Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Advice for young writers

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.  


Susan said...

Your call to "young writers" inspired this Friday question: is there any hope for a not-so-young writer trying to break into this business?

Mark said...

Actually, I like it when you can't find an "appropriate photo". Natalie Wood died when I was about 13 and her career was mostly off my radar. Truly lovely lady... today's pic is especially striking.

Anonymous said...

Multi cam - two acts

Single cam - three acts


jeff felz said...

ken - how can i get you to autograph your new book?

By Ken Levine said...

Call me, Jeff. I'll arrange it. I'm also going to hopefully have a book sigining in LA so anyone in the area can bring their books and I will sign them.

And I'm trying to figure a way so people out of the area can mail them to me and I can autograph and send them back.

Thanks again to everyone who bought my book.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Coincidentally, I was listening last night to the Nerdist Writer's Panel (in which you participated to great funny effect) and this sort of goes along with examples that you and the other writers gave about learning how to craft a script: follow the template of the show. Write out the scripts to the episodes until you see the patterns.

Raymond Chandler supposedly used the same method when learning to write detective stories.

Martin Engraff said...

Will you autograph my Kindle?

Gary said...

Next time you're in Seattle maybe you could do an autograph 'party'...and bring along some of the stars of your book? Maybe Ann Jillian and Bailey Quarters, I mean, Jan Smithers? But careful where you park, I don't want your junkyard car blocking my fucking driveway!

Breadbaker said...

Friday question, baseball-related:

Ninth innning, one out, 5-3 Padres, Kawasaki on third, Ichiro on first, Ackley swings and misses at strike three in the dirt. Kawasaki scores, Ichiro moves up to second. Ackley runs to first and there's no throw. What result? Your buddy Dave Sims blew this big time last night, I'm afraid.

thesamechris said...

I think you should also have plotted, not for a spec, but for a pilot, something that goes from A to THE END OF THE SEASON to THE END OF SEASON SIX and then THE MOVIE. Because it is a series and not a collection of short films.
I know you complained about how execs would ask about where you'd want to be in season six, but I think this question makes sense, because as a viewer, I want a long story arc that keeps me going from episode to episode even though that main arc is not adressed directly in every episode. There has good to be a long road to go down, and then you go slowly and turn and twist all the way it works and, hopefully, don't just land at the end of season one again like Lost did. It was still always awesome though.

David Willis said...

Hey Ken -- what about webseries? We're doing one and the episodes are 5 minutes long. We don't think in acts so much as in "beginning, middle, and end." We start with the inciting incident/problem on the first page, lay on the complications, then resolve it on the last page. But the last page also adds a hint of further new problems, so it leads into the next episode. (If you'd like to see the pitch for our show -- here is the kickstarter page for our show "Girl Powerless":
(I hope it's ok to link to that. If not -- sorry about that!)

-- David Willis (screenwriter, and former audience warmup guy for "Frasier")

Dave Creek said...

Ken, instead of having people out of the area send you their books, have them request book plates.

Saves on postage and saves your back carrying all those books!

By Ken Levine said...


I didn't see the play but if first base is occupied with less than two outs Ackley is automatically out. No throw is necessary to first base. The runners move up on either a passed ball or wild pitch.

If that's not what happened, what did?

Anonymous said...

Good diagram of the three act cycle at

Johnny Walker said...

Great stuff! Thanks, Ken!

Matt Payne said...

Any thoughts on the (presumably commerce-instigated) four-act structure being employed by Fox? More specifically: If a two-act follows the problem-break-resolution format, and a three-act follows the problem-break-complication-break-resolution format, what's expected of each act when broken into fourths? Thanks!

Sean Ryan McBride said...

I am in the process of writing a episode of a sitcom I am creating. (The pilot has not been written yet.) The show I am creating has a three act structure. For the episode I am writing I have finished act 1. I know how I want act 3 to go but I am viciously stuck on act 2. So I suppose I have two questions for you.

1.) What do you do when you hit a roadblock mid episode?

2.) How do you pitch a new sitcom to a show?

Thank you for your time,

Sean Ryan McBride