There are thousands of books on screenwriting and television writing and they all make their case for breaking down structure, with many attempting to make the case for a new structure. It is so frustrating sometimes, trying to figure out which form of structure you should use, especially in television. When I was in school Robert McKee’s Story still reigned as it does in many colleges. As I went out into the industry, many argued for Save the Cat and the idea that it was different from McKee’s structure. In talking about television, people typically look at half-hours in two to four-act structure, and one-hours range from three to eight-acts! How ridiculously confusing is this?! Here’s the thing though…
…they are all the same! That image clearly shows three acts and then says at the top there are six stages. Many people would simply make those dotted horizontal lines into full lines, thereby making it six acts. If someone argues for as many as eight acts, what they are doing is breaking the two parts of Act II into two more sections. If you are working with four acts, then the central line is made full, cutting Act II firmly in half. If you simply practice the above structure you will be fine and will easily be able to adapt to whatever form of structure the people around you declare king. For people who argue that they do not follow structure and it is not needed… I am sorry but there is no way around it. I think Charlie Kaufman, basically confirmed that in Adaptation. Sorry. That being said, if you prefer to think of character over structure you can find another way to look at this. Dan Harmon’s Story Circles, as adapted from reading Joseph Campbell, is an excellent way to think of character first.
The way to decide which way to look at writing your television spec can be chosen by two things: what you are most comfortable with, and how many commercial breaks there are in the series you are emulating. I personally never used to like thinking of it by the commercial breaks and defensively stuck to traditional three-act form. Now I use the commercial breaks. Time the show you are watching to see when exactly the commercial breaks happen. At a script page to a minute of screen time, you will have a good indicator of how much story needs to be told in a strict amount of time and be aware of the ramping-up of story. Comedies always end with a heightened joke that propels the next act of the show, while dramas typically end on a reveal or sort of mini-cliff-hanger moment before breaking for commercial. These barriers can only help your writing.
Now, just because you are using three, four, or six-act structure does not meant that the show you are emulating does. I highly recommend finding the pilot or other scripts for the series you are writing so that when you are done with the script, and have the big moments before the commercial break, you then need to go back through and proof read to make sure that it looks like the scripts of the show you are writing. A great place to find pilots is https://sites.google.com/site/tvwriting/home. This site has almost all of the past year’s pilots as well as hundreds and hundreds of scripts from previous years. It is a fantastic resource, so even when you are not spec writing you should be reading scripts from here as often as possible.
If you have any questions regarding structure and what you are working on, feel free to leave it in the comments below! I will be happy to talk it out with you guys.