In Chuck Versus the Podcast, episode 48, Gray Jones interviews Matt Miller, one of the writers of 3.12 Chuck Versus the American Hero alongside Phil Klemmer and Max Denby. In the interview, among many other interesting things, Matt mentions that the way they usually wrote co-authored episodes was to divvy up the acts and then swap the drafts to review them and put them together. The most common story structure for one-hour TV episodes is the 5-act story structure with a 5-minute teaser before the beginning credits. This is the story structure used by the writers of Chuck.
Here is the list of the acts and their overall purpose:
- Teaser: the hook that sets up the episode’s main conflict.
- Act 1: Exposition: the main characters and the backstory are introduced. This first act ends with the inciting incident.
- Act 2: Rising Action: the characters react to the inciting incident (usually without success or with only partial success).
- Act 3: The Turning Point: the story’s midpoint, when things start to change.
- Act 4: The Falling Action: the events unfold from the turning point.
- Act 5: Resolution: Loose ends are tied up, and the narrative is brought to a close (or a cliffhanger into the next episode)
We can see how the writers used this story structure in 3.12 American Hero.
Chuck is shown as a new CIA agent in Washington, being his usual dorky and adorable self, meeting with Beckman, and introducing the main conflict of the episode: he’s not ready to start his new spy life in Rome without Sarah as part of his team.
Act 1 – Exposition
Back in Burbank, he tells Morgan, Devon, and Casey about his plans, and they encourage the lover boy to win Sarah back.
This first act ends with the inciting incident: To Chuck’s surprise, Sarah is none too pleased to see him, and when he reminds her of their plan to be together, she lashes out at him that he’s not the same guy she fell for because he killed someone. This charge is also the setup of the episode’s Chekhov’s Gun.
From Sarah’s perspective, Chuck broke the promise he made her in 3.10 Tic Tac.
Chuck is taken aback but can’t tell Sarah the truth about the event for Casey’s sake.
Act 2 – The Rising Action
Chuck is devastated by Sarah’s reaction and thinks about quitting the spy life, but Morgan teaches Casey that love is a battlefield, and devises a plan to help Chuck win Sarah back. Civilian Team Bartowski (Morgan, Casey, and Devon) kidnaps Chuck that evening and gets him ready to crash Shaw and Sarah’s dinner. They all want to help Chuck for their selfish reasons. The mission almost succeeds, with Chuck moments away from convincing Sarah.
Just like during the almost-kiss in the previous episode, however, Chuck is trying to have both Sarah and the spy life, thus fate (aka the writers) puts a stop to it.1In Prague, Chuck clearly chose the spy life over Sarah, so fate now wants Chuck to also make a clear choice: what comes first in his life? The Ring gets involved, and Devon once again tackles the wrong person and crashes through the restaurant window with Shaw, interrupting Chuck’s fancy and eloquent speech to Sarah.
Act 3 – The Turning Point
The turning point is the pivotal section of the structure. The previous action rises to this moment, and the subsequent action falls from this moment.
Ellie angrily confronts Civilian Team Bartowski about the previous night, finds out that they got themselves arrested while trying to help Chuck win Sarah back, and is not surprised it ended this way since Chuck went to them for help instead of asking her.
Meanwhile, in castle, to Sarah’s shock and dismay, Shaw chooses a suicide spy mission to avenge his wife. His wife comes first in his life.
Back in Echo Park, Chuck walks into his apartment and finds Ellie waiting for him. He starts apologizing for having gone too far in trying to win Sarah back, but Ellie gives him the speech that represents the turning point of the episode (and the first part of the season): he didn’t go far enough! if Sarah is the one, if she comes first in his life, he needs to show it.
Chuck finally gets it. He realizes he must go all out for Sarah and reverse Prague. (We have seen this part of the story before, right?)
Act 4 – The Falling Action
Act 4 is often a mirror of act 2. If in Act 2, the motivation to win Sarah back was driven by selfish reasons and only met with partial success, in Act 4 the motivation is driven by selfless reasons, and things turn around for Chuck.
He walks into castle to Shaw and Sarah’s goodbye kiss and finds out Shaw is going on a suicide mission. Shaw is now the one driven by selfish reasons. Chuck locks Sarah in castle (“Stay in the car, Sarah”) and shows his selfless love for her by risking his life to save Shaw for her sake, thus showing Sarah who between the two men is making the greater sacrifice.
In the Ring compound, Shaw learns the truth about his wife’s death. The killer is none other than Sarah. He gets tased into unconsciousness, while Chuck breaches the compound and saves Shaw before the compound is destroyed by a bunker buster.
And since Chuck is going to save Superman…
Remember the setup of Chekhov’s Gun in Act 1 when Sarah told Chuck he was not the same guy she fell for? Well, this is the first part of the payoff. Chuck shows Sarah he is the same guy she fell for.
After saving Shaw’s life, Chuck bluntly and honestly finishes the interrupted speech from the night before and tells Sarah he loves her and chooses her over the spy life in a pitch-perfect love declaration2Now that Chuck finally reverses Prague and puts Sarah first, there are no more interruptions. that leaves Sarah utterly mesmerized and confused. Sarah can’t reconcile this heroic and selfless Chuck (her Chuck) with the cold assassin he’s supposed to have become. What is she going to do? This is the moment of final suspense at the end of Act 4.
The force of the final suspense, occurring just before the catastrophe in act five, is meant to give the audience a final moment of doubt in the final outcome.
Freytag, explaining the importance of the force of the final suspense, says, “It is well understood that the catastrophe must not come entirely as a surprise to the audience.”
This is a moment of suspense where a slim possibility of reversal is hinted at, but ultimately never delivered. It may be the point where the villain looks like they’re going to get away, or the couple looks like they might stay broken up, or the noble thieves look as if they’re going to get caught by the authorities. However, it’s just an act. (the writer’s practice)
Act 5 – The Resolution
Shaw wakes up in the hospital and picks up his wedding ring with an ominous look on his face. Sarah is packing and receives an unexpected visit from Casey. The two scenes are taking place at the same time, and their parallel structure shows us viewers the choice being made by two characters who only the night before toasted to a fresh start together.
Casey then delivers the second part of the payoff by telling Sarah that it was he, not Chuck, who killed the mole.
Sarah is stunned. The veil of confusion finally comes off. There are no two versions of Chuck, the selfless hero who saved Shaw for her sake and the cold assassin who kills people to become a spy. There’s only one Chuck, her Chuck, the man who put his own life on the line for her even when she had doubts about him, the man who puts others before himself and is even willing to lose her for Casey’s sake.
Sarah is now all in for Chuck but there is a final cliffhanger; Shaw comes to Sarah’s place before she can meet up with Chuck and brings her on a mission to settle an old score while Chuck learns the truth about Sarah’s own red test.
Chuck Script Samples
You can review this 5-act story structure in the two Chuck episode drafts below: