Monday 28 January 2013

Storylining & Plotting Part 2 – Low Hanging Fruit

Let’s be honest. Being a comedy writer is a dream job. When I explain what I do for a living to my 4-year old daughter she gives me a very odd look. She finds it hard to understand what I do because to her, it doesn’t sound like a job at all. I figure out what people in TV and Radio shows say to each other. Is that really a job? Why can’t you be a train-driver, dad? Or a builder? In fact, to many of my friends and family, my job barely sounds realistic. Sitting in Starbucks writing jokes seems a bit of a cop-out from society. And sitting in a room coming up with ideas and plots for a show doesn’t sound like a day's work.

And yet, put most people in these situations and they’d panic. You give most people the freedom to create stuff and they find it impossible for a variety of reasons. Either they wouldn’t think of anything original or interesting, or they wouldn’t be able to bring themselves to express it. For most people, the blank page is terrifying. It’s why giving speeches is one of the great fears in society. It’s not just standing up there – it’s reading out what you’ve written.

It’s a Hard Life (although no real actual physical labour is involved)
The reason I say all this is because storyline and plotting is incredibly hard work. And it feels odd doing it because it is strange thing to be doing with your time. But, as we established in the last post, storylining and plotting your show is vital. It is hard work but conversely, you know when it’s going well because it doesn’t feel like work. When your show is firing on all cylinders and throwing up lots of juicy comedy moments and jokes, you really do feel like you’re being paid to join the dots.

Sometimes, plotting is a hard struggle and at 3pm on Thursday afternoon, you’re feeling tired and bored and cross that you didn’t really get much done in the morning and you were going to go to the gym and frankly you might as well have done given the slim pickings that have made it onto a piece of paper. So far, so observational. What can be done to reduce the number of tired and tetchy afternoons? How you feel ‘in the room’ as you’re trying to plot out episodes is a fairly good guide to how well you’re doing.  I’m sure some very memorable episodes of TV have been ground out over hours of sweat and crossed words, but usually the good stuff comes when it all feels natural, straight-forward and easy.

When this happens, you’re doing what business people call ‘plucking low hanging fruit’. You’re developing ideas and stories that are just so juicy you can’t resist sinking your teeth into them and it’s a joy and a hoot. And it doesn’t feel like work. It’s going well.

Where do these ideas come from? It’s a simple. A huge long list of ideas you’ve already come up with. And on that list are some ideas that just stand out. They’re exciting. They feel fresh and new and plotting them out feels like it could go in multiple directions, produce character conflicts and set-piece scenes we haven’t seen before.

So What Are You Saying?
So, what I’m saying is that you can start plotting and planning too early. Let’s say you’ve got an idea for sitcom, and you’ve got your characters. What do you need now? You need to write a pilot script. And you need to five one-paragraph outlines for what happens in shows 2-6. Here’s what I would do (and this is predicated on the idea that I don’t really believe in ‘set-up’ pilot episodes. In a first series, every episode should assume that the audience have never seen the show and you should reintroduce the characters properly so it's crystal clear who’s who and what the set-up is.)

I would try and come up with ten usable storylines – and pick the six that you think serve your show best and feel most fresh and original. And write your pilot based on the one that’s most exciting, interesting and useful. To get those ten usable storylines, you should thinking of pages and pages of ideas, maybe 50-100 ideas, each of which involve a key character doing something interesting.

As many of these storylines as possible should be active stories that centre around your key character (eg. decides to throw away old junk or take up a new hobby or confront someone about issue). This will drive you along further and faster than than passive stories that start from outside the show and ‘happen to’ your characters (eg. selected for jury duty or wins lottery). From that, you’ll get some juicy low-hanging fruit.

So in Part 3, we’ll look at how to go about generating this great big long list of ideas.


  1. This is really good stuff, James. An extremely useful series - thank you so much for posting it.

  2. "In a first series, every episode should assume that the audience have never seen the show and you should reintroduce the characters properly so it's crystal clear who’s who and what the set-up is."

    Mulling this over I am wondering if this is why 1st series are usually the best, and the rot sets in at the third series, and shows are cancelled after series 4.

    The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
    Ever decreasing circles (yes it's true - all downhill after series 2 Xmas special)
    Faulty Towers (Cleese being so clever pulled the plug at its hight)