March 10, 2010 Jill

The SopranosFriend of the blog Sébastien writes:

I watched “The Sopranos” pilot five times and it’s driving me crazy : I can’t distinguish the act breaks!

Well, I don’t know.  Do you?  I haven’t watched that episode in a very long time and don’t have it on hand to break down right this second, so I thought I’d turn to you for starters and see if anyone out there knows the answer.

I suspect (but am talking off the top of my head) that The Sopranos, like many other HBO series, is written to a three act structure, not the contorted five or six act structure of commercial television.  But that’s all I can contribute to this discussion without looking at the episode again… which I will do when I lay my hands on it.

In the meantime, if anyone knows where the act breaks are in The Sopranos pilot or has a link to a break down of the episode, please share!

Comments (7)

  1. If you don’t have commercials, there’s little reason to structure an “act break”.

  2. admin

    It’s more about structuring the narrative that breaking away for an ad. We’re trying to get to how Chase was thinking about his story and learn from the construction. Plays don’t have commercials but they are definitely written in acts as are tv shows whether they are on commercial networks or not.

  3. Scott

    The question is what do you mean by acts.

    I have a Sopranos script and there are no act breaks. If you are looking for act breaks, there aren’t any on cable. Cable shows are not written in acts, no commercial break, no structured acts in the script.

    Theatrical plays written in acts do, in fact, take breaks between the acts. (At least, they are intended to.)

    If you’re looking for Syd Field-ian 3 act structure, as usually applied to a feature script, you’ll probably find one in any story if you look hard enough.

    I promise you David Chase did not write the pilot with structured act breaks, nor did he structure his story due to an arbitrary page count, as Mr. Field would suggest you do.

    But don’t take my word for it…

  4. admin

    I have the script too. And I sent it to Sébastien for his consideration. In the olden days, when I used to break down episodes for fun, I was able to discern a structure… I think. Maybe I’ll have to go look at how I broke something like Mad Men to see if it was instructive to think in terms of acts are not. Perhaps, Scott and Osbo, you’re right and there is nothing to be gained by trying to impose that structure on the story. Maybe better to look at other elements in order to learn from it.
    I want to watch it again now, either way.

  5. Scott

    It’s an awesome pilot. It’s almost a straight out comedy.

    “Grandma’s not coming.”

    “What? No fucking ziti now?”

  6. Sébastien

    Thanks for posting this topic and thanks for the answers 🙂

    Yes, I’m interested in the way the story was built. This pilot is really amazing: the story lines are so cleverly intermingled.

    Ok, so it’s a classical 3 act structure. But I find it quite difficult to determine where Act 2 starts. Would you say it is when Tony has a scanner at the hospital? This would mean act 1 is about Tony’s description of the day he had his first panick attack.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  7. Scout

    Generally television has four act structure, rather than three-act structure. Generally Mad Men and Sopranos are both structured in this way. Each act climax poses a new dramatic question before an ad break, or even just to keep you watching, and the forth act climax will offer a dramatic question which is never answere, so that you watch the following episode.

    For example. In Madmen the first dramatic question is – Will Donald Draper find an idea in time to pitch to the lucky struck owners. At the end of the third act, we see he comes up with an idea on the spot and hits it out of the ball park. Dramatic question answered. Another question posed. There are subplots of Peggy Oslen on her first day and Pete’s bachelor Party. At the end of the madmen pilot, we see Donald Draper return home to his wife and we see a picture perfect existence. An example of the American dream. Yet in the final image a dramatic question is posed when we see how unhappy Don is. We ask ourselves why.

    In the Soprano’s pilot – the dramatic question posed from the very beginning is – will Tony find a way to save Artie Buccho’s restaurant. The pilot also acts as an introduction to the world and the characters. If you watch the episode for structure, look for answers to dramatic questions and climaxes in story and you will find your four act structure. Inciting incident, complications, dramatic question, midpoint where character is faced with their flaw at the top of the second act, and usually the character makes a decision at the end of the third act, leading to a final climax and finally a resolution and another dramatic question. The dramatic question at the end of Sopranos involves the exchange between Junior and Tony’s mother.

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