This article by Ines Johnson is from the July 2021 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
Since I was an adolescent watching Saturday morning cartoons and weekday Afterschool Specials, my storytelling brain has been primed for episodic structure, commercial breaks, and weekly cliffhangers. So, it’s no wonder that when I shifted my focus from writing short films, documentaries, and children’s media, I brought along many of those tools and techniques to keep my readers’ butts snug in their favorite recliners and turning pages.
In television we have to address the reality of hundreds of channels at the flick of a remote button. We also have to contend with commercial breaks in the middle of our story. Despite the proliferation of streaming channels now that allow viewers to binge watch shows without commercials, the weekly format that was ubiquitous in the past is still around. Because appetites can go unquenched for seven whole days before the viewer can watch the next installment, screenwriters and producers have had to develop tricks and tools to keep the audience engaged for those long and short periods of time.
Many of the tricks and tools from scriptwriting work amazingly well in novel writing. My favorite trick is using TV buttons to end a scene or a chapter. What’s a TV button? Read on...
I think Shonda Rhimes, and her writing roundtable, are some of the most skilled and prolific storytellers of our times. Yes, I said prolific, and I’m going to stand by such a big SAT word. Prolific actually means producing much fruit. I don’t know about you, but I love fruit. I can’t get enough of the juicy, sweet treats. From Grey’s Anatomy to Bridgerton, I am a devout follower of Shondaland. But where I felt Rhimes shined as a craftsperson was in her political thriller Scandal.
Here is a link to a free download of the pilot episode script so that you can follow along.
Where most screenwriters are taught to button up their acts, Rhimes plays fast and loose with that rule and goes so far as to button up her scenes. Like a period, exclamation point, or question mark, a button is a punctuation mark at the end of an act (or chapter in a book), or in Rhimes’s case, it’s the end of a scene.
When we think about punctuation marks, we most commonly think of, and use, the period. A period signifies the end, finality. You won’t find many period buttons in Rhimes’s scripts. You’ll most often find exclamation points, which indicate strong feelings and high volume. In fact, the exclamation point wasn’t introduced until the 1970s, and then only in comic books to indicate a gun bang or punch!
Button up your act
The pilot episode of Scandal is divided into five acts. Acts typically end at commercial breaks. The commercial break is a dangerous time for television writers because the audience now has a choice of getting up to use the facilities, grabbing a snack, or, worse, turning the channel. If you study the end of each act in Scandal (or Grey’s Anatomy), Rhimes buttons up each act-end by raising the stakes before the commercial breaks. The punctuation marks she places at each break serve to keep her audience pinned in their seats.
In “Sweet Baby,” Act One ends with a murder suspect walking into the office with blood literally on his hands. Act Two sees that murder investigation and raises us a POTUS (President of the United States) embroiled in a sex scandal. In Act Three, Olivia’s conservative-soldier client, the alleged murderer, gets arrested because he refuses to be “outted.” By the end of Act Four, Olivia “handles” the POTUS’s sex scandal by destroying the life of the president’s accuser/mistress who then tries to kill herself. In the middle of Act Five is where we learn the biggest scandal of them all: that Olivia and the president were having an affair. By the end of the show, the stakes are raised sky high when Olivia, feeling betrayed by her married ex-lover, takes the president’s mistress on as a client.
I strongly feel that these act ends are all exclamation points! They’re also a lot to cover, so this breakdown will only focus on the first act. The first act of a television show is known as the Setup. A Setup has three goals: to be immediate, quick, and grab attention.
Act I, scene 1: Exclamation button
The setup starts immediately with the first scene. We are introduced to newcomer Quinn, who’s trying to escape an undesired blind date. Rhimes grabs our attention with witty dialogue delivered by attractive individuals. Quinn believes Harrison is her date, whom she wants to ditch. Harrison is nonplussed by her attempts; instead he seems amused. We want to see how this ends, and then...surprise! It’s not the man that every woman dreams of getting set up with. No, it’s better. It’s a dream job, and, of course, every 21st century woman is going to jump at the chance of her dream job. Though Quinn doesn’t shout out loud at the prospect of working for Olivia Pope, strong feelings are written all over her face at Harrison’s offer. “I wanna be a gladiator in a suit” is said with wide eyes and quiet awe. The scene is quick in that it is fast-paced, giving viewers not a single bit of dialogue or action that lags.
Act I, scenes 2-4: Dash button
In the second scene, we meet the famous Olivia Pope and her dashing rogue of a colleague, Stephen. We meet them in the midst of a deal about to go wrong. Olivia momentarily halts the conversation with Stephen about engagements to smooth over the dilemma of two Russian bad guys pointing pistols at each other. Olivia comes off as badass, uber-confident and smart. With the deal settled, she and Stephen take their “package” and continue their banter about his impending nuptials as though no one was just in mortal peril.
The scene starts with Olivia and Stephen—then there’s a conflict, which is resolved—and the scene concludes with Olivia and Stephen continuing their banter. It’s a set of dashes. The dash is a handy device. It’s informal and essentially playful, telling the viewer/reader that the story is about to take off on a different track, but also that it’s still in some way connected with the present course. The playfulness comes across in the scene as Olivia and Stephen leave the danger giggling over how much they love this job.
Act I, scenes 5-7: Exclamation button/act end
Scene five starts with Quinn, our novice, coming into the extraordinary world of Olivia Pope and Associates. Through her, we begin to learn the rules of this new world. Olivia’s crew is introduced, along with their respective duties, and Quinn is quickly schooled that this is not a law firm but a firm of problem-solvers. We learn the package Olivia negotiated for was a kidnapped baby who is promptly picked up by its diplomat parents.
The Setup is complete by the end of scene five. Everything and everyone we need to know has been established. Now the story is about to get moving. A disabled, Iraq war hero appears in the office lobby with blood on his hands. “My girlfriend. She’s dead,” he says. “And the police think I killed her.” In a comic book, the exclamation point follows the BANG! In this scene, the gun has already gone off and we are seeing the effects of the aftermath. Harrison turns to Quinn and says, “Welcome to Pope and Associates!”
Early on in our grade school education, we are taught how to construct sentences in order to get our points across. Today most of our writing is peppered by the point of periods. Punctuation marks such as exclamation points, dashes, and even ellipses, we’re told to use sparingly. Rhimes and her team pay no heed to that grammar lesson. Their characters shout it out, are elliptically coy, and dash off with our hearts. And it has paid off for them episode and episode again!