Wednesday 6 May 2015

Give Them Hell

Chuck Wendig has a brilliant blog and this post is very insightful – and visceral – about storytelling. In short, your protagonist needs to make things worse. And worse.

And worse.

It made me think why I find it difficult to think of extreme stories when plotting a sitcom episode and here is one possible reason: the genre.

In a sitcom, your characters need to start and finish in the same place. Your show is not a serial, and needs to be viewable out of sequence. That's the commercial reality and the deal. But also the appeal. It’s baked into the art form.

In sitcoms, nothing changes and no-one learns. (As such, it's a pretty good description of life. Situations may change – like the relationship-flat-swapping in Friends – but no-one fundamentally changes personality.) A sitcom retains the status quo. Your hero wins a million bucks. They need to lose a million bucks. Someone’s house catches fire. Well, somehow, it needs to look exactly the same next week. And so every huge plot twist or story explosion needs to be untwisted or cleared up and put back together.

This can temper your imagination. You don’t give your mind fully to exploring total catastrophe for your characters because you’re worried that you won’t be able to think of a de-catasrophising solution.

But we need to put our characters through hell.

Messy Painting
It’s a bit like being in charge of a few small children. Whatever activity you propose, you’re going to need to clear up afterwards. And this will affect the activity you suggest. Want to let them paint with their hands? YAY! But bear in mind, you’ll have a lot of clearing up to do afterwards. Tables. Hands. Items of furniture in other rooms that somehow have blue marks on them.

We have to realise that we won’t think of big stories if we’re worried about how we’re going to put everything back together again afterwards. We need to trust ourselves to figure that out later. I’m sure I subconsciously try to think of a whole plot at once. I need to stop doing this. And I bet you do too.

So ask the question of your characters: What is the worst possible thing that could happen to them? And how can they make it even worse? What can they do that cannot be undone? In short, give them hell.

Two examples jump to mind, both from Blackadder. In Series 2, Lord Blackadder becomes Lord High Executioner, and in order to make life easier, he executes all his prisoners on a Monday. But the wife of one of them would like to visit him. Except he’s already been executed. That is a huge problem. You can’t get out of that one, or undo it. Farrow is dead. And trying to get out of that leading to farcical scenes such as the ones depicted below containing some of my favourite lines in all comedy. (Including ‘They’ve gone, Percy’).

In all honesty, I don’t quite believe they resolve Blackadder’s problem satisfactorily in that episode, but who am I to question the genius of Blackadder? And you do get some really cracking funny scenes.

The other example if from Blackadder the Third, in which it appears that Baldrick has burnt Dr Johnson’s dictionary. When Baldrick is ordered to steal a copy, Dr Johnson reveals there is no copy. So Blackadder has to rewrite the entire dictionary in one night. Funny.

What is the worst thing that can happen to your characters? How can they make it even worse? Don’t worry about how they get out of it just yet. The blue fingerprints on the piano stool can be cleaned off later. Right now, give them hell.

I'm running a free 90-minute webinar on Plotting Sitcoms on Friday 21st May 2021. Places are limited so sign up to the Situation Room for access to that webinar HERE

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