Why Professional TV Writers Use 4 Act Structure – Pamela Douglas

Film Courage: You say that once streaming hit it changed everything?

Pamela Douglas, Author/Professor of Screenwriting: Streaming changed everything because it allowed people to make more choices. It also allowed more production, it also broadened the idea of the structure of television because way back in the earlier 2000’s and before that everything was in a four-act structure on television because it had to allow for advertising every 13 minutes or so. You would divide your 60-minutes into roughly four acts, roughly four 15-minute segments. They weren’t really exactly 15 minutes but something like that so there could be a commercial break at the end of each one. The traditional structure was the show’s title with even a theme song then sometimes there was a small commercial even right away and then there’s the teaser anywhere from 30-seconds to five minutes which literally teases the action. Sometimes in a procedural it would give you the crime or the case to be solved then they’d be a commercial. Then you’d go into act one which would go to roughly 18-20 minutes, 18-20 pages, then they’d be a commercial. Act two would go to roughly 30-ish pages, this is traditional. At break act three, which is the worst case the climactic encounter, would go to roughly page 45-ish and then at four would go to the end and would be slightly shorter would probably be 57, 58 or 55 minutes. Then there’d be another act break and another commercial then it got longer. In 2006 ABC decided that they wanted to go to six acts in order to stick in more commercials and so you ended up with a very long act one so the people wouldn’t lose you. Then they break…(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).

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Pamela Douglas is an award-winning writer with numerous credits in television drama. The Fourth Edition of her book Writing the TV Drama Series (2018) has been adopted by network mentoring programs, and foreign language editions have been published in Germany, Italy, China, Spain and used around the globe. She is also author of the 2015 book The Future of Television: Your Guide to Creating TV in the New World. She has been honored with the prestigious Humanitas Prize for “Between Mother and Daughter” (CBS), an original drama. Multiple Emmy and Writers Guild nominations and awards from American Women in Radio and Television went to other dramas she wrote. She was a creator of the PBS series Ghostwriter, Story Editor of the Emmy-winning CBS series, Frank’s Place and wrote for A Year in the Life, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. She has also been a member of the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America, west. At the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts she is a professor in the screenwriting division where she specializes in television. 


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