Wyndham: I want to put together some spec scripts but I'm uncertain whether to build in act breaks to them, for example if they were targeted at a commercial network. What's your advice on this. If it is a good idea, where do they go - every 15 pages, 20 pages? What?
I presume you’re talking about TV scripts. I have read feature specs that put in ‘End of Act One’, ‘End of Act Two’ etc but this feels slightly inappropriate, as if the writer is making it clear to the reader that there is a definite and purposeful structure in place, should they be stupid enough not to recognise it.
For TV scripts though, it’s not such a bad idea. However, I would avoid the ‘End of Act One’ terminology and instead use ‘End of Part One’ as it’s easily recognisable as an ‘ad break’ in the script. And generally, yes, every 15 or 20 pages is a good ballpark to aim for.
If you use official terms such as ‘end of act one’, you risk alienating the reader/exec with your presumptuous knowledge of structure and storytelling technique. Some readers may call into question whether your act break is indeed an act break or just a normal transition from one scene to another. And putting ‘End of Act One’ into your narrative just gives them an excuse to hate your script and stamp a big fat PASS all over their coverage.
I’ve recently completed writing/script editing a new animation TV series and, from the very start, the producers requested that the writers develop their synopsis, outlines and scripts in a clear three act structure. In other words, we were to specifically mark out the act breaks. These became more ‘cliffhangers’ rather than ‘act breaks’ but in essence, the producers wanted to ensure that there were clear ad breaks within the story, which would make for more captivating stories and to improve the chances of selling the show to commercial broadcasters once it’s ready to go.
The routine of developing each story around a three-act structure became very useful. It enabled us to quickly discover whether we had enough plot or story to spin around the initial springboard premise. A lot of writers had good ideas but sometimes struggled to fill 24 mins of screen time when it came to developing the story. If anything, it was a valuable reminder that a good knowledge of craft and structure can help you and your story rather than make you feel bound or restricted by conventions and clichés.
So, to recap: ‘End of Act One/etc’, that’s generally a no-no. ‘End of Part One’, this is more suitable and acceptable, especially for spec TV scripts. However, overall, you’re probably best to leave out your flagged intention of where the ad breaks should go. You could certainly prepare the stories in this manner, so you know the plot is hanging together in a tight structure, but then just let the script flow naturally in one piece. A good reader/exec will get the jist or pick up on the structure, if it’s working to its full effect, so don’t worry too much.