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Screenwriting 102: Tune in - Analysis of TV Script Structure

Foreword


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:

  1. Screenwriting 102: Tune in - Analysis of TV Script Structure

  2. Screenwriting 102: Binge Watching - Analysis of Popular Show Structures

  3. Screenwriting 102: Workshop - Building the Perfect Scene

Screenwriting 102: Tune in - Analysis of TV Script Structure


The three-act structure dominates standard screenplay structure for feature films. Blake Snyder (2005), author of two screenwriting manuals, notes that discovering the existence of three acts saved his career as a successful screenwriter (p. 69). The feature film script only came to the forefront of the film industry in the late 70s with the proliferation of screenwriting manuals such as Syd Field’s Screenplay (1979) (Price, 2013, p. 203). This proliferation greatly advanced the art of the script, but was mostly focused on full-length feature films. Consequently, the even more recent art of writing for television is still being defined today. Just like feature film screenplay form and structure came from contemporary writers and industry requirements (Price, 2013, 202), so does the TV script. TV script research is even less developed than the feature film script (Batty & McAulay, 2016). The TV script does not have its analysts and gurus like Blake Snyder (2005) or Robert McKee (1997), both authors of popular screenplay manuals. Nonetheless, TV script structure still exists despite its malleable boundaries.


Although modern storytelling wisdom still applies, feature film and TV scripts use different structures and designs. The main distinction between features and TV is the story requirements. A movie generally features a single-contained story within 90 or more minutes: “Characters continue over many episodes [in TV] instead of concluding a dramatic arc as in a two-hour movie” (Douglas, 2011, p. 57). Movies tend to offer a resolution, formally concluding a narrative. McKee (1997) notes that the classical film design must be closed, offering no alternative interpretation or ending than that in the movie (p. 50). However, TV shows have multiple episodes and seasons (Malbon & Moran, 2006, p. 20). For example, if a single episode concluded with the dramatic arc, subsequent episodes would not be required. If that were true, the film resulting from this practice would be considered either a short or medium-length film. Therefore, TV show scripts must use a different structure since the narrative design is different. Unfortunately, these narrative designs have yet to be extensively studied, as the field of TV screenwriting has only recently expanded to the general understanding of screenplay (Batty & McAulay, 2016). With this major distinction in mind, TV scripts still make use of the traditional screenplay paradigm established by Field (1979) 40 years ago (Figure 1). Every story will feature an exposition beat, conflict, climax, and resolution (Block, 2007, p. 225), which is why Field's (2005) paradigm still applies. Considering the lack of readily available research on this relatively new medium, previous screenwriting tools must be consulted to understand the TV script.


Figure 1: Field's (2005) paradigm.

This paradigm has appeared throughout the discussions in Screenwriting 101 (Praet, 2023) since it is the most basic yet efficient form of screenplay structure. Its three-act structure is often utilized for a show’s entire season. In the show Blue Lock (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022), act one goes for two episodes, explaining the setting and the hero’s main objective. Blue Lock is a premium facility designed to produce the greatest football striker of all time (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). The protagonist, Isagi, wants to be said striker (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). The first half of act two, lasting across eight episodes, shows Isagi struggling in the first obstacle of the training facility (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). Isagi barely manages to make it past the first selection and onto the second half of act two (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). This section is 10 episodes long and Isagi must once again evolve to further develop his skills as a striker having to go against his friends (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). The final act, like the first one, is only two episodes in length. It concludes Isagi’s initial adventure in Blue Lock without any loose ends (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). In contrast to the paradigm, Blue Lock (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022) prepares the audience for more adventures by showcasing new stakes and challenges. Indeed, Isagi and all other members of Blue Lock must face Japan’s national U20 team. In the event of a victory, they will take over the U20 team. For a loss, Blue Lock will be dissolved and all members will lose their chance at being the greatest striker (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022). By announcing the main challenge and the stakes facing the protagonist, Blue Lock (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022) excites the viewer for the following season. Disregarding the ending, this TV show uses the three-act paradigm.


Figure 2: Isagi learns to score by himself. Still from "Blue Lock" (Watanabe & Ishikawa, 2022).

At first, TV shows were designed for broadcast networks (Miyamoto, 2018). Television used to be the only way to watch a TV show. Advertisement breaks were often interspersed within the show (Miller, 206, p. 69). Consequently, the TV script structure was adapted to fit this new medium that requires specific breaks. The acts are divided according to the commercial breaks (Miller, 2016, p. 69). The result was four and five-act structures made to accommodate advertisements (Miyamoto, 2023). Since TV shows are typically shorter than movies, lasting anywhere between 20 and 60 minutes, it would make sense to use fewer acts. However, due to the specific advertisement-friendly medium, the script was divided into further acts. The medium specificity does not stop there. Two additional acts flank the main four or five acts. These are called the teaser and the tag. The teaser is a short opening to the episode (Trottier, 2014, p. 264). It is often less than five minutes, but the teaser is mostly defined by its function as a pre-opening credit sequence rather than length (TV Tropes, n.d.). Netflix’s 2021 hit show Arcane (Linke & Yee) opens with a three-and-a-half-minute long teaser; How to Get Away With Murder (Nowalk, 2014), has a two-minute teaser; The Office (Daniels, 2005) has a shorter teaser lasting only one minute and 20 seconds. It is quite rare nowadays for a TV episode to avoid including a teaser, especially for the pilot (Trottier, 2014, p. 264). Furthermore, comedy shows usually employ the word cold open instead of teaser despite accomplishing the same function (Miyamoto, 2023). The tag is a short epilogue that concludes the episode or features a cliffhanger to excite the audience for the next episode (Trottier, 2014, p. 265). Not every show or pilot has one. For instance, the Breaking Bad (Gilligan, 2008) pilot has only a teaser and four acts. The Arcane (Linke & Yee, 2021) pilot features a teaser, and three acts, and ends with a tag that introduces a new variable to the story, showing that there’s more to come. Arcane’s (2021) three-act structure highlights an evolution in the TV script that is marked by the rise of premium-cable shows and streaming services. The main advantage provided by these new services is the erasure of commercial breaks, thus allowing writers to structure their episodes as they please instead of being forced to create advertisement-specific act breaks (Miller, 2016, p. 65).


Since literature concerning TV scripture and act design is quite limited, structure theory tends to be quite vague. Additionally, the half-hour and hour-long formats multiply possible variations. Kam Miller, TV writer and author of The Hero Succeeds: The Character-Driven Guide to Writing Your TV Pilot (2016), notes that modern shows can have a teaser and four acts, a teaser and five acts, a five act, or even a six-act structure (p. 69). These are not the only options, but it proves that TV structure is much more diverse than standard feature film structures. Highlighting the lack of literature on TV scripts, The Hero Succeeds (2016) is listed in the top 20 books on TV writing (Hellerman, 2020), despite the fact that Miller is only credited for writing two episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (Wolf, 1999). Nonetheless, she is correct in claiming that many different types of structures can be used to write for TV. However, this variation causes rather imprecise descriptions of each act. While Field (1979) and Snyder (2005) added beats and definitions to their functions within a whole dramatic arc, TV acts are rather malleable. This is due to the open nature of TV episodes where the narrative does not necessarily conclude even if there is an overarching story within an entire season. Act One simply introduces the story for the episode (Miyamoto, 2023). In act two, characters deal with a conflict introduced in the previous act or this one (Miyamoto, 2023). During act three, the characters are at their lowest point, similar to Snyder’s (2005) “All is Lost” (Miyamoto, 2023). In act four, the characters overcome the conflict or begin to overcome it (Miyamoto, 2023). Unfortunately, these descriptions are about as accurate as can be considering the many structure variations in TV.


Adding to these variations are show types. Three main types of shows exist: the serialized show, the procedural, and the stand-alone (Miller, 2016, pp. 264-265). TV shows are often divided by their format, such as half-hour and hour-long (Trottier, 2014, p. 127). The former is simplified to comedy and the latter to drama (Trottier, 2014, p. 127). The simplification is technically correct as comedies rarely last an hour and dramas often do (Miyamoto, 2018). However, the hour-long is not limited to dramas as fantasy, thriller, and science fiction are also popular genres fitting the format (Miyamoto, 2018). Regardless of their length, TV shows will fall into one of the three categories defined by Miller (2016, pp. 264-265). Serialized shows have stories that continue from one episode to the next: “Serialized shows are TV series with complex, continuing stories that unfold from episode to episode. Each episode’s story builds on the last episode’s story” (Miller, 2016, pp. 264-265). Breaking Bad (Gilligan, 2008) and The Walking Dead (Darabont, 2010) are examples of serialized shows as their storylines continue from one episode to the next. As a whole, they could be thought of as extremely long films, whereas procedural shows have a new story every episode (Miller, 2016, p. 265). Procedural shows tend to revolve around detectives, doctors, or lawyers (Miller, 2016, p. 265). House (Shore, 2004) and Scandal (Rhimes, 2012) are such examples. In House (2004), Dr. Gregory House takes on a new patient every episode and tries to cure their mysterious illness and every episode is a new case. Miller (2016) accurately states that the serialized and procedural genres can overlap. For instance, in Scandal (Rhimes, 2012), the protagonist, Olivia Pope, has a new case in every episode, but she also has her own overarching story that continues throughout the season. Thus, it is a procedural show with serialized elements.

Figure 4: Olivie Pope's affair with the president unfolds over multiple episodes. Still from "Scandal" (Rhimes, 2012).

The final type of show is the stand-alone (Miller, 2016, p. 265). Stories are contained within a single episode and the fiction world resets every episode. For example, Family Guy (MacFarlane, 1999) and Modern Family (2009) are considered stand-alone shows. Each episode portrays the same status quo world with a new event to tackle. However, there may be overlap between genres. Miller (2016) indicates that Modern Family (Levitan & Lloyd, 2009) includes some serialized elements like Haley, one of the main characters, leaving for college. However, this does not change the overall dynamics of each episode and their single-contained stories. TV shows, regardless of type or genre, will see a pattern form for every episode: “Every episode feels like it’s moving a story forward, but it’s just repeating a pattern that was set in the pilot” (Rabkin, 2017, p. 79). This is self-evident for stand-alone shows where the status quo is disturbed by a particular event before being restored at the end. For procedural shows, it is slightly less obvious, but still just as present. A new case is presented every episode, the characters struggle with figuring it out, they make a colossal mistake or something goes wrong, and finally, they resolve the issue. This is simply the standard three-act structure. There is a new case (inciting incident), they struggle to figure it out (act two), everything goes wrong (crisis), and they resolve the problem (act three). William Rabkin (2017), a veteran TV writer credited with over 100 episodes for various shows, notes the same pattern for Sons of Anarchy (Sutter, 2008). In Sons of Anarchy (2008), the protagonist, Jax Teller, detects a threat to one of the three families he leads, moves to protect that family, and his efforts backfire as another family is endangered (Rabkin, 2017, p. 78). It is the same three-act structure with tailoring to a specific show.


As for formatting, the TV script is almost the same as the feature film script (Trottier, 2014, p. 264). The key difference is the act breaks. Indeed, when a new act starts, it must be indicated at the top of the page (Miyamoto, 2023). When an act ends, it should be indicated, although not necessarily at the bottom or top of the page. Not every TV script notes the end acts. Some TV scripts do not include the act breaks at all, although that practice is less common (Miyamoto, 2023).

Figure 5: The pilot script for "Breaking Bad" (Gilligan, 2008).

In conclusion, the high number of variations paired with three main types of shows give an extremely malleable TV script. Even though story principles remain the same across screenplays, the design for TV can take on multiple forms. Whether four, five, or even six acts, TV scripts still stay within the confines of the traditional three-act structure. At least, that is the current understanding of TV scripture. The medium has not been sufficiently studied to reach a definitive conclusion. Therefore, writers and researchers approach TV writing with previous knowledge, that of feature film writing. TV shows belong to one of three main categories, procedural, serialized or stand-alone. No matter which type, they often follow a pattern established by the pilot. This pattern derives from the standard three-act structure. Similarly, the TV screenplay uses nearly the same formatting as its feature film counterpart.

Bibliographical References

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


Block, B. (2007). The Visual Story: Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV and Digital Media. Focal Press.


Darabont, F. (Developer). (2010). The Walking Dead. Idiot Box Productions.


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


Field, S. (2005). Screenplay: the Foundations of Screenwriting (revised edition). Delta. (Original work published in 1979).


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


Hellerman, J. (2020, August 12). The 20 Best Books on TV Writing. No Film School. https://nofilmschool.com/20-best-books-on-tv-writing


Nowalk, P. (Creator). (2015). How to Get Away with Murder. Shondaland.


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


Levitan, S. & C. Lloyd (Creators). (2009). Modern Family. Lloyd-Levitan Productions.


Linke, C. & A. Yee (Creators). (2021). Arcane. Riot Games.


MacFarlane, S. (Creator). (1999). Family Guy. Fuzzy Door Productions.


Malbont, 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. (2018, May 23). How to Structure and Format Your Television Scripts. The Script Lab. https://thescriptlab.com/features/screenwriting-101/8930-how-to-structure-and-format-your-television-scripts/


Miyamoto, K. (2023, March 3). The Screenwriter's Simple Guide to TV Writing. Screencraft. https://screencraft.org/blog/the-screenwriters-guide-to-formatting-television-scripts/


Price, S. (2013). A History of the Screenplay. Palgrave Macmillan.


Rabkin, W. (2017). Writing the Pilot: Creating the Series. Moon & Sun & Whiskey Inc.


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


Shore, D. (Creator). House. Heel and Toe Films.


Snyder, B. (2005). Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Michael Wiese Productions.


Sutter, K. (Creator). (2008). Sons of Anarchy. The Linson Company.


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


Wolf, D. (Creator). (1999). Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Wolf Entertainment.


Visual Sources

Cover image: Dias, R. & Rundell, S. (2020, 5 January). Picture this … fans use art to influence plots on favourite TV shows. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/jan/05/fan-art-of-tv-stars-sparks-exhibitions-and-influences-casting


Figure 1: Giordano, L. (2016, August 31). How to Write a TV Pilot, pt. 3: Structure. Medium. https://medium.com/sitcom-world/how-to-write-a-tv-pilot-pt-3-structure-314253c72b82 https://www.byarcadia.org/post/screenwriting-101-the-history-of-screenwriting


Figure 2: Ishikawa, S. & Watanabe,T. (Directors). (2022). Blue Lock. Eight Bit.


Figure 3: Linke, C. & A. Yee (Creators). (2021). Arcane. Riot Games.


Figure 4: Rhimes, S. (2012). Scandal. ABC Studios.


Figure 5: Gilligan, V. (Creator). (2008). Breaking Bad. Sony Pictures Television.



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Yoran Praet

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