The Basics of Television Storytelling: Structured Acts
By Tom Dowd
Though the number of acts and what has to happen in each are somewhat dependent upon a show’s format and genre, in all of them, Act 1 establishes a character (or in some cases, characters) who has an important need, want or desire. This need is the result of something being out of balance, and the character needs to take action, to do something, to get things back to normal. This need is sometimes referred to as a goal, and the rest of the show is about the character trying to get what he needs.
This first act establishes not just the need but also the conflict, or those things that make it difficult for the protagonist to have what they want. Whether drama or comedy, there must be conflict. Conflict occurs when obstacles are placed between the character and the attainment of his goal. The more challenging the obstacle, the harder the character must struggle against it, and the more compelling the story.
Just like in film, the obstacles must become increasingly more difficult to overcome as the story progresses. Obstacles in Act 2 are harder than in Act 1, and each subsequent obstacle within Act 2 is more difficult than the one before it.
The character will either get what they want or be denied what they want during the climax, which in film traditionally occurs in what’s labeled Act 3, but in television generally occurs in the last full act of the show, whether that’s called Act 3, 4, 5 or 6. In both comedies and dramas, the climax is the highest point of action, where everything is on the line. After the climax, the central problem is solved one way or the other, and we move on to resolution, which tells us how the characters are doing after the climax. Simple, huh?