Chris Reddy - How to Write a Sitcom
Pramface writer, Chris Reddy, stopped by to give us some top tips and insight into the world of sitcom writing:
Hello. I've been asked to do a blog about my writing experiences on Pramface, so here goes...
In brief, an average day would consist of me sitting in a room, staring at a white board covered with illegible scribbles, grinding out pages of scripts late into the night to ever diminishing deadlines while stuffing my face with sugar rich-foods, trying to stay awake.
The next day I would typically wake up to notes from my producer telling me it was 'not good enough' and to 'go back and rewrite... and hurry up'. This went on for months.
So, no, there was not a lot of hanging out in the British Library having lattes, or Soho lunches with glamorous actors talking about how much they love my work. It was basically just one very long slog of writing, rewriting and rewriting again.
Have I put you off yet? If you're still reading, my guess is you're a writer because, let's face it, no normal viewer would be reading this.
So rather than ramble on I thought I'd try to share some of the stuff I've learnt and a few things I'd like to have been told when I was starting out. I'd also add that none of what follows is original, it's just stuff that has struck me as useful along the way. It's all in the many screenwriting books and courses out there already, which brings me to my first point.
1. Read the books
I am always amazed by how many scriptwriters haven't familiarised themselves with the basics of screenwriting technique. In no other profession (like dentistry for example) would you expect to just walk in and have a crack at it without any schooling.
Six episodes of a mid-priced sitcom is going to cost over a million pounds to produce. So when you pitch a script to a broadcaster, you are essentially asking them to spend a million quid on your idea. Whilst they're making this decision, it's probably in your interests for them to feel you have some idea of what you're talking about.
If you are a genius, then spending a couple of weeks reading won't stop you being a genius. You can then happily reject everything the experts say as formulaic nonsense and move on to collecting your armfuls of Oscars, Baftas and Emmys relatively untroubled. If, on the other hand, you're just a regular hack like me, you might find something useful in there.
Everyone bangs on about the importance of structure, and who am I to question them. Half hour narrative comedy is in some ways the most demanding dramatic form (that's right, I'm saying Keeping up Appearances was a tougher gig than Hamlet).
If you're making an art-house film, you've got time to go wandering off on a twenty minute philosophical tangent. The Everyman matinee crowd will love you and your rambling, ambiguous, anti-structure masterpiece.
TV audiences, however, are less tolerant. In television comedy you have to tell funny, coherent, integrated stories in a very compressed time frame. This requires discipline and practice, but you've chosen to write in a populist medium so, no pouting - get used to doing it.
And the truth is, learning to write structurally is actually one of the most rewarding bits of the job. And, when it comes to the dreaded rewrites, I've found having a strong grasp of my story allows me to work more efficiently and approach the task with more confidence.
So how do you structure your comedy script? Well first, don't start with the script...
Classical narrative sitcoms are made up of two acts, but they are acts ii and iii. What? All this means is that the de facto first act of a sitcom is the premise of the show itself. And I don't mean just the backstory; I mean the cast design, the character relationships, and the arena of the show. This is the real root of the comedy.
Make sure you spend time designing your premise rather than just churning out thirty-odd pages of script, hoping your natural gifts will carry you through. Been there, done that, my natural gifts carried me through to a forty page confusing mess that still hasn't been shot. No surprises there.
Writers' tendency to skimp on the design of their premise is the reason script development and script editing in half hour comedy is such a difficult job. By the time a new project makes it into development with a production company, it's often already broken.
And since TV production companies typically develop scripts rather than premises, the structural elements causing the problems will always be out of their reach. This is why, despite the best efforts of talented people, TV shows can still arrive on screen hobbled by the inherent weaknesses of the initial design.
4. Funny stories.
So now you've designed a robust narrative machine, you're going to need a funny story to feed into it.
It's important that the events of the story themselves are funny (or at least dramatically interesting) prior to the inclusion of any dialogue or action. The individual scenes should be amusing just by dint of their position and context in the overall narrative.
I go to my big whiteboard and start by plotting out the events I know I want in my story, putting them in approximately the right position, then I try to connect them up in an interesting way. It's somewhere between doing a jigsaw and drawing a picture. You try to see how the pieces you already have slot together, and then fill in the gaps.
Do this for your A plot and any subplots until you have an interesting, escalating story with promising comic scenes, and a strong payoff, then fill in the dialogue and action.
The benefit of this approach is that when you write your actual script, the dialogue magically improves because it's been released from the burden of carrying the plot.
Conversely, a properly positioned scene becomes much funnier because it has the full weight of narrative behind it. The comic tension is generated by the entire story rather than disconnected bits of business in-scene, or superficially 'comic' dialogue.
You should aim for about 35 pages in standard feature screenplay format. It'll be around six thousand words give or take a couple of hundred depending on how verbose you are with your stage directions.
5. Why won't they call?
So you've written your spec and sent it out, and now everyone is ignoring it. When you first start out, the industry can seem to take an age to respond. Sometimes it never calls back at all. It's easy to feel isolated and get frustrated when everyone seems to be ignoring you or, worse, deliberately excluding you. However, your fears are unfounded. Conspiracy implies a degree of organisation that is absent from most of the organisations you currently believe to be maliciously ignoring you.
If you have talent, then you will get through eventually. In the meantime, don't waste your time and energy getting angry and despondent. Get better at your job. The truth is that writing talent is relatively commonplace, craft is rare. If you develop your technical abilities, you will instantly distinguish yourself from 90% of the writers in the marketplace.
Very few people can write at a professional level, very few do. Most of the television being produced today is written by a small group of people. This group has three subsets made up of the supremely talented, the moderately talented who have learned some craft, and a bunch of people who you could supplant if you write a decent script.
Now stop browsing the Internet and go and do some writing.