Thursday, 22 February 2018

When Is A Scene Not A Scene?

Writing outlines for sitcoms is hard. One might think it’s hard because jokes are hard. If you’re a comedy writer, you probably don’t find jokes all that hard. Finding the right jokes that fit a situation and a character can be harder. Letting go of jokes that don’t fit the situation orcharacter is even harder. 

All of the above can make it difficult to see whether the action and dialogue you have allotted to a scene is adequate. In reading scripts and outlines over the last few years, I’ve noticed a few ways in which a scene appears to be a scene but is not, in fact, a scene.

A Scene With Just Jokes Is Not A Scene

But when plotting a sitcom, jokes can get in the way and lull you into a false sense of security. A really funny bit, or a run of jokes, or physical business can lead you to think that you have a scene, when you don’t. You just have jokes. Not a scene. Go back to the original story. What are the characters trying to do? How does this scene drive that story? What goes wrong? And what are the consequences?

A Scene With Just Conflict Is Not A Scene

We know that comedy is conflict. That’s one of my three C’s (Character, Conflict and Confinement). But two characters arguing in a confined situation doesn’t give you a scene. Although it’s a good start.

Aaron Sorkin is the master of writing scenes in which two people clash – and he gives the appearance of action by having them walk along at the same time. But he also gives the scene an ending which leads to the next scene, and furthers the plot. As your characters go their separate ways at the end of the scene, how has their quest been altered? What is the new problem that has to be overcome?

A Scene With Just Backstory or Revelation Is Not A Scene

Sometimes, a scene can contain some big piece of backstory or revelation. And that reveal could feel like it changes everything. And maybe it does. But exactly how does it change everything, and what are the characters going to do a result of this? We need to hear and see their freshly made plans, before they then go awry.

A Scene Where Someone Just Tries And Fails Is Not A Scene

Okay, maybe that’s not quite true, but it can feels very disappointing plot-wise when our hero has a quest. He tries to achieve his objective, but fails. And he’s back he’s started. In terms of the story, that’s not as dynamic as having the failure create new problems that also have to be dealt with. Or the problem could be fixed, but present a fresher, bigger, harder problem. Does your scene make it worse? It probably should.

It seems obvious to point these things out, but it’s surprising how easy it is to go wrong – and I make that mistake in my own scene breakdowns and outlines too. In fact, in Bluestone 42, it was only in an edit that we realised a scene was entirely redundant and could be cut. But it’s clearly easier to see in the work of other people!

When I’m script editing, sometimes I read scripts, or story outlines, that essentially come to a halt half way through the story. It feels like the plot has been resolved – and even though there’s a second half to come. But the audience don’t know that, and the story feels uninvolving.

I’ve never written for commercial television, but many writers who have can testify to the fact that ad breaks can be your friend. They force you to move the story on, and provide cliff-hanger,  tension and unfolding drama. It’s a really good discipline to get into. (Market forces do have their benefits, even to writers.) It is worth going through your outline and making sure that there’s no scene which could end with the audience saying ‘So what?’ It's hard work, but you'd rather find out your scene is not a scene before it's written, or even shot, before realising that it has to go.


For more of this sort of thing, and more information about the Character, Conflict and Confinement, you might want to get my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon here.

Alternatively, 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:

"A MUST Read for Aspiring Comedy Writers. This book gave me the feedback I needed and the tools to change and greatly improve my script." Dr. Rw Fallon

And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast here.

Friday, 12 January 2018

How Long Should My Sitcom Script Be?

The question of script length comes up from time to time. And it's tricky to know how to respond for various reasons. Some measure sitcom scripts in pages. That's probably the industry standard, not least because when you're filming on location, pages get broken down into eighths and shooting time is allotted accordingly.

Scripts filmed in a studio in front of an audience have to be carefully monitored for length too. Most sitcoms I've filmed have started shooting at 7.30pm and you really have to be done by 10pm for two main reasons. Firstly, the cost of overrunning in terms of overtime, studio time and wages can get out of hand quite quickly.

Pic by Emily Tan via Flickr
But secondly, by 10pm, even with a jolly warm-up guy, the audience really has had enough. They probably arrived at 6.30pm and have been herded about. The magic of television has worn off and, to be honest, they're done by 9.30pm, but if you've got a strong ending to film in front of them with a big pay-off, you're probably going to be fine. 

Until 10pm. At which point the audience turn into pumpkins or mice or something that isn't known for laughing much. And you can't really stop them from leaving either. And some do. And it gets embarrassing.

A decent producer has a pretty good running time clock in their heads and your page count on the night should be about right. And if it's not, it's their problem far more than yours.

If you're looking for a rule of thumb for a pilot script that you're sending out, bear in mind you're trying to sell an idea and a set of characters, not a shooting script. I'd urge you to make your TV script as tight as possible. Something between 30 and 35 pages. Cut anything that doesn't belong. Cut jokes that are just there for the sake of it, especially in the second half of the show when you need to crack on. Be ruthless. I've written about that here and here and here and in my book here.

The Glory of Radio

It's tempting to think that in radio, where everything is much easier to record, all bets are off. There's no 'location' stuff to be pre-shot, no big reveals or stage management to work out. No props, no set and know make. Plus the actors don't have to learn lines. They just read them off the script. Which partly explains why actors love doing radio and you can often pull in bigger names than you think. It's all the fun of the show without all the drag of TV production. (But way less money, obviously.)

A typical radio studio sitcom episode might record at 32-34 minutes. Then there a few retakes. Then an interval. And you record another episode. Yes, you can record two shows in one night, and still be done by 9.30pm.

Twice Nightly
In fact, recording two episodes in one night is a blessing because the audience, who might not be very familiar with the show, especially if it's brand new, will be up to speed by the second show and be looking out for their favourite characters and catchphrases. They're not worried about knowing who everyone is. The cast might be more relaxed. As a result, the second episode tends to record better and the audience laugh more. (One day, I expect a note from an exec suggesting we record both episodes second.)

However, there are laws of diminishing returns here too. The plusses can become minuses. In the second episode, the actors might start to get tired, the studio can get a hot making the audience flag and dry up. You'll want to stick to a 32-34 minute recording. Any less, you've got little room for manoeuvre in the edit. Page formats vary in radio where there are fewer script standards and protocols (every single radio script I've done has been in Word, not Final Draft) so a page count isn't helpful. But in words, for me, that's usually around the 5500 mark.

It might be tempting to get away with a script of 6500 words. Or longer but if you listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast with Graham Linehan, you'll hear why it's not a good idea.

Don't Forget Paris

In their first show, Paris, Linehan and Mathews learnt a few lessons the hard way. One is that if you write a script that's too long, and film all of it, it makes editing almost impossible.

The only way to produce a coherent 24-28 minutes is to cut jokes. Disaster. The story has to make sense. There has to be continuity. There's a lot you can't cut or the entire programme disintegrates and seems random, disjointed and unprofessional.

That's not an option.

What your producer and director and editor will cut are funny routines, gags and throwaway lines (which are literally thrown away).

It's always tempting to write long - and I've done so and regretted it for other reasons (when I wrote a 9000 word draft) - but writer beware. And if there's one thing you shouldn't do, it's Forget Paris.


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 here.

Alternatively, 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:

"A MUST Read for Aspiring Comedy Writers. This book gave me the feedback I needed and the tools to change and greatly improve my script." Dr. Rw Fallon

And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast here.