Wednesday 20 February 2013

Storylining & Plotting Part 5 – The Principle of Plotting

One of the things that is often said of sitcoms is that you should ‘chase your character up a tree and throw sticks at them’. It’s good general advice. But I’d argue for a slightly more nuanced version, which I will come to in a moment. If we’re being literal, we could have our character suddenly chased by an angry dog. And now our character is trapped. That’s fine. By where did this dog come from? How did our character enrage the dog? Does he think its a dog and it isn't really? Why is today the worst day to be stuck up a tree? How could our character have avoided this situation? Why did they chose to climb a tree when it’s obviously going to be difficult to get down?

Let’s be less literal for a moment. You, as the author of your show and the Lord of your universe, can send all kinds of calamity on your characters. You can set their house on fire, take away their life savings, kill their pets or humiliate them in anyway you chose. But these stories are not as pleasing as the stories where they set their on house on fire, ruin their own finances and kill their own pets (tip: Don’t kill animals in a sitcom. Viewers hate that. In movies, rules are different).

But you need to give them a reason. Especially when they're doing something really stupid. It’s annoying when you watch a show when characters do things that are obviously convenient for the story rather than truthful and honest. So here’s my version of that general advice. ‘Give your character a really good reason to do something as stupid as climb a tree. And give your other a characters reasons to throw sticks at them.’

It may be your characters are not helping you here. You’ve got a great long list of ideas but your characters feel passive in these stories. They’re giving you nothing. In which case, you might got a duff character and you need to go back to the drawing board. You need to know what they want. And how that differs from what they actually need. All is not lost, but ‘making extreme stuff happen’ is not going to help at this stage.

Small Steps
The trick is to lead your character through a story step by step, stage by stage so that the high point is ridiculous – and yet not one step on that journey has been unbelievable or out of character. The most obvious example I can think of in this is the episode of Miranda in which she ends up having to give a euology at a funeral – and she doesn’t know who’s actually in the coffin, and ends up playing some kind of twenty questions with the congregation.

How did Miranda in this ridiculous situation? A new phone, missing voicemail messages that are discovered late, turning up and being called upon to say a few words – each individual beat is believable, not least because you can’t turn up to a funeral and say ‘Sorry, who are we actually burying today?’ And then falling into an open grave is just a bonus.

And again, this just takes time and graft. It means you plot and plan the story moment by moment, making sure there are no cracks, creases or joins. No comedy equivalents of the daft horror film staple of deciding to stay the night in a house that is obviously haunted, escaping the monster/zombie/ghost, and then going back in to face it.

If you write alone, this is where a producer or script editor can be a big help. They can spot these moments where things are a bit too convenient, or a character doesn’t something that doesn’t add up. Fix these problems in the outline, because they are much harder to unpick when you have a forty page script full of jokes you really don’t want to cut.

That's all for now. There’ll be more specifics hints and tips on the next post.

Getting Your Story Straight

If you'd like me to talk you through all this, why not try my sitcom video course, Writing Your SitcomSpec scripts are almost always deficient in the storytelling, and if you can get that right, your script really will stand out from the huge pile of other scripts. Why not find out more about the course here?

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