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06/25/2002 - THE BIG (ACT) BREAK


Dear Friends,

This week, I came back to a story that I had outlined a few months ago, with the intention of getting into writing the script as my new sample. Upon another read-through, the outline has lots of great scenes and strong characters . . . and yet still it's not ready. I can sum up why in just two words: act breaks.

Act breaks are those critical turns that set the story off in a different direction. For television, they build the story to a crescendo that makes it so the viewer is afraid to get up from their chair for fear that they might miss the resolution of the act break.

People often say that feature film scripts are three acts, though they're often far more. On the other hand, one-hour series are more stringently structured, usually with four or five acts, depending on the series. In fact, act breaks are among the most critical aspects of a series script, and once you have them in place, the scenes that go between the acts are much easier to devise.

So what's the trick to writing great act breaks? It's alchemy - I've seen experienced producers disagree on when the moment needs to be stopped. Is it when the bad guy is walking up the stairs or when he pulls the gun on the hero? Or after the hero is shot and falls out the window? Truth is, each of these methods - before the critical moment, the critical moment itself, or after a critical moment - can work. The key is to have the most compelling shot possible as the last shot of the act.

I usually try very big, very "hard" act breaks, especially in television - someone's life is in danger or the story takes a major turn. But that doesn't mean I won't go for a big emotional moment when the subject matter calls for it.

In structuring your script, the key is to make something that is big, but organic to the story. Something that really flows from the scenes around it, but is also original enough that people don't feel like they've seen the exact same situation a thousand times.

When people finish reading a script with strong, original act breaks, that's usually what they'll remember - and how they will ultimately judge - the story. So in outlining, be sure you don't start writing until you've got great act breaks. It'll make everything else that much less grueling - and it'll elevate the final draft, too.

Breaking away,



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