A question that's come up from Twitter from a man called Simon goes thus:
"At what point do you stop trying to mend a story that isn't working and go back to square one? Is there a deciding factor?"
It's a good question and one that's really hard to answer. In a way it's no real surprises that this is a tricky one because the Simon who posed the question is the extremely experienced Simon Blackwell (who's written for The Thick of It, Peep Show, Old Guys and been nominated for an Oscar for In the Loop. He has moved beyond asking question about font sizes.)
Story-surgery is required at a number of stages - and is more easily done early on in the process. That's why is worth being brutal with your story or outline before you start writing a script. It's like baking a cake. Mary Berry says to make sure you measure the ingredients carefully. If you don't, it's very hard to remove flour from a cake and add an egg when the cake is in the oven. The script equivalent of removing flour from a cake is through-the-night rewrites, caffeine overdoses, panic, sweat and weight gain. This, in my experience, can be exhilarating, once or twice but is mostly no fun, especially if you're the sort of person that likes to be home in time to read stories to your kids before bedtime (which, being a writer, you probably are).
I Wouldn't Start From There
So my annoying wise-after-the-event experience is that the best cure is prevention - ensuring that your story flows organically and yet mechanically, progressing with every scene or beat. And that each of these progressions is in character. It's possible to get too hung up on jokes early on, which normally comes about from not trusting yourself to come up with them later on. But if you've got proper character and they are merrily walking into comic situation for good characterful reasons - making things better and then worse again, and then better - it will be funny. Jokes will come.
My latest modus operandi is to plan, plot, tickle and hold off writing the actual script until I can bear it no longer and I just want to get stuck in. Normally, when that happens, jokes fly, it runs okay and all is well. If the jokes don't come, you might have a problem. It might be you're just tired, or you need a break. It may be it'll all feel much funnier after lunch (unlikely) or tomorrow morning (possible). But the jokes might not still come, in which case, it might be worth stopping mid-draft and re-drafting the story, ideally with someone else in the room. You'll spend ages trying to salvage bits you're sure are funny. Once you've failed to do that, ditch those funny bits, because clearly they're ruining everything else. It's not original advice but Kill Your Darlings.
Pull Back! Pull Back!
Sometimes, it still doesn't work. Your story isn't flying, or is dull, predictable and preventing the show from being funny. The characters are just in rooms talking to each other. Nothing is happening. Or the 'saving moment' seems like a huge coincidence. Or we just don't care (this often happens when our characters interact with non-regulars too much). In short, the story is broken. In fact, the story was never sound in the first place. It just escaped detection. It was holed below the waterline. Time to bale out.
What you do next depends on how much time you have. If you're some weeks away from shooting and they haven't built an expensive set, you're probably fine to start all over again. Is there a deciding factor for ditching a story? There are two - one is the producer/exec producer. They may well be saying out loud what you're thinking, that things aren't quite working. And they may not know why. Or they may.
The other deciding factor is your gut. A while ago, I co-wrote a script that was basically fine, but when it came to rewriting it, we found it impossible to improve because we realised we couldn't inject any real jeopardy into the episode. It was as funny as this story was going to get, which was funny-ish. We had successfully hidden the lack of jeopardy with funny set-pieces and jokes - but we were sure it was broken and, after a few days, unfixable, so we threw the episode out and started another. We salvaged a C Plot and some jokes from the episode we threw away and wrote the new episode very quickly which has turned out to be one of the better ones.
What Am I Doing Wrong?
Probably nothing. My experience is that it's quite normal for stories/plots to run aground. If you're writing a series of six episodes (as is our way in UK), you're normally fresh for the first two or three episodes and have lots of robust ideas. The last episode is normally written in a blur because there's no time, and usually turns out quite well, for some reason (like that last minute essay). Episode four and five can often be tricky - especially ep 5 which usually proves my nemesis.
But the hallmark of a good writer is not avoiding script calamities. They are unavoidable. It's responding to them - working hard to get the story right, being prepared to sacrifice every part or piece of the story and ultimately the episode itself to get the story right so the jokes will fly. It is hard work, but it's mostly indoors, done with a MacBook Pro, nearby copious amounts of coffee, so it's not all bad.