ConStar Studies The Evolution of TV Act Breaks

In my “study” of how to write television, I’ve taken out loads of books on how to write specs, for both dramas (and sitcoms, but this post focuses on hour-long dramatic structure). I’m a person who very much likes a structure/visual idea before I start something, so having something that tells me approximately where certain story beats go. Something like The Hero’s Journey (which is often used for film/epic stories, match up the steps with Star Wars or the Lion King for examples of how it works) or Dan Harmon’s Plot Embryos/Circles are really my bread and butter when understanding how stories work, more than just beg/mid/end or exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, dénouement. I like details.

Unlike Joseph Campbell’s monomyth (which I know as The Hero’s Journey), which stems from mythology, television is an always evolving medium. So I have to be careful when taking books out that explain how one should divide their tv scripts, important for identifying satisfying ways to build up to the act breaks. A few years ago, act structure was simpler. Four acts for a drama, two for a sitcom. Commercial breaks came in between those breaks and it was easy to figure out how to split up the plot so that each act went out on a high moment: a reveal, a funny line, a dramatic charge, etc.

A big twist came at the Act 2 break (to hold viewers over the half hour split commercial break so they didn’t want to change the channel), act three held most of the major action and act four held the conclusion. It’s easier to mold something like traditional story model (rising action, climax, etc) into just four acts. Even books from as recent as 2004/2005 suggest this act structure model as something that is typical across genre.

Nowadays, networks want to squeeze as many commercials as they can in an hour. So they split the typical four-act structure into 5 and 6 acts, PLUS teasers and tags. So that means that you have to sort of stretch your idea for 4 acts into up to 6. And you can’t just randomly place new commercials in that old structure because you need each act out to have a major moment–build the story to the act breaks” as one book said to do–to keep people coming back from each commercial break (there are so many more things to distract us from returning from that break these days). So you have to find at least 2 or 3 more compelling moments to leave the audience hanging.
It can be a brain wracking job and it’s why, I’m sure, that most stories are hammered out by the writers’ in the writers’ room, since they have such quick turn around between writing each episode. I’ve got time (well, not according to my student loans), so I’m still working on my spec writing, but the hardest thing is finding compelling things to exit on for Act 2 (which comes after the first major surprise of the episode but before the act three big half hour moment) and Act 4.
“Breaking a story” is super hard, books published more recently have gotten the notice that act structure has changed, but they’re so far few and far between for what I want them to tell me, but I’m pushing my way to figure out how to not let it break me.