A question I’m always asked is:
If I’m writing a spec script for an existing sitcom, should it be in a two-act or three-act format.
Some backstory. For years sitcoms followed the two-act formula. There was a big commercial break in the middle. Then some networks decided it would easier to retain the audience if they sprinkled the commercials throughout. Thus there were two breaks during the body of the show, not one. And thus the three-act format was born (or hatched).
This is important information because it means that the template was changed not so that stories could be better told but because of commerce.
My feeling always was that if I did my job and constructed an act break strong enough, it would hold the viewer through the commercials. The great Carl Reiner had an expression when he ran THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. He wanted his act breaks to be “Hey, Maes!” The husband is watching the show in the living room and the act break is so compelling he yells out to his wife who’s in another room, “Hey, Mae! You gotta get out here and see this!”
The two-act structure is clearly better for storytelling in such a brief period of time. Plays can be three-acts, but they can also be three hours. Sitcoms get about twenty minutes. The two-act format: In the first act you build to a peak problem. Then in the second you resolve it. Nice. Neat. Hopefully the animated promo for WHITNEY at the bottom of the screen is not too distracting and you can follow the storyline. In the three-act structure you work towards a problem in the first act, work towards a complication in the second, and then have only a few minutes to resolve it in the third. Sometimes the animated promos are as long as the acts.
So what do you do if you’re writing a spec for an existing sitcom and they employ the three-act model? First, I would always follow the format the show uses. Showing them how they could do their series better does not generally win points.
But I would hedge. I would make one of the act breaks very strong, preferably the first one. The second is a complication and I’d make it a funny one if possible. So you’re ending that act on a good laugh. This structure does have one advantage: It forces you to get right to your story and build to an act break quickly. Young writers often get lost meandering around at the beginning of their scripts, trying to find the voices of the characters and just get comfortable writing that show. This structure reduces that.
Here’s how I plot out sitcom episodes: I come up with premise, then decide the act break (or breaks), arrive at a conclusion, and then fill in from there. I don’t plot A to B to C to D. I plot A to D to F then fill in B, C, etc. And along the way I’m always looking for the funniest, cleverest, most surprising ways to tell that story.
One other point: You have to follow this three-act structure because that’s what your show uses. But agents are also going to ask you for original material. At that point it’s totally up to you. It’s your pilot. You set the format. See how the story works best for you. Or, if you write a one-act play, it can be one-act.
As always, best of luck. Someone has to break through. Why not you?
Note: Longtime readers of this blog know that whenever I can't find an appropriate photo I post one of Natalie Wood.