Film & TV

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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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 ...


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What a great class! I'm novelist and I have already put some of her techniques into editing my current novel. Highly recommend to ALL writers!

Amazing insights and practical advice from an inspirational leader in her field. I found both the lessons and assignments incredibly useful!

Shonda was an open book. It was a great insight to her process.

A great guide for learning how to write from a pro. A great class on helping you feel confident about trying to write and about the dos and don'ts in the business


Comments

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!....

EK T.

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.

EK T.

Good lesson. Final Draft has a great template for writing a screenplay. (1-3-5 Structure). Its a good method to tell if you have a story before you get started and end up getting writers' block. That template doesn't really work for a television script. Glad Ms. Rhimes laid this out so specifically. it is extremely helpful.

ernest C.

i wonder; i want to get the script out and pitch a shout but-i also think about promo for a book. what cha think?

PAOLO I.

It's very enlightening !!! They way you learn things watching tv show is important, but when it comes to structure your work it's necessary to follow advices from someone who's in the business.

Natalie F.

What a great lesson this was! It really gets into how a show keeps viewers engaged and wanting more. Very helpful! Thanks!