To submit requests for assistance, or provide feedback regarding accessibility, please contact

Arts & Entertainment

Writing a Script: Structure

Shonda Rhimes

Lesson time 8:29 min

Shonda breaks down the five acts of television and what needs to be accomplished in each one to tell an effective story in a one-hour drama.

Shonda Rhimes
Teaches Writing for Television
In 6+ hours of video lessons, Shonda teaches you her playbook for writing and creating hit television.
Get Started


A one-hour drama is generally five acts of a show. It's a one-hour drama separated into five parts, probably about 55 pages, although they can be longer. I think my pilot for Grey's Anatomy might have originally been 72 pages long. They tend to be long. But between 55 and 60 pages long, divided pretty much evenly into five acts. There's sometimes a teaser, for some people, at the front. For Scandal, if you look at Scandal that's what you see when you see, like, there's a little bit of Scandal, and then you see the little photo snaps and then the word "Scandal" appears on the screen. What happens before that is called the teaser. And that's pretty much how it's structured. It's very clean. At the end of every act you want to have something happen that turns the story, meaning that the story should then head in a new direction each time you hit the end of an act. In Act One of your story, you really need to introduce your characters in an exciting way and set up your world in an exciting way. It should be visual. It should be intriguing, and it should draw the audience in. You introduce your characters, you set up your world, and you present your problem, whatever your problem is going to be. It doesn't have to be, necessarily, something big and dramatic. Sometimes it can be something very quiet. It just depends on what kind of show you're doing. Think about things like the show Parenthood versus Grey's versus, I don't know, Breaking Bad. They all have very different ways of presenting their problem. But present your problem. And then in Act Two, you really want to sort of step things up. You want things to get worse, you want the situations-- and by get worse, I mean escalate. Your situations escalate. Things heat up for your characters, either in a good way or a bad way. You start to expand your world a little bit. You meet more people. You understand the world better. In Act Three, which is the center of your show-- it sort of spans the right-in-the-middle of your show, the middle 11 pages, I like to say-- you want things to sort of start to peak. Things get really hot. Things either take a turn for the worse or a turn for the most exciting, as sometimes we like to say. And you sort of get either really worried or really frightened or really engaged. Or it's sort of that moment when you're thinking, like, hold on to your seats. At the end of that the story usually turns in a different direction, I always like to say, like a surprising turn that you weren't expecting to go in. In a procedural sometimes that's when a new piece of evidence pops up; that's what I like to joke. In Act Four, that's when the ticking clock happens, when you know that you have this amount of time to do something. For many shows when there's no ticking clock it's really when the characters start to really reveal themselves as who ...

Make Great Television

When Shonda Rhimes pitched Grey’s Anatomy she got so nervous she had to start over. Twice. Since then, she has created and produced TV’s biggest hits. In her screenwriting class, Shonda teaches you how to create compelling characters, write a pilot, pitch your idea, and stand out in the writers’ room. You’ll also get original pilot scripts, pitch notes, and series bibles from her shows. Welcome to Shondaland.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Shonda did an excellent job removing the mystery from the business of TV writing.

I've purchased multiple MasterClass courses. This is the best. Shonda is a genius at the medium; as good at this, I mean to say, as she is at writing stories the country loves.

So far I am loving everything about the lessons I am getting and the instructions and information I am getting from Shonda. Thank you for your time.

Extremely well rounded and informative teacher that helps you understand writing from start to finish.



While the basic principles of structure were laid out, the explanation of A, B, C stories were very surface and I didn't really get a sense of how each are different, how they function together, or if all of them should be appear in the script. Also, how does this work if you have a series with two main characters.


Ahh, so THIS is that invisible lining going on that you definitely notice when some shows begin to diverge from that. Like, when a show focused on other characters where the show is all about the life of pretty much one character. I guess they [the writers] figured they can get more episodes to go off the main character, whose name IS the name of the show :)

Ken F.

Does anyone have a recommendation on where to obtain the structure for a 30 minute comedic script as this lesson is all about a one hour drama?

william S.

I can't find Shonda's pitch document for GREY'S anywhere here -- how can I access it?

Janice H.

Even though this is for a TV episode script, I was able to apply the five-act concept + beat sheet (in next lesson) to structure the chapters of a novel I'm writing. I was interested in watching Shonda's MasterClass because even though I am not interested in TV writing, I think a lot can be learned from TV on how to keep any story interesting and continuously moving. I had started writing a book outline first, but preceding that with the beat sheet is even better. Thank you for the great tips, Shonda!

Aaron F.

Sooo what are the rules in YOUR opinion? She does this a lot so far where she gives vague advice and then tells you to figure it out. I understand much of this craft is subjective but we trust you (we paid you) so just give us your specific experience and personal preferences. Then we can take what is useful for own needs and discard what doesn't fit.

Démie L.

Hello! On the downloadable document, on the page for this "episode" (p.23), bottom of the page "take it further", the first point "Learn more about structuring a script for television" should be a link, but (on my side at least) it's unclickable :( Is is possible to have the link post somewhere we can see? :)

AdeRonke A.

I'm loving all the lessons so far. Each and every one of them but I like that she reiterates being well versed of 'the rules'

Marcus M.

So many details I did not consider. As a musician, I like how some of these concepts translate to music and audio production!....


I was able to make a nice template from this lesson and the Blacklist method. It is still difficult to create dramatic moments the sound authentic.