Riding Bitch

The daily musings of a writer.


Structure: From Frankenstein to Brando

Last week one of my mentors emailed me asking if I had sent him the latest draft of my book. He couldn’t find it and thought he’d lost it. “You didn’t lose it,” I told him. “I haven’t sent it yet.” I was a little embarrassed but also glad that he emailed me. It was the kick in the pants I needed.

My memoir has been a labor of love ever since Kaz died. I’ve been writing and re-writing, putting it down, then diving back in. It has felt a bit like a time traveling project… every time I work on the book, I am transported back to us.

Since I’ve never written a book before, I’ve given the various drafts to several readers for feedback. The most recent reader was a woman who was referred to me by a mutual writer friend. Perhaps because she doesn’t know me personally she ended up giving me some of the best insight. She said that mid-way through the draft she started losing interest and only kept reading because she had to. She said some other things too, but it was this comment that really got me thinking because I’ve heard it before (in so many words) from other readers.

The problem isn’t with the story or the way it’s written. The problem is with the structure. The story reveals itself too much too soon, instead of in a way that makes the reader want to turn the page. It’s also the actual order of events, actual persons involved, actual sources, actual dates and so on. On a certain level, this is necessary for a memoir but on another level, it’s not.

As long as I’m not making anything up, what does it matter if certain things are condensed, re-arranged, placed in a different setting, said out of context, etc? I suppose if it’s too fictional I can always call it a novel. Frankly, this is the least of my concerns right now. My main concern is for it to be a compelling read.

So, I conceived of a new structure, one that is actually more simple than what I had but also more daring. This time I swore to myself I would not get on the computer to figure it out, nor would I index card it. I would do it the old fashioned way… a paper edit.

I sat down with the physical draft, several magic markers, a stapler, and a pair of scissors and went to town. Every scene became a loose piece of paper with a title at the top. I put each scene in a specific pile, in chronological order. Then I put dots on the pages to indicate whether I thought it would go in the first act, second act, third act, etc. With my dot method, I could always re-order the scenes to their original piles should I get lost.

Then I started putting the scenes in the order I thought they should go. Only when I was satisfied that I had an order that made sense did I open my computer to copy and paste scenes so the computer draft mirrored this new paper edit. It was painstaking work.

Now, I’m going through the computer draft and refining, condensing, filling out, also very painstaking and a huge gamble. Once I do this, it will be difficult to go back. I have literally dissected the story and pieced it back together again, like a Frankenstein draft. But the goal is to keep fine-tuning it so Frankenstein turns into a Marlon Brando.

It might take a while but at least I have a vision. It’s actually been in my head all along. I just had to reach the point emotionally where I could execute it as a WRITER, instead of a participant in the drama.


Anatomy of a Television Pilot

For those unfamiliar, a “spec” television script is written for an established show. A “pilot” is written to sell an original, new show, be it comedy or drama. I’ve written mostly film screenplays to date, and one spec television script (for the show HUNG). These days I’m writing my first ever television pilot, and I gave it to my manager two weeks ago for notes. She sent me back three television pilot scripts to read, all being produced this year on major networks, all similar in tone to mine and to each other, but with distinctly different plots.

Reading these scripts was incredibly helpful and inspiring. They were all great scripts, easy to read and compelling. I will watch these shows. More importantly, they were very well structured and well-developed… both areas in which my own script needs improvement.

The following are some things I picked up from these scripts:

They were all one-hour dramas, one clearly meant for cable, the other two meant for network. How could I tell? Because of the controversial subject matter, curse words, nudity, etc.

They were 62, 67 and 69 pages long, respectively.

They all had 5 acts. An Act is basically how the show is divided (like chapters). On channels with commercials, the commercial breaks separate the Acts.

Each Act ended with a twist that made me want to know what happened in the next Act. Put another way, each twist propelled the plot in a different (forward) direction. And the Really Big Twist was on the last page of Act 5, the last-minute or two of the pilot. This is what gets viewers hungry to know what happens in the next episode.

I’m going to focus the rest of my analysis on Script A because it had the clearest structure.

Script A was 62 pages long and had a total of 79 scenes:

Act 1 – 17 pages, 16 scenes
Act 2 – 8 pages, 4 scenes
Act 3 – 15 pages, 28 scenes
Act 4 – 11 pages, 10 scenes
Act 5 – 11 pages, 21 scenes

You can tell from this that Acts 3 and 5 had a lot of very short scenes, indicating perhaps a chase sequence. In general, scenes are no longer than 2 or 3 pages (most are shorter).

The narrative set up of Script A was established in Act 1. So, basically by the first commercial break you have an idea of the show’s main dilemma and the main characters.

The characters were established as follows:
5 main characters were introduced in Act 1
1 main character was introduced at the top of Act 2
1 main character was introduced at the top of Act 3
1 minor character was introduced in Act 5

The title of script was explained in Act 4.

The location of the story shifted dramatically in Act 5. It’s hard to say if the whole show was going to move there or if it was just for the pilot (me thinks the latter).

Without knowing anything further, you basically now have a rough structural guide to a one-hour dramatic television pilot script. Obviously, these numbers are not set in stone and you can deviate from them. Personally, I don’t plan to deviate from them that much because I want my pilot to resemble the pace of Script A.

But you need more than a rough guide. You need to read some scripts for yourself, preferably scripts that are similar in tone to yours.

Here are three sites for free scripts you can download:


Try breaking a couple down like I did and see what you come up with. If you have more tips and/or advice, by all means chime in.

Happy creating!