Tuesday, 22 December 2015

13 Rules of Sitcom

What are the golden rules of sitcom?

I’ve been asking myself this, because, well, I’ve been asked this recently. I’ve been working with some folk from a country where sitcom is not really a thing, apart from American and British imports. So I’ve been re-evaluating what a sitcom is and how they tend work. I made a list. I checked it twice (but I’ll bet there are still typos). But I thought it might make a good last blog post of the 2015.

These are not golden rules.

They’re not even silver rules. Maybe somewhere between silver and bronze. (Brilver?)

And some of them aren’t even rules, but merely ‘things that tend to work’. So this is Thirteen Brilver Things that Tend to Work.

It’s a bit of amalgam of stuff I’ve been writing about on this blog for ages. And some new stuff. And they’re in no particular order.

There are exceptions to these rules. Of course there are. The exceptions are  often good episodes because they go against the convention, but you couldn’t do it every week. Sometimes, however, they really don't work.

Oh, and I’m taking for granted that we all know my patented sitcom formula, that Character + Conflict + Confinement = Comedy.

Enough already! Let’s just start the list.

Rule 1: Your Characters and Situation Don’t Change

A sitcom is, to some extent, the same show every week. The same characters make the same mistakes. They don’t learn. They don’t change. Your character is not moving to Nepal, even if they talk about it for the whole episode. Your character won’t start listening to advice, even if the moral of the story is that the character should listen to advice. And even if though they do ‘learn their lesson’, they’ve forgotten by next week. In one sense, it’s more true to life than any art form.

Rule 2: You’ve Got 48 Hours!

Execs hated the idea of this episode
Sitcoms normally take place in a 24 to 48 hour time span. For some reason, three days feels too long, even if it’s a bit more plausible. It means that people end up throwing parties and giving people a few hours notice and they still turn up. But that doesn’t seem to matter. The audience implicit understand the compression of time because they're smart. And they've watched a lot of TV. The glaring exceptions to this timeframe are the episodes that are ‘real time’, like Miranda at the psychiatrist or Seinfeld, Elaine and George waiting for a table at a Chinese Restaurant.

Rule 3: Start Your Story ASAP

Given you’ve only got 48 hours, and about 32 pages, start your story as soon as possible. It’s amazing how many scripts I read which have the characters talk and talk and talk, but not actually do anything or even threaten to do anything until about page 14.  Give your main characters achievable goals as early as possible. Show who they are by having them do stuff.

Rule 4: Give your Characters HELL

Having given your characters achievable goals, make their lives an utter misery. Make the goals suddenly seem very far away or impossible. But don’t just throw your characters under a bus. Give your characters good reasons to go in completely the wrong direction - or step into the path of a bus. Give your main character characters conflicting goals. Ask yourself why this day of all days is the worst possible day to pursue that goal. And read THIS on the subject. And also read THIS brilliant blogpost by Chuck Wendig.

Rule 5: Keep it Simple

Stories can get very complicated very easily. Remember you’re writing comedy, not complex boxed-set drama. You want the audience to laugh. And if they don’t know what’s happening, or are struggling to keep up with the plot, they won’t laugh. And one of the mantras of this blog is that Confusion is the enemy of comedy. If you want brilliant clear plotting, watch The Goldbergs.

Rule 6: Don’t Get Caught by the Logic Police

Make sure every action taken by your characters has a good reason, rather just being a convenient contrivance. Everything must make sense to your characters at least. It undermines the alternative reality you're trying to build if the audience are saying 'No-one would ever do that'. Read more on that HERE. Having said that:

Rule 7: Go Big at the End

At the very end of the script, it’s surprising how far you can push things, even if they overstep the bounds of logic for a moment. This probably isn't your character doing something unbelievable, but more of a sequence of events which act as a topper to the main story. Your main character could walk into their living room after the big moment and find it full of mini-wind-up robots that were mention a while ago. How the robots were unpacked and wound up, we don't know but it's right at the end so it's probably fine. In the last two minutes, you can get away with an awful lot. Having said that:

Rule 8: No Coincidences

A chance event cannot solve your character’s big problem. It has to be something they or another character does, ideally at great cost to themselves, that gives you the resolution. You don’t want any new information in the last third of the show. Often, a good plot is resolved by having a regular character do something that was staring them in the face all along, but they – and the audience – just couldn’t see it at the time.

Rule 9: Avoid Outside Characters

Outside characters feel like they can be very exciting and funny, but the audience really don’t want to know about them. They just love the regular characters, so the only point in having outside characters is to make your regular character do funny things. Where possible, use your regulars. If your character wants to get fit, and hire a personal trainer, have someone we already know volunteer. It’s almost certainly going to be funnier. Sure you can build a big family of characters over time, but think about that on Series 3. In the meantime, there's more on this subject HERE.

Rule 10: Avoid Outside Locations

If you’re a studio sitcom, keep your location shooting to a minimum. You want as much of the action, and especially the denouement, to take place in front of the audience. You're filming a play, not a movie.

Rule 11: Make those First Lines Count

If you’re writing a pilot script, make sure the first line spoken by each of the main characters is really significant for that character, or tells us a lot about them. Given them a prop, or something to wear as well to reinforce that. How we first encounter them makes a deep impression, so make sure it’s the right impression. More on that HERE.

Rule 12: Be Brutal

Don't just be brutal on your characters. Be just as brutal on your script. Every line of your script should either be a joke, a character line or a plot development. Ideally it should be at least two of those three. Either way, once you’ve written your script, forget about it for a couple of days, then print it out and go through it with a pen, and cross every single line that isn’t a joke, a character line or plot development. You just don’t have room for those lines. And you’re better off with a tight 29-page script than a baggy 40-pager. I learned that the hard way HERE. Also there's more on polishing your script HERE.

Rule 13: Do What You Want

You can write about anything you like. Anything. This especially applies if you’re not a writer-performer. Your acting ability and persona are not integral to the piece so you can write about anyone, anywhere at any stage of their life and at any point in time. Make the most of that (more on that HERE) And don’t be persuaded by stories of what commissioners are looking for. Ultimately they’re looking for a show that’s funny. And that’s more likely to be the case if your write in your original voice about things you’re passionate about, rather something cynical and hacky.

Write the show YOU want to write, rather than a show you think you can sell. More on that HERE.

Maybe there should be rules on dealing with exposition (more on that HERE), story lining (HERE), and what to do with your script when you've written it (HERE and HERE). But 13 Brilver Things that Tend to Work is probably enough.

For lengthier explanations of all of the above, and more, get Writing That Sitcom for Kindle or the Kindle App. And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast.

6 comments:

  1. I know you said there are always exceptions, etc. But Rule 9 "no outside characters"... Seems that the BEST sitcoms (Seinfeld, From Ted, Fawlty) were able to make outside characters their hallmark. They throw in the random stranger (new girlfriend, odd priest, hotel inspector) whose job was to shake up the protagonists' world's. And they didn't need 3 prior series of establishing the characters to make that work.
    Then again, those are examples of the very best in sitcom characterisation from the word go..

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  2. Yup. Point taken. But either those outside characters were monsters and very extreme (e.g. Soup Nazi) and only used one to put massive pressure on the main characters - which is one way - or they were part of the bigger family of characters (e.g. Uncle Leo). The random stranger can be funny, but it's a huge uphill struggle for them and the only thing that matters is how the affect the protagonists. Again, it's not a rule, but my experience is that these characters just don't deliver as you often hope.

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  3. On the other hand, Jerry and George usually had a "girlfriend of the week" whose function was to drive one of the plots for that episode.
    I'd also argue that some of Jerry's one-off girlfriends deliver hugely. Mulva/Dolores; the Virgin; err... others that I can't think of right now...! :-)
    I'm not sure what you mean by "huge uphill struggle for them"? For the new character, or for the writer? If the former, surely we don't care - that outside character is there to serve a plot point or storyline.
    Really enjoy reading your blog - I'm not a writer at all, I just love to watch and analyze sitcoms. And I can't argue with any of the other rules! :-)

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  4. Both those shows have really small central casts - plots have to come from somewhere.

    Look at Friends: 6 main characters, plus semi-regulars like Janice or Gunther, and hundreds and hundreds of episodes and plots. A kooky out-of-town relative arrives for pretty much every character, and longer term love interests threaten the status quo, but the circle rejects them for us.

    Part of that is the characters closing ranks, part of it no doubt the cast doing the same, but as a writer you're soon limited to finding new ways of the 5 non-Joeys being jealous of Elle Macpherson, or whoever is yucking it up this week.

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  5. And, of course, my comments are only saying what you've already said yourself (only much, much better) in the linked post about guest characters. Do feel free to ignore my ramblings! :-)

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  6. Above my computer I've written:

    'Confusion is the enemy, backstory is death, keep it simple, stupid.'

    Might replace it with your '13 things wot usually work'... Though I shall also be reminding myself not to forget jokes. So very easy to kill yourself getting the above right and realise you've forgotten to make it funny.

    Thanks for the blog, James, and a merry Xmas to all!

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