Arts & Entertainment, Writing

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.

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Topics include: The Five Acts of Television • Ending Acts • A, B, C Stories


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 ...

About the Instructor

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.

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Shonda Rhimes

In 6+ hours of video lessons, Shonda teaches you her playbook for writing and creating hit television.

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