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Screenwriting 102: Binge Watching - Analysis of Popular Show Structures


Screenwriting 101 established the basics of the little-known art of screenwriting, from its history to format and prevalent theories. The screenplay does not belong to literature or film but is an art form of its own with unique language, technique, and storytelling devices. Screenwriting 102 is an advanced course that dives into the finer details and kinks of the script. Having a screenwriting foundation is essential to understanding advanced notions as theories come under the scrutiny of practice. Previous lessons aimed to show a clear path and solid base for the beginner, taking them by the hand and carefully guiding them, avoiding complex ideas. Now is the time to explore difficult terrain. Screenwriting 102 presents practical conceptions that, at first glance, are quite ambiguous. From the true form of a story to critical analysis and character creation, this course focuses on the practical application of screenplay components. Screenplay writing is far from being as simple as respecting a prescribed structure. It is an extremely malleable medium that offers countless possibilities once the writer understands the cogs of story and screenwriting.

Screenwriting 102 is divided into six chapters:

Screenwriting 102: Binge Watching - Analysis of Popular Show Structures

TV shows can take on many forms, structurally speaking. As covered in the previous chapter of Screenwriting 102, TV shows include a wide variety of story designs (Praet, 2023). Indeed, not only can shows be half-hour or hour-long, but they can also be one of three types (Miller, 2016). These types are referred to as serialized, procedural, and stand-alone (Miller, 2016, pp. 264-265). Unsurprisingly, structure design varies greatly from one show type and length to the other. Additionally, TV shows often span multiple seasons (Malbon & Moran, 2006, p. 20). Consequently, a second layer is added to structure designs in shows. The first spans individual episodes, and the second extends across a whole season (TV Tropes, n.d.). As TV script research is underdeveloped, season structures are even less defined than their single-episode counterparts (Batty & McAulay, 2016). However, since full seasons tend to feature a closed dramatic arc (Douglas, 2011, p. 57), they can be compared to feature film structures. After all, the main observable difference between the two is their length (Douglas, 2011, p. 57). Considering the underdeveloped nature of TV script analysis, the purpose of this article is to enhance the current research by drawing similarities and conclusions between shows and feature films. In the end, the objective of Screenwriting 102 is to push the reader to think for themselves when developing their approach to screenwriting.

The primary distinction from feature films is the segmented nature of TV shows (Douglas, 2011, p. 57). Therefore, studying single-episode structures is a relevant start. Three, four, and five-act structures are the most popular designs for TV scripts (Miller, 2016, p. 69; Miyamoto, 2023). Thankfully, some scripts widely available already delineate their act structures. Scandal (Rhimes, 2012) and Breaking Bad (2008), are such scripts with five and four acts respectively. Since a three-act structure typically encompasses most structure variations (McKee, 1997, pp. 213-214), it is slightly more difficult to identify one that uses it. Nonetheless, The Promised Neverland (Kanbe, 2019) is a show which uses the three-act structure. Additionally, Scandal (Rhimes, 2012) is a procedural show containing serialized elements (Miller, 2016, p. 266). In other words, the protagonist tackles a new case every episode while an overarching storyline continues during the series. The protagonist is Olivia Pope and her overarching story is an affair with the president (Rhimes, 2012). In truth, Scandal (Rhimes, 2012) features multiple plot lines that continue beyond single episodes, but Olivia’s is the main one. In the five-act structure, act one introduces the main characters and the setting in which the show takes place (Miyamoto, 2023). For Scandal (Rhimes, 2012), this is Olivia and her team who are high-level fixers. In act two, the characters are dealing with the episode’s primary conflict (Miyamoto, 2023). Sully Saint James stumbles into Olivia’s office (Rhimes, 2012). He is the prime suspect in his girlfriend’s murder and needs Olivia’s help to clear his name (Rhimes, 2012). Here, the audience witnesses how her team works by being efficient and well-connected, and how they use blackmail and intimidation tactics (Rhimes, 2012). For instance, Abby, a member of Olivia’s team, forces a police officer to let her see the crime scene by threatening to tell his wife about an affair he is having with a stripper (Rhimes, 2012). Similarly, Olivia threatens a US Attorney Office representative’s bid on the Democratic Party’s ticket in order to delay Sully’s arrest (Rhimes, 2012). Olivia and her team are dealing with the problem in full swing (Rhimes, 2012). In act three: “the characters are at their lowest point and the bad guys or conflict is winning” (Miyamoto, 2023). However, Scandal (Rhimes, 2012) uses most of the third act to explore Olivia’s subplot with the president. A woman claims to have slept with the president and Olivia is tasked with making sure this liar stays quiet (Rhimes, 2012). Meanwhile, the team discovers that Sully’s deceased girlfriend was cheating on him, which is a strong motive for murder (Rhimes, 2012). Act three ends up functioning as a simple progression rather than a definitive narrative beat (Script University, n.d.). Scandal’s (Rhimes, 2012), act four is the true lowest moment. Indeed, the team discovers that Sully knew his girlfriend was cheating on him and his fingerprints are on the murder weapon (Rhimes, 2012). Even worse, Olivia finds Sully’s alibi (Rhimes, 2012). In theory, this would be good since it clears him of the murder; however, Sully’s alibi is that a security camera recorded him exiting a bar and kissing a man (Rhimes, 2012). As it turns out, Sully was only pretending to be in a relationship with a woman and hiding his homosexuality (Rhimes, 2012). The issue is that Sully refuses to admit it and hands himself over to the police (Rhimes, 2012). In act five, the resolution, Olivia finds out that the woman claiming to have slept with the president did not lie (Rhimes, 2012). Olivia, formerly in love with the president, confronts him and realizes that she was blinded by her love before convincing her client, Sully, to come out as homosexual (Rhimes, 2012). Overall, Scandal’s (Rhimes, 2012) structure can be seen as the classic three-act structure where the first half of act two is split into another half. The result is a more segmented three-act structure with acts two and three serving a similar purpose.

Figure 1: Still from "Scandal" (Rhimes, 2012).

Close to the five-act structure is the four-act structure which is used in Breaking Bad (Gilligan, 2008). Unlike Scandal (Rhimes, 2012), Breaking Bad (Gilligan, 2008) opens with a teaser. Spanning three pages of the script and three minutes forty-five seconds in the pilot, the teaser shows Walter White, the main character, losing control of a Winnebago and crashing (Gilligan, 2008). The pilot presents the story of an overqualified high school science teacher who becomes a drug dealer to provide for his family (Gilligan, 2008). In act one, much like Scandal (Rhimes, 2012), the audience is introduced to the main character and the setting. Walter has a disabled son, a pregnant wife, works two jobs to make ends meet, and his brother-in-law is a DEA agent (Gilligan, 2008). By the end of act one, Walter is diagnosed with lung cancer (Gilligan, 2008). In act two, Walter deals with the main conflict (Gilligan, 2008). The main conflict is not the cancer as it is inoperable, there is nothing to be done; rather, it is Walter’s poverty (Gilligan, 2008). Walter goes on a ride-along with Hank, his brother-in-law, and while Hank and other DEA agents are busting a meth lab, Walter witnesses a cook fleeing the scene, Jesse Pinkman (Gilligan, 2008). Walter decides to work with Pinkman to deal meth and make money (Gilligan, 2008). Just like Scandal (Rhimes, 2012), act three is an extension of act two and Walter and Pinkman prepare for their drug operation (Gilligan, 2008). Act four combines both the lowest moment, otherwise known as the “crisis” (Chamberlain, 2016, p.101), and the resolution. In the standard feature film structure template, the crisis is at the end of act two and the resolution is during act three (Trottier, 2014, p.5). Walter and Pinkman’s drug deal goes south when the buyers threaten to kill them and Walter manages to knock them out with gas and escape (Gilligan, 2008). By the end of the episode, Walter has a lot of money from the drug deal (Gilligan, 2008).

Figure 2: Still from "Breaking Bad" (Gilligan, 2008).

In a similar vein, The Promised Neverland (Kanbe, 2019), uses a three-act structure. The two previous examples were an hour long while this show is a half-hour drama. The Promised Neverland (Kanbe, 2019) is the story of orphans under the age of 12 that grow up hoping to be adopted when, in reality, they are killed and eaten by a race of demons. The structure is a teaser, three acts, and a tag. In the one-minute teaser, Emma, Norman, and Ray, the main characters, talk in front of a large gate. They are told that the world beyond the gate is dangerous to which Ray replies: “That’s obviously a lie” (Kanbe, 2019, 00:00:30). This lie becomes the basis of the show. Like normal, act one sets up the characters and their setting. The protagonists go about their daily lives in the orphanage with the other children and the only adult supervising them is Mom (Kanbe, 2019). In act two, the protagonists start doubting the truth of their world (Kanbe, 2019). None of the characters have ever ventured outside the orphanage limits, and no one has come inside; only an absurdly low fence marks the frontier outside the orphanage (Kanbe, 2019). Naturally, the three protagonists cast doubts on the outside world. If it is truly dangerous, then why is the fence so low? Why are there no dangerous animals around? How come no one has stumbled onto the orphanage by accident? Why do they never hear from the children that were supposedly adopted? Emma, Norman, and Ray understand that something larger is at play (Kanbe, 2019). In act three, one of the younger children, Conny, is shipped for adoption and Emma and Norman notice that Conny forgot her favorite stuffed bunny (Kanbe, 2019). They rush to the gate, hoping to give it back before she leaves (Kanbe, 2019). Then, they find Conny’s dead body in the back of a truck (Kanbe, 2019). Hiding from approaching voices, they discover that children are fed to demons (Kanbe, 2019). The resolution of the pilot is quite short where Emma and Norman decide to escape the orphanage with all the children despite the low odds of success (Kanbe, 2019). The episode’s final image lasts all of five seconds. It is Mom, the adult responsible for providing demons with children to eat, finding Conny’s stuffed doll by the gate; she understands that someone was there (Kanbe, 2019). This tag announces trouble to come in the next episode.

Figure 3: Conny's death. Still from "The Promised Neverland" (Kanbe, 2019).

Season structures often mimic that of feature films, simply because a full narrative arc concludes by the end. A TV show may not conclude its complete narrative as future seasons are likely to be produced. Nonetheless, a single season typically ends its own self-contained story. For instance, in Blue Locke (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022), the final episode sets up the following season, opening a new storyline. The first season is still considered a full narrative arc since the protagonist, Isagi, evolved as a character all loose ends have been tied in a resolution (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). Blue Lock (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022) is a TV show in which Isagi competes to become the greatest football striker in the world. To accomplish this goal, he enters Blue Lock, a facility made for the specific purpose of producing the best striker (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). Consisting of 24 episodes, the first season of Blue Lock (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022) uses a three-act structure. Act one only spans two episodes and these two episodes set the show’s premise where only one of the 300 participants will emerge as the greatest striker and everyone else will be banned from ever playing on the national team (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). Blue Lock is a place that encourages egoism, only the top goalscorer will rise while everyone else will be prohibited from achieving their dream of playing for the national team (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). Act Two lasts 18 episodes and is divided into two halves; the first sequence shows the first Blue Lock selection (8 episodes) while the second is the second selection (10 episodes) (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). Act one showed Isagi as one of the weakest strikers, ranked 299 of 300 and in act two, Isagi struggles against better players (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). Act two is where the character must adapt to overcome a struggle (McKee, 1997, p. 146). In a round-robin tournament, five teams composed of nothing but strikers compete and only the top goalscorers of every team and the two winning teams will move on to the next selection (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). Isagi will develop his skills as a striker and understand what makes him unique (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). Although everyone is stronger, faster, taller, and more resilient than him, he adapts as a character through each obstacle (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). In the fourth episode, Isagi discovers that his skill lies within field awareness (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). Moving on to the second selection, Isagi truly learns his unique ability: adaptability (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). With his deep spatial awareness, he has the cognitive capacity to predict the sequence of moves that will lead to a goal (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). Similarly to the way single episodes will pair acts two and three with one being an extension of the other, Blue Locke (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022) pairs both halves of the second act. This is a crucial distinction with the popular screenplay paradigm that needs a midpoint between the halves (Field, 2006, p. 234). According to Brody (2018), a novelist, this midpoint has a dynamic function that often raises the stakes of the story:

The Midpoint is magic. It’s the pivot point in the story. [...] It is precisely the center of the hero’s transformative arc, and we must use that to our advantage and make the middle as dynamic and exciting as possible. (p. 50)

There is no such dynamic centerpiece in Blue Lock (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022) because Isagi simply goes from one selection to the next. The stakes always stay the same throughout the season: losing means giving up the dream of playing on the national team (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). By the end of act two, Isagi is completely changed from act one; he is now ranked 15 instead of 299 (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). The show ends with the final two episodes that compose act three. The Blue Lock facility manager announces that they must beat Japan’s U20 soccer team or everyone will be disqualified (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022); this is the premise of the second season.

Figure 4: Isagi and his teammates in the first selection. Still from "Blue Lock" (Ishikawa & Watanabe, 2022).

The wide variety of TV show structure designs multiplies the methods of storytelling. Unlike feature film scripts, TV script literature has yet to fully form a decisive methodology. By observing many structures across different lengths and formats, a pattern emerges within episodes and full seasons. In Scandal (Rhimes, 2012), a five-act structure without any teasers or tags is preferred over other designs. This allows for a greater narrative ability to weave subplots through the episodes, layering a serialized style over its primarily procedural format. Not needing these elements, the purely serialized Breaking Bad (Gilligan, 2008) is built with a teaser and four acts. Walter’s family subplots are tethered to the main plot line as it spawns from it (Gilligan, 2008). He wants to provide for his family, therefore he deals drugs (Gilligan, 2008). For half-hour shows, a teaser, three acts, and a tag like The Promised Neverland (Kanbe, 2019) is a popular method. Significantly shorter than its hour-long counterpart, half-hour TV shows tend to prioritize the main plot since little time is available to entertain secondary storylines. Blue Lock (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022) also avoids spending too much time on subplots for the same reason. Despite the long runtime, a full season typically adopts the standard screenplay template for feature films. Although minor modifications can be made, such as preparing for the following season in the end or omitting the midpoint, both practices are seen in shows like Blue Lock (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022).

Bibliographical References

Batty C. & A. McAulay. (2016). The Academic Screenplay: Approaching Screenwriting as a Research Practice. Writing in Practice (9).

Brody, J. (2018). Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. Ten Speed Press.

Chamberlain, J. (2016). The Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting. University of Texas Press.

Douglas, P. (2011). Writing the TV Drama Series (3rd edition). Michael Wiese Productions.

Field, S. (2006). The Screenwriter’s Workbook (revised edition). Delta.

Gilligan, V. (Creator). (2008). Breaking Bad. Sony Pictures Television.

Ishikawa, S. & Watanabe, T. (Directors). (2022). Blue Lock. Eight Bit.

Kanbe, M. (Director). (2019). The Promised Neverland. CloverWorks.

Malbon, J. & A. Moran. (2006). Understanding the Global TV Format. Intellect Ltd.

McKee, R. (1997). Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. Harper Collins.

Miller, K. (2016). The Hero Succeeds: The Character-Driven Guide to Writing Your TV Pilot. High & Low Media.

Miyamoto, K. (2023, March 3). The Screenwriter's Simple Guide to TV Writing. Screencraft.

Rhimes, S. (2012). Scandal. ABC Studios.

Script University. (n.d.). The Five Act 60 Minute Drama Script.

Trottier, D. (2014). The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. (6th ed.). Silman-James Press.

Visual Sources

1 Comment

Leonard Britolli
Leonard Britolli
Nov 20, 2023

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