viewership at home. Streaming without Advertisement has also increased everyone’s viewership. Who doesn’t like Binge-watching a whole series of content on Netflix or renting all the DVDs from a favorite show? There is more content available to fans of Television than film, That’s just a fact. Television provides a level of intimacy that film can’t provide at least in terms of length of content. Viewers get more in-depth with the characters and storylines. Film is a communal experience however and you can get some pretty unique experiences. If you want a big screen or the content needs to be told in a bigger format, It has to be on the big screen and that’s film.

Covid has changed the world lately but hopefully, theatres will reopen to allow that experience to flourish again. Going out to the movies for a night out was something people loved to do. Why? Because it was a communal experience and because it was a night out from the house with your family, friends, or a date. An Experience that can’t easily be replicated on a smaller screen at home (that’s a different experience). Regardless of the size of television you own, there’s just something about the large screen and leaving the house for it. I mean getting that buttery popcorn (made by others) and being entertained in a designated experience room built for sound effects, it’s definitely a film experience you are after. It’s also historical to tell your kids, this is where I was when Star Wars, Jurassic Park, or the last Bond film came out in theatres. Some people remember and tie events in their own lives based on what was playing in theatres during those times. there is a definite nostalgia when talking film.

Certain genres can also present better on film than television in terms of visuals. Generally, all work well on either medium but Sci-fi as example comes alive on the big screen. It becomes more immersive because of the nature of the content. Speaking of nature, space is big! For the next Star Trek, I will always look forward to and go to the theatre to watch it on the big screen for the first viewing. It’s just something you have to see and hear. Blockbusters are also made for the big screen. I mean Avengers is a great movie but it was even better in the theatre, the first time you saw it. I try to think of Film as the “big” experience, the big story, the big visuals, the big sound, the one you walk away from in the theatre thinking that was worth the ticket.

Conclusion

As I continue to learn to write one thing is clear, there is always a need for more great content either in Television or Film. Keeping in your head the differences of each can be tricky, (that is one of the reasons I write these articles) Breaking down the barriers of knowledge gives me the courage to continue pursuing my writing and not fear the structure but to learn it and then adapt to it.

Whether you become successful at the 9 Act structure or master the 3 Act structure doesn’t really matter in the long run as long as the stories you are telling are good stories and that the characters and story you come up with make people want to read more (and with luck eventually listen to and see on screen once produced). That is the goal and success story of the writer. Screenwriting is a hard business but that shouldn’t stop anyone who has an interest in writing to start and try to understand it like I am. Also remember, if you get off track, there are many sources of information available. You can read Bob’s book (see the links further up) to help you come back down to reality if you get too optimistic! Seriously though, it’s a good book, go check it out!

Until next time!

Keep Writing and Creating!

Kevin

Site Owner and Administrator of www.karrgalaxy.com

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