May 3 2011, 07:30 AM
Location: Maurice in San Francisco
Re: Fan Film Writer's Primer
The Three-Act Structure via Script Analysis
While working on a TV pilot spec script I read a lot of pilot scripts to see how they were done. One thing I found particularly helpful and illuminating was to make a breakdown of each of the good scripts, listing significant events by page number.
What this does is let you see the underlying structure of the script without being lost in the story as a reader. What I do is list the page number, where characters are introduced, what happens on the page, and then what is going on re Plot and Theme.
Here's the one I did for for the pilot script to AMC's "Mad Men". Mind you, these are notes *I* made, and the act breaks are where it seems they are according to Three-Act Structure, and what I think the thematic beats and conflicts are. YMMV.
WARNING! If you've never watched the show and want to, the following is $poileriffic.
So, let's look at what Three-Act structure suggests versus what we see here.
Notice that almost ALL the characters are introduced in the first 13 pages (the first quarter of the script). In fact the entire regular but one are introduced here, as are the main problem vis a vis the Lucky Strike client. We also get introduced to how men treat women, which becomes a theme throughout the show (the decisions the men make and how it affects the women in their lives). This all is a textook example of the First Act, which sets up the characters, what they want, and what the problem is.
Notice that the character of Rachel Menken is intorduced a bit later, in what's clearly the Second Act. This might we technically wrong, but it's not really a problem, because she actually represents a "complication", which is what the Second Act is all about. Don's already stressed out about the main problem, and then this potential new client attacks his approach and he flies off the handle. It makes the main problem worse.
Other Second Act Characters are Greta and the Garners, but they are plot functions and not main characters, which is why it's okay that they come in as needed and exit just as quickly.
Notice that every scene in the Second Act reinforces or builds on some theme or problem set up in the First Act. This is what's called "Rising Action" as everything builds to the moment(s) of truth.
Now, what's unusual about this script is that the Main Problem of the story is resolved right on the cusp of the Second and Third Acts, rather than later in the Third Act. You might say that this is because the script is a pilot episode and it has a lot of loose ends to tie up, but one could also say that the "problem" set up in the plot isn't really what's being set-up to be resolved, it's something thematic or character related.
But the real climax of the story are the last two scenes, which twist our expectations. Peggy actually accepts Pete's advances, despite how repulsed she seemed earlier, leading us to wonder if she's accepted the "conventional wisdom" of the office girls and their roles, or if she really actually likes him.
The real kicker, though, is the revelation that Don has a wife and kids. The whole show has set us up to see him as not like the other men and their cavalier attitude towards women and even marriage, and then it yanks that rug out from under us by showing us ONE THING that changes our perception of the character utterly.
I hope this will be at least a bit illuminating to some of you.
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"There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.