Okay, so yesterday I was in a cheeky mood and was goofing off a bit about, and making fun of how many acts there are now in all television programing. It seems that it changes every year and there is no fast and steady rule.
A group of writers had this email thread going through about this and so I thought I would share some of the replies because I think the advice given to the writer who asked, “How many acts in a sitcom” was well written, smart and will help others who may or may not be in that group, but read my blog. So here it is.
THE ORIGINAL QUESTION:
Quick question: What is the most popular contemporary, single-cam sitcom act structure?
3 Acts plus a teaser.
3 Act without a teaser.
3 Acts, but the first act is the teaser.
2 Acts plus a teaser.
If anyone knows, on good authority, I’d appreciate it!
~~~~This is a good question. My thought is that this is the most common format:
That’s the format for The Office, 30 Rock, Modern Family, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Community.
30 Rock is Cold Open/Teaser, 2 Acts, and sometimes a tag, and so is the Office
It depends on the showrunner. Formats change. Network television comedies had been multi-camera formats for so long that some writers have stick to that form of storytelling. There should be one great act break. But, obviously, some storytelling has changed due also in part to advertising. For single camera, the general format is a simple three act structure. For multi-camera, it is usually a two act structure with teaser and tag. It’s pointless to get caught up in how many acts are in what. If you don’t have a strong story, it doesn’t matter what the structure is. Too many writers stifle themselves by all this worry. Have a strong story and make sure you’re as funny as possible on the page.
~~~~True, story is what matters, but we know that presentation is also crucial.
If you’re writing a spec, respect what the show is doing currently. True, some shows like 30 Rock have moved from 2 to three acts, without counting cold opens or tags. Don’t date a spec by using the old format.
If you’re writing a pilot, it might be better to go with the new trend of 3 acts as well, but I think you have more freedom to structure your own pilot the way you see fit.
~~~~The other thing to keep in mind, the “I liked it, but…” comment usually comes from either the “I want to help you and this is all I noticed” camp, or the “something in my gut doesn’t like something, but I can’t put my finger on it so I’m gonna comment on structure” camp. Hopefully yours is of the former.
But whenever I have been privy to comments/feedback on my own or other writers’ work, and the comment is about format or structure or some measurable thing that’s supposed to have rules in Hollywood but really doesn’t, it’s usually because the person critiquing can’t put their finger on the problem or doesn’t know how to express it…so they resort to “the act structure’s wrong,” or “you’ve formatted this improperly,” or “you should be using the ____ template in Final Draft.”
So if you’re only getting this comment from one person, toss it out (depending on who it is, of course). It’s your pilot anyway. But… if you get it from more than one, or variations of comments on the theme, you may want to just look at your act breaks…if your act breaks are good, no one’s gonna have a problem with how many act breaks you have…unless you have ten or some craziness like that. Focus on making your act breaks solid. Ultimately, this is one of the more important elements people use to analyze your writing. And if you have solid breaks and a compelling story, no one’s gonna have issues with how many acts you have.
But, it’s your pilot. Yes, you should follow the trends so people know you can play in the current sandbox (sit-coms: 3 + teaser/tag; dramas: 5 + teaser/tag), but also be aware that criticisms about structure and format are rarely about structure and format. They often have to do with something that’s not working on the story level.
My experience has been a lot like what people mention up here. True I don’t know as much about sitcoms as I do with dramas. I took a class with a well known showrunner and he said that the standard is always a teaser/cap and two acts, but even his shows don’t follow that anymore.
I know in DRAMA the standard is 4 acts with a possible teaser and or cap. It does really depend on the show.
I believe that story is the most important factor. Case in point. I wrote a spec of a popular ABC show, a drama 3 summers ago and at the time knew nothing about TV structure, so I did a 3 act with a teaser. They liked my story. They said my characters were well developed and I got work on that actual show-which is rare from a spec because no matter how brilliant you are, it is nearly impossible to do it even close to right in the eyes of the writers that do it every day. They also passed my work along to other shows at the network. I didn’t get work from it, but was read by a lot of people over there, and I learned a lot. The only comment I received about structure was that I should learn it.
My advice, take it or leave it, is to get copies of the show you are writing and follow it, get the latest episodes you can. Shows change over the seasons so you are doing yourself an injustice if you follow something from a few years ago. The WGA library has almost everything you need if you can’t find it elsewhere.
If you are doing your own pilot, then if it were me, (and it is actually), I would follow a show that I love as a model, or a show that is close to what I am writing.
It is amazing to me that we all grew up learning that it is always 3 acts, and to be fair, it really is still, just will some act breaks throughout.
Have fun, write a killer story and the rest you can learn.