Friday 22 February 2013

Storylining & Plotting Part 6 – The Pitfalls of Plotting

So, following on from Part 5, we’re merrily plotting our sitcom episode. We have characters doing things in character that make their own lives more difficult. What are some of the pitfalls of this process?

Impatience: Get used to the idea this process takes time. If you manage to plot your way to a funny scene, that’s great. But just spend another half an hour seeing if that plot can be improved, be more natural, more in character and get you to an even funnier scene. Turn of the internet and do it again.

Lack of Confidence: You might have thought of some key jokes in that funny scene and aren’t all that confident you’ll think of new jokes if you change things too much. Jokes are just jokes. Don’t get trapped with the ‘No Joke Left Behind’ policy. The plot has to be right or the jokes won’t matter. The stories have to be faithful to the characters. Jokes are the icing on the cake. You need lots of brilliant icing. But you need cake. Don’t worry. If you’re characters and plots are firing on all cylinders, the jokes will come – if you take the time to work at them. (Again, you may need to turn off the internet)

Meandering stories: Does your story escalate, or just meander? Your hero has a quest. They try and do it, but they refuse to do one particular thing for some reason something goes wrong. They try to fix it – and don’t just fail. They make it worse. And so to fix it, they have to do that thing they didn’t want to do. Except now it’s too late to do that thing. And doing that thing has just landed them in more trouble. And so on, until your character is completely screwed. How are they going to get out of this? You manage to do so with a lovely twist that, in hindsight, we could have spotted, but didn’t.

Third Act Magic Wands: Your plot solution at the end of the show to your character’s problem should not involve new characters, new themes, new elements, even new object that we haven’t encountered before. The ingredients to your plot resolution should have been there almost all along. Your character needs to climb down, change their mind and/or do that thing they didn’t want to do which, surprise surprise, turns out to be not as bad as they expected. Or worse, but with a positive side-effect, etc.

No Clear Moment of Success/Failure: How does the audience know our character has succeeded or failed? What is the physical manifestation of this? Your character wants something – what is it and how do we know they’ve achieved it. There has to be a critical moment, a swift reveal of something tangible. It could be an object of significance that is handed over, or destroyed. A form of words said to someone. We, the audience, need to know in advance what that is. For some reason, the example that springs to mind of is that Hank Kingsley in The Larry Sanders Show. Hank holding out on his contract (series 1, ep 7) because wants to be taken seriously by the studio – and demands a golf cart to drive him around the set as part of his new deal. ‘I want a golf cart’ is the key. When we see him in one, we know he’s won (except there's a nice twist. He gets the cart, but we discover he's paid for it himself to save face). When you’re plotting the show, ask yourself, what’s your golf cart? And can we all see it at the end please.

Too slow: Comedy is fast. And your plot can be escalating and have a golf cart ready to go, but can you get there faster – and go one better, one bigger after that. When plotting Miranda, we would try and think what the huge set-piece scene for the ending was, and then how to get there half way through the show rather than spin it out to the end. So we deal with the fall-out from that big scene which leads to an even bigger one. Going back to the funeral example, Miranda gives the eulogy for an unknown person and falls into a grave at the end of the first act. The show also has her reading Mein Kampf to children in a public library and ends with her punching the vicar from the funeral in the face. Say what you like about Miranda, and people do, it’s not slow.

So, phew, are we there yet? Any questions about Storylining and Plotting Part 6? Or Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5? You could leave them as comments – or you could come to a workshop with me and the highly experienced and delightful Dave Cohen in London in April/May. Details here.


  1. the thing im really taking in off all these posts has been patience. i had strong ideas about the wacky antics my characters would take but i think thats because they were still versions of the people theyre based on. still are in some cases. one has 'whats wrong with her' written at the top.

  2. I suspect the lack of questions indicates how comprehensive James's advice has been!

    I can highly recommend the workshop, for those who haven't experienced it. Meanwhile, I'm eagerly looking forward to Bluestone 42 on BBC Three to see the advice in action....

  3. Many thanks for posting all this James. It's incredibly kind of you to take the time to write this down and make it so accessible for people looking for guidance and help. Really appreciate it. Jess

  4. I want to join in the chorus of thanks. This week I mailed off an original sitcom pilot to the BBC for the Trans Comedy Award, and as part of my prep I read your entire blog cover to cover. This six-part series was especially useful as a checklist in final rewrites.

    You have one of the best screen-, comedy-, and TV-writing sites on the web. I'm very much in your debt.

    I've also been looking forward to telling you that as I give friends notes I catch myself asking them, "What's your golfcart?"

    Thank you again, and congratulations again on Bluestone 42!


  5. Aw, shucks everyone. Glad the blog is of use!

    1. I've come late to your marvellous blog, James. I've been lucky enough to have a sitcom optioned recently, but had I read you earlier, it would have saved me lots of extra work! Carry on with the good work.

  6. Hi James, are you running any further sitcom courses in the near future? Mike Hadley