If you’re writing a script for a show that’s already on the air, you’ll get the act structure from watching the show. Otherwise, you’ll get the info from the show bible or from the story editor. A very common structure is a teaser and three acts, or a teaser and two acts. An alternative is a teaser, two acts, and a tag (rarely seen these days). One-hour animation is extremely rare, but a live-action one-hour show commonly has a teaser and five acts—some do without a teaser; some add a tag. For a ninety-minute animated TV movie, there are usually eight acts.
You might occasionally encounter a show that does individual eleven-minute segments (two per show), rather than one half-hour story. Those are generally written as one act without teasers or other breaks. The acts must be roughly equal in length. You might observe that in some one or two-hour live-action dramas, they will let the first act run extremely long in order to make sure they’ve hooked the audience before cutting to the first set of commercials. With a longer form, such as a ninety-minute animated TV movie, you can also get away with a longer first act.
In half-hour animation, you have the option to make the first act a little longer, but not by any more than one or two pages. Assuming a thirty-three-page script, you should strive for a formula that is as close as possible to eleven/ eleven/eleven (eleven pages per act). If you have a teaser, you have to carve out a couple of pages for that, so your formula might be two/eleven/ten/ten, or two/ten/eleven/ten, and so on depending on the demands of the story and the best place to put an act break. You can probably get away with two/twelve/ten/ nine or similar variation.
What you absolutely don’t want to do is let any one act get out of control. If you turn in a script that breaks out as nine/six/seventeen, you can count on your story editor wondering what on earth you were thinking, and telling you to fix the act breaks. There’s room to be somewhat flexible, but no more than a couple of pages in any one direction.
Act breaks provide an extra challenge in working out the pacing and dramatic three-act structure of your story. By dramatic three-act structure, I refer to the triad of exposition-conflict-resolution that is the blueprint of your beginning, middle, and end. Exposition-conflict-resolution applies equally to a three minute comedy short or to a ninety-minute epic adventure. Keep that dramatic structure in mind when you’re crafting the overall story, without tying it to any specific act in the script. It might seem easy to divide up the dramatic triad to a three-act script, but do you really want to spend the entire third act solely on resolution? It’s more likely that the resolution will take place halfway through the third act of the script, especially given the compressed nature of animation stories.
So we’ll assume you have a grasp of your dramatic three-act structure as it applies overall to your story. Now you have to figure out how to build to a critical act break that takes place at approximately so many pages into the script. Your act breaks must be gripping, exciting, and dramatic. If you don’t have your viewers totally hooked, you’ll lose them during the commercial break. The purpose of a cliff-hanger act break is to keep the audience in enough suspense to stick around. The act break doesn’t have to be a cliff-hanger based on physical peril. It could be a moment of suspense or mystery, or it could be a moment of emotional confrontation.
Which means that each act must have its own internal momentum that brings it to that critical point at the right time. In a ninety-minute animated film, this means finding seven points at which you can break the story with either a physical or emotional cliff-hanger . . . while not making it look contrived.
This is where having a solid outline is so important. Most of your scenes are going to run somewhere around two to three pages. Simple math tells us that trying to fit, say, ten scenes into an eleven-page act isn’t going to work, unless you have an insanely frenetic story. This is where you need good instincts to estimate how many pages you will actually need for a scene vs. how many scenes you can realistically fit into a single act. As you work out your major story beats, you can reasonably estimate being able to fit three to four major story beats into an eleven-page act. You might be able to squeeze in five scenes if one is really short. By the time you take into account dialogue and breaking out all the shots, you’ll find that three to four beats, or scenes, will easily fill eleven pages. You might have an instance where you’re cutting back and forth between two major story beats rather than having separate scenes, and you’ll need to estimate how many pages that will eat. The best way to become good at this is practice. Write lots of sample outlines and sample scripts.
In the past, it was common to allow two weeks to write a half-hour animation script. These days, it isn’t unusual to be given only one week to turn in a half- hour script. You will find the “Spykecam” script available to read at www.christymarx.info.
Based in Los Angeles, California. Christy Marx is a writer, story editor, series developer, game designer, and interactive writer. Her many credits include: Babylon 5 and the Twilight Zone; 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; He-Man; X-Men Evolution; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; Lord of the Rings; Elfquest; and more.