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- The Hourlong Drama Television Structure and What an Act Is
So to keep you up to date on my work the last few days, I'm going to go over episodes from three different television shows as an exercise in understanding how we organize narratives. The shows will be Game of Thrones, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Star Trek: The Next Generation (Excelsior!). And I'm going to start by taking an example episode from each one, analyzing its act breaks, and then I'll look into how one might create an adventure scenario around one of them.
Game of Thrones on HBO is a popular fantasy-genre drama right now, normally the episodes fly all over the place focusing on 20 different or so characters, often only giving one scene to each, maybe two if they're special. If I had just looked at their episodes on paper, I would wonder if such a design could ever work, but of course it does. Your brain easily flies all over Westeros and then across the ocean to see whatever the Khaleesi is up to. But unfortunately that ensemble design doesn't have much use for creating roleplaying games.
So instead I'm going to focus on one of their uncommon single focus episodes, Blackwater, where the siege of King's Landing is about to to take place, pitting the crown-holding Lannisters against the invading Lord Stannis Baratheon.
I've heard that HBO shows often use a four act structure, though I know no more than that. As we'll see, one of the main points of this blog post is to show that an act structure is a lot more than the number of acts. But I will assume a four act structure since after analyzing the episode that makes as much sense as any other possible structure. I won't go so far as to post the whole scene list, but there are 25 scenes (more or less), starting with [SPOILER ALERT] the prelude to the attack by Stannis showing worried Lannisters, especially focused on Tyrion Lannister, the disrespected dwarf son who is nonetheless commanding the defense of the city by proxy for his nephew King Joffrey.
After about 7 scenes the battle actually begins. Things go well for Tyrion in his first moves of the battle, and I think that's the point of this second act. We identify with Tyrion and as his prospects rise and fall, so we also gain hope or feel despair. Tyrion manages to blow up half of Stannis' fleet through alchemy, severely cutting into the invaders 5-to-1 manpower advantage. There is some additional plot covered as Cersei Lannister, mother of the King and brother to Tyrion drunkenly berates Sansa Stark in a cellar hiding place.
Now about 15 scenes into the show, Stannis lands his forces and we see a reversal in the tone of events. Lannister forces try to force back Stannis with arrows, and by sending a small force outside to hold the vulnerable gate he is sending his battering rams toward. But the force falls back and the arrows aren't enough. Cersei orders a knight to go get her son King Joffrey off of the walls and into safety, which suits the cowardly Joffrey just fine. The men are dispirited to see their King flee, and the logistics of Stannis' advantage in terms of men is becoming apparent. Characters see that there is little chance the outmanned city forces can actually prevail. We come down as an audience by this point, things are bad. Though we may also want to see the Lannisters get what's coming to them aside from Tyrion, in which case, things are good. But either way, things are going poorly for the Lannisters and Tyrion, and well for the stiff and characterless Stannis Baratheon.
However, now at the 22nd scene Tyrion gives an inspired speech to his men, and leads them outside to ambush the Baratheon men at the walls and destroy their siege equipment. Now will this work? The truth is, as television audience members, we don't know! We don't know how many men remain, or what technical factors are currently affecting battle conditions. After all, historically speaking, running outside of your walls to fight a sieging army is a really terrible idea, because the walls are what's giving you an advantage. So who knows, the point is, dramatically speaking, it feels like anything is possible. We've had an set-up act to get us worried, we've had a positive act to get us hopeful, we've had a negative act to make us despair, and now it comes down to this. It's going to be a life-or-death struggle to decide things.
Tyrion has some success before almost falling to a murder plot by his own sister. As he passes out he sees even more men charging his position and we in the audience are left with no knowledge of what is happening for a minute. But right before Cersei poisons herself and her little, far less evil than Joffrey, son, Tywin Lannister, her father, bursts in the doors of the throne room announcing they have won. The men were his relieving army and they cast Stannis back to the sea.
As you read, I think the act structure behind such shows is predicated on the flow of the narrative emotionally. There's four acts, but more importantly, the design is such that we have a first act for exposition, two acts in the middle to bring us up or down, and a final act where things are meant to seem precarious for both victory and defeat. That's a different philosophy than you're going to use when writing an RPG adventure, though the up and down, yo-yo of drama is still a tool you may apply. Heroes can face whatever issue the plot throws at them and succeed at first, then face a second wave of tougher challenges that they must largely survive, only then to face an even wrestling match to decide who will be the actual victor.
Of course one can reverse that order, have the first wave of challenges be overwhelming, then allow some success, only to find that success partial, and face a renewed enemy for a final confrontation. Or you can repeat the process indefinitely for as many acts as you like.
You may recognize this up and down tool of the narrative if you've ever read any screenwriting books. It's definitely a way to inject conflict and interest, rising and lowering our hopes over and over again. Though using it as the primary tool (as I've read it suggested by some popular how-to books) seems rather shallow when writing a screenplay.
Next let's look at an episode or two from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here the acts are clearly defined by the script, this show uses a teaser to start, then follows with four acts. If you spend much time analyzing television show scripts you'll see some of them follow a structural formula very closely in just about every episode. Not just in terms of the act breaks which must remain consistent for television production purposes, but the events within the acts themselves are like a paint-by-numbers for plot. Buffy is one such show.
My favorite episode of the whole series was Hush, despite taking place within that stupid "Initiative" plot arc of season four. The teaser on Buffy sets up the eventual main plot (the plot with a villain, often a demon), here Buffy has a creepy dream warning her of a coming menace to Sunnydale.
Once those couple minutes are out of the way the show can spend a leisurely first act introducing us to what our main characters are currently up to. Demons come and go every episode, but the characters themselves have arcs that last all season, this first act doesn't worry about the main plot of the episode so much as it worries about continuing those character arcs, as well as defining the episode "moral," which will be explored further thanks to the main plot.
For Hush, every character is about to lose the ability to speak, so they all have trouble communicating with words. For Buffy, words get in the way; for Xander, he can't adequately express himself through words; for Willow, she can find no connection at college through the local Wiccan group, as they are all talk. But at the end of this act a group of demonic "Gentlemen" roll into town and use a magic box to steal the voice of everyone in town.
The second act of Buffy is about things going wrong. In this episode it's obvious right away there's a problem, the entire town has lost their voice completely, and the characters know black magic is invariably going to be the cause. In other episodes the fact that an evil plot is afoot may not even be known to start the act. The characters look for solutions and struggle with the fact that they must communicate with erasable marker boards, until the demons strike that following night, finding victims in their beds and cutting their hearts out, all while they are unable to even scream for help.
The third act is about figuring out what to do about the main plot, while in turn the villain ratchets up their efforts. Giles discovers information on the demons in question, and silently explains that they come to a town to collect a certain number of hearts before they move on and that the only way to kill them is with a live human voice. The characters must figure out what to do from there. Also the plot will usually resolve lesser subplots during this act.
Anyway, the efforts lead to Buffy finding the demons hideout in a tower, where she and her boyfriend fight them, meanwhile Willow's new Wiccan girlfriend discovers a spell to return everyone's voices, but is found by the Gentlemen on her way over to Willow's and is chased until she meets Willow and two of them try to barricade themselves in a laundry room.
Finally the fourth act resolves things, Buffy sees a magical box containing all the voices, recognizing it from her dream during the teaser, Willow and her girlfriend combine magical powers to move a laundry unit in front of the door just in time to prevent it from being broken down, Buffy's boyfriend smashes the box and Buffy kills the whole lot of demons with a scream. Then we have denouement where everyone moves on.
I don't like to ever shoehorn on ideas that don't fit, but with that in mind, I think it is possible to imagine designing adventure sessions along similar lines. In four acts you start with just the characters engaging in on-going troubles or relationships or other maintenance level needs. The second act is where trouble falls, but the heroes are not in a position to confront the problem, they don't know enough. The third act allows them to finally get their resources together and begin overcoming challenges that stand in their way of eliminating the final problem. Then the fourth act is the big climactic confrontation.
It's actually quite similar to the three act structure one sees in investigative RPGs, where the first act is spent gathering info about a known problem, the second act is spent overcoming the hurdles between the heroes and their ultimate plan to foil villainy, and the third act is a climactic battle. Except we add in another act at the beginning, basically an act one where nobody knows any problem exists, and indeed the evil plot only really gets kicking at the very end of that first act (though you can always tease it at the very beginning).
Conceivably you could do shorter(-ish) adventures using this structure with a group of RPG characters who have lives outside their latest adventure (lives that are dramatically interesting that is). Let them play out four scenes in this first act, then another four in the second act as they react to the trouble befalling them. Once they've got a clue or two about what's going on, give them just two or three challenges to overcome in the third act so they can get through them quickly, and then of course, have a final battle at the end for the fourth act. You've got a 12-15 scene adventure right there.
And you can even use some additional formula within the acts to make it easier on yourself. Buffy often has characters split up in the third act and one is solving the problem and the other is surviving the problem (makes it easier than cramming everyone into the same scenes I suppose) along with a variety of other commonalities. Just something to keep in mind.
Finally let's look at Star Trek: The Next Generation. Who wouldn't want to run an episodic sci-fi adventure like that as an RPG? Star Trek is written in five acts with a teaser at the beginning. Star Trek is not radically different from Buffy, but it does show more variation in how the plot works because there are a variety of different types of stories they can go into. It's not always just a villain causing trouble.
For example, in the episode Cause and Effect, the teaser shows the Enterprise collide with another ship and explode. But they immediately come back for the first act, only to end the act by replaying the events we saw in the teaser, and they explode again. They're stuck in a time loop and each act ends with them colliding with another ship and exploding.
But the show still manages to follow it's normal arc. The first act introduces the problem. The second act "deepens" the problem, things usually get worse for our intrepid crew. The third allows for the crew to react somewhat to the problems, but generally things get worse. In the fourth act, things get worse still, but finally the crew seems to figure out some solution that may or may not win the day. Then the fifth act allows for a final struggle in which the outcome of the plot (and often whether several characters live or die) is resolved. In Star Trek the heroes always win, like in most shows, but we go on that journey anyway. Basically the show spends the first act introducing the problem, the next three acts digging a deeper and deeper hole, and the last act allows our heroes to finally implement a solution. One they more or less use the third act and especially the fourth act coming up with.
If you were going to do an adventure like this, basically you're going to pile on the PCs, using a problem that just keeps getting bigger and more unbeatable, until at the end, when the chips are really down, they are presented with challenges which they can overcome to save the day. One could organize an adventure around a very involved first act where we quickly find out the problem (usually we find out some inkling of the problem, then the ship takes awhile to fly through space to get there so we can have some character-based scenes, then we go back to the main problem). Then you just have challenges that the crew has to survive, maybe one or two per act, through the second through fourth acts, except in the fourth act the challenges also include ones like figuring out how you can save the day given what you know about the problem.
Different act structures suit different story types better or worse. Television is all about a roller-coaster ride. The acts yo-yo you around, worrying about the heroes, watching them get out of sticky situations, only to get right back in them again. The acts all end on cliffhangers (well at least on network, where antiquated ideas about how we watch TV still rule with an iron fist), so we are left wondering what will happen after all those commercials are over. (I usually forget what I'm watching halfway through the commercial break, and certainly don't remember the cliffhanger, not to mention even if I did, how many thousands have I seen and how many of those always ended with the heroes surviving and the show not derailing? Like all of them.)
An act is really just a term for a group of scenes, how you group them, that's up to you! The five acts used in Star Trek are quite different than the five acts used by Shakespeare. And you can even apply that to your adventure writing or solo roleplaying efforts. If you start with the three act structure I present in my book, where you have a first act of events that introduce the story, a second act of challenges where you must overcome hurdles until you can enact your final plans to save the day, and a third act where you save the day, you can begin modifying those acts into smaller and more focused units. A "first act" that is only about stuff that doesn't involve the main plot for that adventure, followed by a "first act" that is only about discovering clues over a mysterious criminal incident. Or a "second act" where the challenges are all about dealing with the villain's attacks, only later to be followed by "second acts" that involve discovering means to thwart said villain.
In such a way you could make a five act adventure with a totally idle first act using the first act design of the basic three act structure from my book, then a second act using the first act design, except focused solely on events caused by the main plot. Then have two acts following that based on the second act design, where the first of the two is all about the villain enacting his evil plan, while they second is all about the heroes striking back. Then a traditional final act where the forces of good and evil battle it out.
Hopefully that all helps you expand your story structure horizons assuming you've never studied TV shows before. The things I appreciate most from them is their great attention to the dramatic back and forth of danger/failure to hope/success, and the many different forms they show us we can use when designing a story. They oftentimes lack the depth in act design you'd hope to see in, say, a play, but even Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: The Next Generation offer us themes and morals behind their stories of demons or space anomalies.
Next time I will look at Shakespeare's Five Act Structure using his four Great Tragedies: Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and MacBeth. And then after that I'll get back into RPGs proper, and look the designs of the great-sized modular campaigns of Call of Cthulhu: Masks of Nyalarthotep, Beyond the Mountains of Madness, and Horror on the Orient Express to see how they function and how they could even be improved. Hope you enjoyed this long post, and enjoy the rest of them as well, until next time-