Tuesday 5 February 2013

Storylining & Plotting Part 4 – Choosing Your Ideas

In Part 3, we looked at compiling a very long list of one line ideas (I say ‘we looked at’. This is a lie. ‘We’ didn’t do anything. I wrote some stuff and you might have skimmed it). Getting that big long list of ideas for your sitcom together is really important because it will throw up some ideas that seem so fresh, ripe and juicy, you’ll want to start plotting them out – and it’ll be easier to do because you’ll be excited about it, rather than flogging an idea about a surprise birthday party because frankly, that’s been done and who cares? (see below)

Take some of these ideas that are irresistible and exciting and think about them a bit more. Pick 20 or 30 ideas and turn them into more than one line. A few lines. A few options or ways to go with that story. It may be a story you’ve thought of for one character as a main plot would be much funnier if it’s a subplot for another character. Let me show you, based on something that actually happened to me.

Eg. Geoff is woken in the middle of the night by a car alarm. Looks out the window and can’t see a car flashing. Goes outside and discovers the noise is coming from a neighbour’s bin. Goes through bin and finds discarded smoke detector. Can’t turn it off without a screwdriver. Caught by neighbours going through their bins? Doubly embarrassing because of some argument they’ve had before or chance remark? Mistaken for gutter press journo? Does he actually see something embarrassing in their rubbish?

That’s it. You don’t need to write much more than that at this stage but keep going if the ideas are flowing.  Do that with as many of the ideas as you can. Ideally 20-30 so you’ve got a long list of expandable ideas that are full of funny set-piece scenes and situations – and things we haven’t seen before on television.

When you’re picking stories off your list of story ideas, here are a few do’s and don’t’s partly based on good practice, bitter experience – and, okay, personal preference.

Focus on stories that bring your main characters into conflict.
This is where the ‘com’ lies in sitcom. Eg. Geoff wants to fix the plumbing himself because he’s too proud or mean to get a man in. (Decide whether it’s pride or parsimony. Not both. Ideally he says it's about the money, but it's actually male pride. Or vice versa). Sally wants to get a man in because he’ll do a better job and she likes things done properly. (But maybe we discover she just knows a hot plumber she’s like to look at for a while). Geoff and Sally are in conflict. Great. The conflict isn’t all that funny in itself but will make them do and say funny things.

Focus on stories that don’t rely on outside characters.
If you have lots of stories early on with lots of outside characters, it shows you have no confidence in your regular characters. And if they’re not producing enough comedy situations and stories between them, your show isn’t set up right. Start again. Or go back to your mix of characters. Ideally in that banal plumbing episode, the plumber never actually arrives. Maybe we get a picture of him – and Geoff realizes what’s going on. Or thinks he does. Even ‘Sister/brother/mother comes to stay’ is dubious, especially in the first series in my opinion. Focus on the central characters. You have a big long list of ideas. Choose a different one.

Avoid stories that means our characters act ‘out of character’ for some plotty reason.
Maybe a very angry character is hypnotized and becomes eerily serene. I tend to dislike ‘magic’ stories like that anyway (which is why I can’t stand Midsummer Night’s Dream with its tedious love potions – although having said all this, there’s some hypnosis in Office Space, a movie that I love). These character reversals are only funny when we all know the characters really well. A peaceful Basil Fawlty might be funny in Series 3 – but even then, I'd say not very.

Avoid stories based around birthdays.
A couple of reasons for this. Firstly, birthday stories means you have to be precise about your characters age, which is usually best kept vague for a whole bunch of reasons. Someone might do the maths and discover your female lead must have had a child at 14, or something. But secondly, come on, birthdays? Really? And surprise birthdays/everyone’s forgotten storylines should be banned by the Writers Guild. Special occasions and formal things are fine, but why can’t it be something else, or a festival or ‘holy day’ that really means something to your character? For me, one of the ‘sacred days’ of the year is the first day of the first home test Match of the summer. Goes back to childhood when I didn’t have anything else to do. What’s your ‘sacred day’? What’s character’s unique ‘annual special day’ and why? And who’s interrupting it?

Focus on stories that begin and end in your regular locations.
This is especially the case with sitcoms filmed in front of an audience. Filming scenes on location and playing them into and audience is an extra expense, and usually producers don’t want more than a few minutes of it per episode – but this is a blessing. Where possible, we want our regular characters in their natural habitat, especially for the big reveal or denouement. With Miranda, we always tried to get the climax of the show in front of the audience and used the big set-piece stunts as cut-away jokes. I’ve blogged in other posts that sitcoms, especially audience ones, are more like plays.  Avoid your characters going out for dinner, unless you set most of the episode there (eg Seinfeld and friends waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant). Ideally, have your characters cook, or admit defeat and get take away. Avoid your characters playing golf. Have your characters spend ages cleaning, fixing, obsessing over their golf clubs.

Avoid stories that rely on an artistic endeavour
This includes art, music, or any kind of public performance like a speech. These often sound promising and exciting but they are extremely hard to make work. I think the reason is that the climax of the story feels like it should be that performance, or the unveiling of that piece of art. And then how the audience at home feel about that art is impossible to control. What is a good painting? What is a good performance? Is it good? Bad? So bad it’s good? Mediocre? It’s not clear or crisp. (see Clear Toss). There are ways round this, but they are very hard work. Leave it for series 5. By which time you'll have a team of writers and you can make them think of something else.

I guess there’s a degree of subjectivity to these do’s and don’t (or ‘focus on’s and ‘avoid’s). And I regularly ignore my own advice – but almost certainly end up regretting it.

So, you’re turning your big long list of 50-100 one-line ideas into 20-30 one-para ideas. And we’ll look at what to do next in Part 5.


  1. Do you feel like the best sitcoms on tv follow these rules? (Modern Family, Parks and Recreation, etc.)

  2. No, they don't follow these rules. But I think they should. The Guest Character thing is a rule that is often broken and rarely with success in my opinion. In Modern Family, for example, I don't want to see other characters. I LOVE the ones that are in the show - and there are plenty of them and have precious little airtime as it is... Obviously once a show is in it's 4th season, it can mix things up, but most of us are not in the privileged position, sadly.

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