Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Being a Better Writer

Another year clicks round and it’s time to look back.

Done that? Great. Let’s look ahead and consider how to be better writers in the coming year.

I’ve got to be honest (which is a good start to the year ahead). I don’t really know what makes a good writer, or what makes ordinary writers write well. All writers are different. But I do know that it’s very easy to become resentful and annoyed that the whole system seems to be against you. Getting a show on TV or the radio, or working on a show, or getting a foot in the door seems impossible. I feel that sometimes, I’ve had three series of my own show on TV in the last five years.

But these feelings are mostly negative and tend not to get you anywhere. If they spur you on to try harder, that’s fine to a point but don’t write to prove people wrong. Don’t write for the money. Or the vindication. There are lots of bad reasons to be a writer. (There are 8 HERE) Some people just like the idea of being a writer. According to YouGov, that’s the most desirable job. But lots of these people who express this wish don’t actually want to write. They just want to ‘be a writer’. Which is a very different thing.

Write because you want to. In fact, most writers I know write because they have to. If that’s you, the only useful resolution you can make is not ‘get a show on TV’ because you have very little control over that. All you have control over is your writing, your words on your pages expressing your ideas through your characters. So make a resolution to do that better.

So here are some thoughts and suggestions to that end. Maybe one of these ideas will help you raise your game in the following year.

1. Be Curious – Take an interest in the world around you. Decide to research something you’ve always wanted to know more about. Google it to start with. That’s fine. But then read some proper books on the subject. Find an expert and ask them questions. Find someone with experience and talk to them. Ask them to refer you to others. You never know where it could lead.

2. Read More Books – The internet is a false friend. It’s possible to feel well-informed without ever cracking the spine of a book. But there’s no substitute for reading books that tell proper stories, fiction or non-fiction. Or books about culture, sport, history, geography, science… with, you know, facts. One of the reasons I try to listen to Start the Week on Radio 4 is to hear a variety of voices and opinions, and then often I end up tracking down the books by those people I've heard. The last time I did that, I ended up reading Where Do Camels Belong? It was fascinating.

3. Be Older – Wanting to write is fine, but you need something to write about, so live life. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to write that magnum opus. Some people peak in their early 20s. They tend to be athletes and sometimes musicians. Writers tend to take a lot longer. Play the long game. Get married. Have kids. Start a business. Go on a journey. Do jury duty. Execute a will. Track down a relative. Meet your neighbours. Be a school governor. Stand for your Parish Council. Volunteer for a food bank. Then you’ll have something to write about.

4. Write Stuff Down – As you live your life, make a note of things that happen as you go, especially unique experiences or near misses. The very act of writing it down probably means you’ll never need to refer to it again. Then, when you’re trying to think of a sitcom plot in a particular area, you’ve got ready made anecdotes to draw on.

5. Watch Less TV – Life too short for Homes Under The Hammer or Bargain Hunt. Watch one or two. Fine. But don’t watch trash every day. Why would you watch a property show when you haven’t read Brothers Karamazov or The Koran?

6. Watch More TV – When you decide to watch TV, watch good stuff. And then realise how high the bar is. Watch the opening scene of The Newsroom and see how powerful words on the page can be. Be inspired.

7. Make Something Better – Take that script you’ve been working on and think is okay and make it as good as it can possibly be. Print it out. Make notes on it. Cut lines that you don’t need. Refine it. Sift it. And then…

8. Send It Off – Send it to a producer who makes stuff that you like (more HERE). Send it into a script competition. Or to the BBC Writers Room. Have someone read it.

9. Listen Carefully to Notes – If you can get anyone to read your script, think carefully about the notes they give you. They might be right. They might be wrong. But resolve not to be defensive and work out how this comments might make your script better.

10. Start Something New – While you polish up that existing script, starts something new. Something exciting. Something you simply can’t wait to write. And hopefully, that script you've sent out will get you a meeting, and then you've got something else to talk about.

11. Think Big – TV is more ambitious now that ever. Look at the scale of Game of Thrones or The Man in the High Castle. It’s always tempting to think of noodly little ideas in which you have just two characters and it’s all in one place and in real time, or something, but why limit yourself like that? I know you want to prove what a great writer you are, but those small situations are plays, not TV shows. You can go anywhere or do anything. Have some ambition.

12. Do Some Research – And once you have an idea, pursue it. Read about it. Talk to people. Be curious. See above.

There’s nothing here that’s terribly profound or clever. Sorry about. The big secret is that there are no secrets. It’s all about the imagination: thinking then reading then writing then re-writing until they tell you to stop.

For slightly more specific information of writing sitcoms, get Writing That Sitcom for Kindle or the Kindle App. And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast.

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.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Why You Should Consider Writing for Radio

There is no doubt that TV is where it’s at. Every new TV sitcom that comes out is reviewed by all and sundry, generates a thousand tweets and opinions. The aspiring comedy writer could be forgiven for overlooking radio. But they’d be missing out on acres of opportunity.

The industry talks about radio shows being a testing ground for ideas. Quite a few began life on radio or were tried out there: Miranda, Little Britain, People Like Us, Goodness Gracious Me, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as well as the old classics like Hancock. This is true, but in the first instance, I would urge people to see it as a great place to learn their comedy trade regardless of the future of any particular show or idea. Loads of writers spent many years in radio writing for shows like Weekending and The News Huddlines before going on to television.

I started writing as Weekending was drawing to close. That led to my writing the occasional sketch on The Way It Is, sharing a table with likes of Simon Blackwell, who’s gone on to write for The Thick of It, Peep Show and Emmy-winning Veep. We’re all trying to catch him up, but it’s not a competition (unless you make it one). Ideally, these shows give you friends and colleagues who work in the industry and you all go through it together. Some have found writing partners on these shows.

Then there’s the experience of getting some jokes on the show. Nothing can beat the buzz of hearing your material being broadcast to the nation – especially if you wrote the joke that week. And especially if the joke is actually funny. When you’re struggling to make an impact in the industry and scrape a living, you need all the boosts you can get.

A Great Place to Write
All the above is true enough. Radio is a great place to start. But I see radio as an end in itself. It’s a great place to work and write. It’s interesting that a number of writers come back to radio because of the creative freedom it affords. One notable example is Andy Hamilton – who wrote the wonderful Million Pound Radio Show with Nick Revell from 1985-1992. Then he had his monster Channel 4 hit Drop the Dead Donkey with Guy Jenkin – but came back to radio to do Old Harry’s Game and Revolting People, two shows that couldn’t really happen on television. And he did these while writing another monster hit for TV in Outnumbered.

What is it about radio that gets writers coming back to it? The medium itself is certainly intimate. If TV is like being yelled at, radio is like a pleasant side-by-side conversation. It’s more like reading a novel, where the pictures are in your head – and the special effects are so much better, and far more memorable for it.

The attraction may also be the business of writing for radio compared to television – where there are so many people in the way. In radio, it’s mostly you, the producer and a broadcast assistant. There aren’t too many execs or suchlike floating around making your life more complicated than it needs to be. The audience of two hundred or so will keep you honest on that front. And then there’s the cast.

A note here about casting, which is so much easier for radio, since radio recordings requires comparatively little rehearsal, no make-up and no line-learning. Assembling a really good cast is comparatively easy. Through radio, I’ve had the thrill of working with some superb actors who have significant profile. Apart from that, they have real experience and talent and can really lift the script with their performance.

The Script is King
Because the process is so pared back in radio, the script is everything. In television, the writer can feel like a small part in a big machine – and this can tempt one into thinking that the script is only part of the process. It isn’t. The script is king. Radio teaches you that in a hurry. There’s no hiding in radio – and so as a radio sitcom writer, you learn fast. If the show misfires, it's unlikely to have been a technical fault. Most likely, it's a script error, a string of duff jokes, a confusing plot turn or a badly defined character. In other words, it’s your fault.

In radio the scripting has to be so rigorous, because you can’t rely on cinematography or clever tricks to hide poor writing. So you should improve really quickly, standing you in good stead for when you do get that opportunity in TV. By the time Bluestone 42 was commissioned, I’d been writing half-hour script for radio for ten years, so I wasn’t over-awed by the task in hand. I was ready.

Land of Opportunity
BBC Radio 4 puts out comedy every week night at 6.30pm, and often at 11pm, and 11.30am. It’s at least 12 half hour slots a week, 52 weeks a year – to say nothing of the 200+ afternoon plays that are on every year, some of which you could write. It’s not like television where there might be two or three sitcoms on per week across all TV Channels, if you’re lucky. And everyone is scrapping for those few slots and budgets. On the radio, it always feels like you’re in with a chance if you have a decent script.

A Great Place to Fail
It sounds odd, but the fact that radio is lower in profile, as we said at the start of the chapter, is a good thing. It makes it a great place to fail. We all fail as writers – and even if the scripts seem funny and the cast seem right, the show might turn out to be a soupy mess. Success is all very fine and large, but failure is your friend. You learn through failure – humility as much as anything else, and that is no bad thing.

A while ago, I had a nice show running on Radio 4 called Think The Unthinkable, starring Marcus Brigstocke and David Mitchell, among others. I tried to get a new show up on its feet called The Pits, set in the fictional British Opera Company. It starred Paula Wilcox, Phil Cornwell, Lucy Montgomery and John Oliver. Yes. That John Oliver. I thought it was okay and could have developed into something – but Radio 4 didn’t like it. The press completely ignored it and it vanished without trace. Google it. You won’t find it. It’s not even on Wikipedia. But on TV the press, I’m sure, would have torn it to shreds.

Then again, it would never have happened on TV because there probably weren’t any slots, especially not for an elitist show about posh music.

So my advice is to think seriously about radio. Listen to it. There are loads of sitcoms on Radio 4 Extra HERE. At the time of writing, and given what's there at the moment, I'd especially recommend: Cabin Pressure, The Music Teacher, Old Harry's Game, Giles Wembley-Hogg and the truly joyous Bleak Expectations. But there's loads more.

This blogpost is drawn from my book about writing sitcom, cleverly entitled Writing That Sitcom - which in turn is based on this blog. You can buy Writing That Sitcom for the Kindle and Kindle App here.