Tuesday 22 January 2013

Storylining & Plotting Part 1

The Americans don’t really have comedy panel games like we do. Why? Maybe they don’t have a culture of them as we’ve had, despite the fact they come up with What’s My Line? in the 1950s, which established the panel game as a thing.

But maybe American TV went off panel games because American TV is all about making money. (For the record, I have no problem with this). The problem with an episode of a panel game is that it is a poor long-term investment. It may deliver ratings in the short term, but as a rule of thumb, they don’t make you money for years and years. If you’re going to spend $500,000 on an episode of TV, you’re going to want that back eventually. You won’t get that back for a couple of years – which means your show needs to be watchable and enjoyable in three, or seven, or fifteen years time. It’s need to be syndicated, and sold on DVD and iTunes. You’re just not going to want to watch episodes of today’s panel games in years to come.

Panel games are all over our cable channels in the UK, but that is because they are very very cheap to repeat, I believe. Moreover, the original cost of the panel game is covered by the initial broadcast on the original network. Everything that’s after that is gravy.

Why Sitcoms Are A Better Investment Than Panel Games
It’s worth asking the question – why are sitcoms a better long term investment? A panel game is often just joke after joke. Pure and unalterated banter. Two and half hours of parlour games designed to allow  professionally funny people to swap wisecracks, edited down to a 28 minutes. What's not to like? Have I Got News for You, QI, and Would I Lie to You are all lovely shows – but they’re not addictive like a sitcom. They don’t make you want to own it on DVD, or give it to your sister for Christmas or watch six episodes in a row, even though you’re very tired and have to be up early. (Come on, most of us have spend the best part of a whole day watching about ten episodes of Friends back to back)

Panel games have jokes. And they even have characters or personae of sorts, eg Davies & Fry in QI, Mack & Mitchell in Would I Lie to You? Hislop & Merton in Have I Got News for You? And, as Dave Cohen has pointed out to here, these characters embody a classical British class warfare of sorts. But these characters don’t have stories. Nothing actually happens.

You need stories. Surprising twists and turns. Plots.

The Importance of the Story
I’ve probably said this before, but stories are the chassis on which the sitcom is built. It seems odd an comparison to make since the chassis is such an unexciting part of the car, compared to the body work and the engine (if you like that sort of thing). But I’d say the body work and gadgets are the jokes. And the engine are the characters. Your characters are driving your show forward. They have wants and needs (not the same thing, obviously) and obligations.

I don’t know much about cars, demonstrated by the cars I own (A Ford Mondeo Estate) and cars I have owned (VW Golf, Metro, Peugot 405 and Peugot 309). I had an accident in the Peugot 309. A strong cross wind and standing water on the road causes aqua-planing at 60 mph on a dual carriage way near Towcester. I hit the central reservation. The car was just about okay to drive to the hard shoulder. But it wasn’t fixable, because the chassis had been damaged. And if the chassis is damaged, there’s no point fixing the bodywork, mending the electrics and retuning the engine, because the vehicle is fatally flawed.

And in a sitcom, if you’re story isn’t right, if it’s not solid and sturdy, no amount of jokes or funny set-pieces will be able to remedy the underlying weakness. You need a proper story structure. If a joke doesn’t fire, that’s doesn’t matter. Your script should have at least a hundred of them, so another one will be along in a moment. Plus it might be fixable quickly – with a new joke.

But if your character does something they would never do, that’s really annoying and will get in the way of the next ten jokes at least. If that happens twice in ten minutes, your viewer is probably going to switch over. If there’s a massive coincidence that solves your two plots with a magic wand at the end (what is known as a Deus Ex Machina), your audience might not tune in next week because they feel they’ve been cheated. For the majority of scripts that get written and never progressed, produced or broadcast, the story may well be the main problem.  It’s not allowing the characters to move forward in a way that seems plausible, effortless and funny.

That’s why the next few blog posts are all about storylining and plotting.

Nothing Up My Sleeves
I should point out that I don’t have any special secret knowledge on this, or an inside track. I have a degree in Theology from the University of Durham. I have no qualifications in screenwriting. I’ve never been on a course. I just have a few years of experience of sitting in windowless rooms with big white bits of paper and filling them with ideas, bits, stories, set pieces and jokes, and drawing arrows connecting them. Writing them all down, reassembling them, re-writing them and then going over them again.

I don’t know of any short cuts. It just takes time. And I think people assume that because it takes time, they must be doing it wrong. I tend to think the opposite way. If someone says a script took no time at all, or ‘wrote itself’, or was written in a night, I’m very suspicious. They’re either lying, or they mean they wrote the actual dialogue very quickly because they’d spend ages on the outline (in which case they don’t understand that writing is as much about the outlining/plotting as anything else). Or they really did write it from scratch in no time, in which case the odds are it’s truly terrible, especially bearing in mind what Hemingway said about first drafts of anything.

So storylining and plotting, here we come. Part 2 is here.


  1. Great post and something I'd never noticed. Someone sell the US a panel show idea quickly! I do love 'Who's Line Is It Anyway' which I know was in the UK & US but although it's old it still re-runs from time to time and is very entertaining. Maybe someone needs to write an American sitcom about their 'getting it wrong' attempts at making a sucessful British panel show over there. ;)
    Thanks for this. I look forward to the s&p posts

  2. I know the post is about story, but I'm more interested in the USA panel game show thing. The money isn't the issue. We get all kinds of TV shows with limited back end. Shows like The Daily Show or Talk Soup... or on the major networks there are news magazine shows, games shows and interview shows.

    The main reason is what you hinted at initially... none have been successful. I will say that there should be a distinction between panel game shows where money is up for grabs with non-celebs vs. pure comedy panel shows. We get the former... shows like Bunk or Hollywood Squares (now Hip Hop Squares)... it's the later we don't have at all.

  3. Excellent post, though I'd say QI is the exception to the rule. It's not dated by content or references (for the most part), and it's not pegged to the pop culture guest du jour, which is why it repeats well. I've watched episodes more than once, and even got my kids hooked on the show.

    That said, I'm writing from the US, where QI is the British tv equivalent of a Vaclav Havel play in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. It's never aired here officially, the reason being that "it's too smart for Americans." Which isn't really true--it's maybe too smart for the lowest common denominator that make up the Nielsen Ratings families. There are…ways…of watching the show over here.

    I don't know why US tv lurched away from panel shows. They were all over the place in the 60s. What’s My Line? was always fun, but my favorite might be I’ve Got A Secret--happily, those have run again late at night on the Game Show Network. (Yes, there’s a Game Show Network.) Goodness knows, the reality show drivel they air these days doesn't repeat well either. Survivor, the Amazing Race, Temptation Island, the Bachelor, the various dance competitions--they generally don’t rerun these at all. But many of them are edited to fashion stories, and most of them have writing staffs. As a writer, that depresses me no end.

    ANYway, looking forward to the next installment...

  4. NPR hosts weekly panel shows in the US: Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! A current events quiz show and Says You! a word game where panelists bluff definitions of unusual words, but they are radio shows, not TV.

  5. Nothing wrong with a VW Golf...