Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Outlining Your Sitcom Script

Writing a half-hour script is hard.

Really hard.

You need to do everything you can to make your life as easy as possible. Of course that involves getting some decent coffee, collapsing your Facebook window – maybe even unplugging your internet altogether, or going somewhere where there’s no wifi. You really need to put your back into this.

Most writers tend to find the best way to get through the painful process is to have a really solid outline in front of them. And it’s worth spending time on this so that by the time you come to write the script, there’s so much detail already there, it feels like joining the dots.

I personally make sure that I don’t start writing a script until I have an outline that runs to at least two or three pages, with a decent paragraph on what happens in each scene, and some key jokes. Overall, the document might be 1500- 2500 words.

If I have that document, I might be able to get the script done (5000-6000 words) in four or five days. That’s working flat out from 10ish ‘til 6-ish with maybe one late night if I’m ‘in the zone’, maybe with a swim or a walk after lunch each day I don’t think I’m exceptionally quick – or ludicrously slow.

Alright. I’ll Do an Outline? But how?

The good news is that you’ve done most of the hard work. Hopefully, you’ve worked out three plots for your show: A Main Plot, a Sub Plot and a Runner. The Main Plot, especially in the pilot, should be all about the hero of the story, the key relationship, or embody the essence of the show in some way. The Sub Plot is a proper story for some of the other characters – which could also involve the main character. And a Running joke is a tiny little C-Plot that might soak up the other characters.

In Miranda, as the title suggests, the show is all about Miranda – so she’s in all three stories. The Main Story might be about Miranda and her mother. A Sub Plot might be about Miranda and Gary and the on-off romance. And a C-Plot might be something to do with Stevie in the Shop. In another episode, it might be flipped, so the Main Plot is about Miranda and Stevie competing over something, the B-Plot might be about Miranda and her mother, possibly involving Tilly; and the C-plot might be about Miranda and Gary.

In Bluestone 42, with a fairly large cast, Richard Hurst and I tried to give the main plot to Captain Nick Medhurst – which might involve a storyline with Mary and Bird. The B-Plot might be Towerblock/Millsy and the Colonel; and the C-Plot Mac, Rocket and Simon. Another week, it might be Nick and Simon leading the A-Plot; with Mac, Rocket and Towerblock messing around in the B-Plot; with Bird and the Colonel as the C-Plot. Over the course of the Series, we try and make sure it all balances it out, although actors frequently think everyone else has more lines than them.

Separate

It’s normally simpler to think of the stories in isolation – and work out the main beats. Don’t worry about what happens in each scene yet. Write out the story in bullet form, with a new line/bullet for each new beat or moment of the story, but add in as much detail as you can. You might have some really neat phrasing, or a decent joke. Put it all down. If it’s the main story, it might have somewhere between eight and twelve beats.

Do the same with the B-Story, which should have fewer beats, maybe between six and ten. Again, keep going with detail, and anything relevant. Then do the same for the runner/C-Story, which may only have three or four beats.

Check the stories over, especially the A-Story. Does it peak and trough? Does it escalate? Do we believe each step? Does each step move on in a way that is both believable but surprising? Does the hero have a way out that means they could walk away from their quest without suffering any consequences? You want to close off any such escape route. Check over the mechanics of the story so no-one needs to call the Logic Police.

But then there’s the issue of being excited about the story. Do you like the whole storyline? Could it be better? Do bits of it bore you or seem predictable? If so, they’ll be very hard to write in a satisfactory way. Fix them. Now. Don’t assume you’ll think of something better when you come to write it. You might, but if you don’t, you’ll have miserable days trying to think of something better when you should be getting on with the next scene. Take the time to fix the problems at this stage.

Combine

When you’re happy with the stories, and they’re flowing nicely, you can start to work out your scenes. This should be fairly straightforward as you’ve probably been subconsciously doing it all along, but you’re working out which scene happens in which location or set. In some scenes, you’ll be pushing along two plots. In others, just one. Occasionally, it’ll be all three. Quite often, you might be kicking off all three in the first scene (although you might start a fire under one of the stories if you have a quick pre-titles scene).

The plots might not mesh together perfectly, so you may need an extra beat of a plot here, or lose another there. But hopefully, you’ll be able to get the episode laid out as a Scene by Scene outline.
It would be worth showing that to someone if you can. A producer, if you’re working with one. If not, a friend who ‘gets’ what you’re trying to do. Talk them through it. They’ll have some thoughts or concerns, about beats of the stories, moments they don’t understand, set-pieces that might not work, or character motivations that seem unclear. Even if they don’t, you will as you explain your story. Again, I recommend fixing them – if you agree with the notes – before you write the episode, so that once you’ve got your revised outline you can finally start writing.

So. We’re going to start writing the script, now right? Okay. Sorry. One more thing? It’ll take two minutes...

But you'll need to get my book, Writing That Sitcom.

For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.


It's available as a bog-standard PDF here.


People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so:

"Straight talking, supportive but never patronising, and clearly the work of one who actually knows." Amazon Review

2 comments:

  1. Really helpful article. I'm stuck at this stage currently but working out where the beats take me is another problem. Thanks for the great advice!

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  2. Great advice. I'm currently attempting my 3rd sitcom as the other 2 were ditched for this exact reason. I just couldn't find where it was going. Clearly the problem is planning. The other issue is finding out where to take the story. Still finding out who these people are and what their weaknesses are.

    I'll definitely try to apply the advice given here next. Cheers

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