Structuring a Half-Hour Pilot

Structuring a Half Hour Pilot

Good structure can do a lot of things for your pilot: it can make your jokes pop, cause intimate moments to resonate, and help you create realistic characters.  Most importantly, a strong structure will help your script stand out from the pile of wandering, meandering scripts that clutter every agent’s desk.

To really understand the importance of structure in a 30 minute pilot, we’ve first got to take a deep dive into a show that redefined network comedy: 30 Rock.  Remember the opening moment of the series: Liz Lemon buys an entire hot dog cart’s worth of hot dogs just because someone cuts her in line. This revealing moment sets up Liz’s character for the rest of the series; she’s someone who won’t stand for any form of unfairness…. and she also really loves hot dogs.  But as iconic as this scene is, it wouldn’t be nearly as memorable if not for the pilot’s tight structure. Using Tina Fey’s superb example, let’s dive into what makes for good structure in a half-hour comedy pilot.

Use a Three-Act Structure

Immediately, the first thing you’ll notice about the structure of 30 Rock’s pilot is the use of three act structure.  The default form for most half-hour comedy pilots, three act structure is broken separated into the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution.  The setup is your first and longest act, and it should introduce your world and characters while also establishing the central conflict of the episode. The confrontation, on the other hand, introduces some unseen complications to the plot, , while your final act, the resolution, resolves the conflict and hints at future episodes.

It’s like the old adage: In the first act, a cat gets stuck in a tree. In the second act, you throw rocks at the cat. And in the third act, the cat gets down. The brilliance of this structure is the clear rise and fall of the action, which lets the writer spend less time worrying about pacing and plot, and more time building out characters and the world. And as viewers, we’re trained to crave the three-act structure. Perhaps it’s something in our brain, or perhaps it’s because it dates back to ancient Greek tragedy.  Either way, it provides a helpful roadmap to craft your pilot.

Looking at 30 Rock, we see the perfect embodiment of this three-act structure. The episode follows the showrunner of a weekly late-night show, Liz Lemon, as she gets a new corporate boss who forces her to rebrand her show. In the first act, we meet the characters and learn about the show Liz runs. Then, the conflict is introduced in the form of Liz’s new boss, Jack Donaghy, who wants to make changes to the show, including bringing in a new star, Tracy Jordan.  The second act involves Liz meeting Tracy, whose unpredictable behavior clashes with Liz’s principle-based ideology and forces her to change. In the third act, Jack tries to manage Liz’s show himself and messes things up horrifically. But Liz, who has now had a change of heart and sees the potential in Tracey, swoops in and saves the day.

To learn how to write a three act pilot, you have to get your inciting incident down. In 30 Rock, it's when Liz is introduced to her new boss, Jack.

Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey in 30 Rock

Learn Your ABC’s

With all these characters running about, network comedies typically decide to have A, B, and sometimes even C stories. These letters simply represent the different plotlines in your episode.  You will spend most of your time on your A story, which will usually be about your main protagonist and the conflict they’re facing. You can then layer in your B and C stories to flesh out the world or add extra dimensions to your characters or even build out a thematic message.  In 30 Rock, the A story is that Liz has a new boss who wants to change her show by casting Tracy Jordan, firing her producer Pete, and being generally more hands-on with the show.  As for the B and C stories, their function in this episode is to build out characters and add extra dimensions to the Liz-Jack conflict. The B story is Jenna worrying about her future in the show, much to the distress of Liz.  And the C runner is about the overzealous page Kenneth finding success in his menial tasks despite Jack’s intense skepticism.

Take a Break

Finding success with your three-act structure and your A, B, and C stories relies on hitting the right moments in your act breaks.  Act breaks are the most heightened moments of your script– they’ll convince agents to keep reading and your viewers to keep sitting (through commercials). Even if you’re writing a script for a streaming service that might not have commercials, keeping your act breaks in mind will help your script crescendo right when it needs to.

A good act break can involve a few different elements. It’s typically a heightened moment in your story, when the conflict presents new and different challenges for your protagonist. It could be an “oh no” moment for your protagonist where they realize that they’re up against more than they bargained for. Or maybe they already know what to expect, but they’ve finally hit rock bottom? In comedy, an act break can also be accentuated by a strong joke. In 30 Rock, the first act break happens as Liz learns she has to meet with Tracy Jordan to convince him to join the show. The scene ends with Liz hitting her head as she leaves Jack’s office, creating both our “oh no” realization and comedic beat.  Likewise, our second act ends with Liz stuck at a strip club with Tracy, before learning that her longtime producer, Pete, just got fired by Jack. Again, this ratchets up the conflict and pushes Liz over the edge. Both of these act breaks drive the story forward by placing Liz in a worse and worse situation until she finally snaps in the third act.

It's important when you learn to write your thirty minute pilot that you make sure your act breaks hit at the right time.

Jane Krakowski in 30 Rock

Trust the Structure

It may seem counterintuitive, but a good structure gives you a lot of freedom. It gives you the chance to make character choices and jokes, like buying all the hot dogs at the hot dog cart, without having to worry about where your story is going. As William Goldman, writer of The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, writes:

“I’ve done a lot of thinking myself about what a screenplay is, and I’ve come up with nothing except that it’s carpentry, it’s basically putting down some kind of structural form that they can then mess around with. And as long as they keep the structural form, whatever I have written is relatively valid: a scene will hold, regardless of the dialogue.”

Remember, viewers and readers are intuitively trained to expect certain twists and turns in a story in ways you might underestimate. A strong structure could be the difference between your script being good and your script being great.