Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Your Perfect Pilot Sitcom Plot

You’ve got some characters and a situation. You’ve got some relationships and some stories. But how do we turn that jumble of jokes and jeopardy into a script?

And not just a script, but a pilot script?

Hands On Experience

That’s what we’re covering in a pay-what-you-like webinar I'm running on 30th May at 6pm UK Time.

I'll be using a practical sitcom example from our last session (which you will get to watch on replay if you sign up) to do that so that it'll be a bit like being in a writers' room.

Here's the problem:

I’ve read a lot of scripts in the last couple of years, and it’s quite common to enjoy a script for a few pages, the characters and the jokes, but soon the problem becomes obvious.

The script isn’t going anywhere.

There isn’t really a story. It’s all ‘set up’. Nothing is happening. There’s lots of talking. But no action. So the characters stop being funny because they’re not being put under any pressure.

Or the script is going somewhere – but that’s not a place we want to go because it’s taking us away from the idea for the show, from the main location, from the world that’s being created.

30 pages seems at lot at first, but it’s not very much to show what your sitcom is really about, what a typical episode will be like, why we’re going to want to watch it week after week and that you’re the one to write it.

And most readers and producers have made up their minds by page 10. At the very latest.

Getting the right plot going fast is crucial for your pilot sitcom script.

The story needs to be carefully lined up with the idea for the show, the situation, the characters and their relationships.

Find help, answers and experience in the webinar on 30th May at 6pm UK time!

We’re going to be finding out what that looks like, using a sitcom called Big Day.

We’ll be thinking about three different options for our opening episode, how each idea might pan out, and which might be best.

When you sign up, you’ll get a PDF with the characters, the situation and some storylines to think about - and access to a replay of the previous session. And you can pitch some ideas in the webinar, or even email some suggestions beforehand. It’ll be like being in a virtual writers room. Do join us. The last one was great fun. This will be even better.

Monday, 2 May 2022

Could I Write A Sitcom?

Yes you can! Here are four reasons to be cheerful and two to be careful, plus what to do next:


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Wednesday, 13 April 2022

Kick Start Your Sitcom Script

You’ve got some characters.

And you’ve got a situation.

You’ve even thought of some jokes.

What now? I really want to show you with a practical, hands-on session that should feel a bit like being in a writers’ room. I’ll be running it. It’s going to be great fun. I hope you can join me! It’s at 6pm on Tuesday 26th April. Find out more HERE.

In the session, we’re going to be answering a couple of key questions that you need to think about when you’re trying to kick start your sitcom and writing that pilot script.

The first question is this:

What’s the sitcom about?

Sure, it’s about some funny people who work in a shop that sells cards, gifts and party things. It’s called Big Day! (It’s a sitcom I’ve created for training purposes.) It’s a shop in a shopping mall that has you covered when it comes to special occasions for those special people.

But what’s it REALLY about?

It’s the about the characters, right? Yes, kind of. There’s Ruby, Bill, Geraldine, Amy, Donna and Wayne, who runs the coffee stand opposite.

But what’s at the heart of the show?

We need some clear idea about why we’re writing about these characters in this situation now. It’s not just about the business of selling birthday cards. Or is it?

What's the solution? How do we kick start the sitcom? Find out over HERE where there's more information about the webinar and you can sign up. It’s pay-what-you-like, mainly so I can keep track of space in the Zoom room.

Sign up here and you’ll be sent the situation and details of the characters plus a bit of homework to do in advance, and then in the webinar, you can pitch an idea either verbally or in the chat. And we’ll see what we end up with! I have no idea how this is show’s going to turn out and I can’t wait to find out. I really hope you can join me.

Tuesday, 22 March 2022

How to Make your Sitcom Funnier by Starting in the Middle

In the first two articles in the series I really laboured why your script should not involve your lead character turning up to their first day at work, the main reasons being:

#1: It is a very common plot in pilot scripts
#2: Your main character is going to be reactive or passive
#3: ALL of your other characters are going to be funnier than your (passive) LEAD character.

I had a sample sitcom in which Deborah turned up on her first day, and being introduced to Alice, Jake, Megan, Val and Clem who all seemed funnier than Deborah.

Why is that?

Because Alice, Jake, Megan, Val and Clem have already started.

As far as we’re concerned, we arrive in the middle of their story. They’re settled into the office being themselves, embroiled in rivalries, plots, shenigans and stories. That’s when they’re funny.

And that’s the really big sitcom lesson to learn here: start in the middle.

Don't start at the beginning which is a terrible place to start. (Thanks, Maria.) Start in the middle.

If we want Deborah to be as funny as the other characters, we need to start her off in the middle, not the beginning. Let’s have her already entrenched in office politics like her colleagues, not tentatively dipping her toe in.

We started in the middle of the other characters plots – Jake with his photocopier, Alice and her sister’s wedding dress, Megan and Val’s plant war and Clem’s trip to Hawaii. They’ve all hit the ground running. Why aren’t we doing that with Deborah? Especially if she’s going to be the main character.

The fact is you can have character arriving on their first day, but it probably shouldn’t be the lead protagonist.

In Bluestone 42, we started the show with the bomb disposal team doing its thing, led by Captain Nick Medhurst who is the focal point of the show. Once they’ve done their thing, found the bomb and blown up the baddies, Nick gets back and meets a character who is new to the base. The padre, Mary. And he takes this as a chance to show off. And we can see that she’s met people like him before and isn’t that impressed.

We did start with another ‘new character’ in Bluestone 42, a visitor from the CIA played by Mike McShane.

Reader, we shot him.

This was to demonstrate that this was active war zone and that if didn’t follow procedures, you would die. So we now know what the stakes are in this sitcom world.

But you might be thinking my sitcom’s not set in an a war zoom or an office so none of this applies to me.

Well, actually, it might.

Sample #1 Your protagonist, Laura, is buying into a new house next to a church yard, and the estate agent is showing them around one last time, and then the removal men are bringing in their possession. This conveyor belt of possessions may reveal a character but your character is still being passive for pages and pages.

Start the Laura show in the middle. They’ve moved in to the house and already discovered that it’s horribly haunted by the graveyard next door and they’re living with it.

Sample #2 Or your protagonist, Terry, isn’t on his first day at work, but his last. He’s been fired from his job as an engineer, and gets home to find his partner has left. And then his long lost daughter turns up pregnant and moves in. Again, that’s pages of stuff happening, but it’s happening to your character. They are passive.

Start the Terry show in the middle. He’s an out-of-work engineer-turned-inventor, living with his daughter who has a new baby to cope with.

Don’t start at the beginning. Start in the Middle.

This is one of many mistakes it's easy to make in a pilot sitcom script. Why not find out the most common 14 problems in your script, based on the experience of reading literally hundreds of scripts in the last year? And crucially, find out how to fix them. Find out more HERE.


Monday, 14 March 2022

Is your Lead Character the Least Funny Character in Your Sitcom Script?

You can either read this blog, or watch me explain the whole thing in SEVEN minutes - with some nice visuals and graphics - here:

Wanna read? Okay, here we go:

Last time, I was fairly robust about why your pilot script should not be the first day at work for your lead character. Why? Three reasons.

Reason #1 The First Day At Work plot is a grindingly common tactic in a pilot script. Your script needs to stand out amongst the thousands of other pilot sitcom scripts floating around.

Reason #2 Your character is going to be acting out of character on their first day, being on their best behaviour. We need to establish them fast.

Reason #3 And this is the most important, your lead character is going to be passive for at least the first ten pages. That’s a problem because that is when the script reader is making up their mind about the script. They need to be making choices, revealing character and being funny, rather than nodding and noting where the coffee machine is, and where the mugs are.

But here’s another reason to avoid a ‘first day at work’ pilot plot: all of your other characters are going to be funnier than your passive lead who’s wondering the office wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into.

Reason #4 Your Lead Character is the Least Funny Character in the Room

Let’s say your lead protagonist, Deborah, is being shown around the office on her first day.

Scene one is the obligatory pep talk to herself outside.

Scene two is at reception where she is polite to the receptionist, Alice, who is engrossed in a video chat with her sister who is trying to chose a wedding dress and not paying Deborah any attention.

Eventually, scene three, Alice passes Deborah on to Jake whom we find having a fight with the photocopier to the point of declaring war on it.

Then Deborah meets Megan and Val. They are having a long-running feud with each other over office plants, which is escalating to the point where one part of the office is now a jungle.

Next Deborah is surprised that her boss, Clem, is trying different swimming costumes for their next conference which happens to be in Hawaii.

It’s Page Ten. Deborah has done nothing but react. She is passive.

And who’s the funniest character so far?

Answer: NOT DEBORAH. Deborah is booooring.

So we’re off to a terrible start.

Alice, Jake, Megan, Val and Clem already sound funnier than the lead character who’s nervously greeting people on their first day. That’s a problem.

Taking Action

As a script editor or development producer, I’m looking at this pilot script saying ‘this could work if you just get rid of Deborah’. I like Alice, Jake, Megan, Val and Clem. Lose Deborah.

You might have one of two replies to that:

Reply #1 You say, “Yeah. Wow. Deborah is boring. I guess she was useful to begin with, but actually she’s not necessary”. Great.

Solution #1 Deborah deleted. Script gets rewritten and we’re into it.

Reply #2 You say, “But the WHOLE show is about Deborah and her journey!”

We have a problem. One is existential one about what a sitcom actually is (it’s not about Deborah’s journey but we’ll get to that in a future post).

But the main issue here is a comic problem. This ‘first day’ storyline is essentially preventing Deborah from being active and funny.

Solution #2a Your solution might to have Deborah apply for that job and make her more active.

NO. WRONG.

The solution even worse than the problem. We’re going backwards. Your character needs to pointing forward. What do they want? What is their goal?

Solution #2b Fast forward. Deborah’s been there six months. Or it’s her first anniversary of being there.

Solution #2c Even better, just have a regular episode based on her character and situation. Jake’s plotting the demise of the photographer. Megan and Val have some kind of foliage/turf war going on. And Deborah is concerned that her boss’s trip to Hawaii is going to be a huge problem for her – and she has to put them off going. Clear goal. Stop boss going to Hawaii.

Next time, we’ll consider why Alice, Jake, Megan, Val and Clem sound funnier than Deborah, and what we can learn from that.


This is one of many mistakes it's easy to make in a pilot sitcom script. Why not find out the most common 14 problems, based on the experience of reading literally hundreds of scripts in the last year? And crucially, find out how to fix them. Have a look HERE.

 


Wednesday, 9 March 2022

The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Sitcoms

 

“Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…”

That’s how Maria (Julie Andrews) starts her Do-Re-Mi song. If you’re writing a pilot sitcom script, what could be a better way to introduce the audience to the characters than following around the main character on their first day at work? Sounds sensible. Right?

Wrong.

As far as writing a sitcom is concerned, it’s terrible advice. Do me a favour, Maria. Take your guitar and climb a mountain. So long. Farewell.

Do I sound a little tetchy on this?

It’s because since the beginning of this year, I have read over three thousand pages of sitcom script and this ‘first day at work’ plot is a very common feature to many, probably most, of these scripts that haven’t been picked up or shortlisted.

First Day At Work

It’s their first day. They’re nervously standing around outside giving themselves a pep talk before stepping into their new place of work.

Or, worse, we start with a ringing alarm on a bedside table, and a character floundering around getting ready for their first day, shouting at their partner, or their kids, kicking the cat and then running out so as not to be late on their first day.

Or worse still. They’re applying for a job (at which they get to explain their backstory). Then they get the job, and then it’s their first day.

Why am I taking exception to this whole ‘first day’ thing? Why is this a problem?

One might think one reason is that if everyone else is doing this, then you should do something else. March to the beat of a different drum. Be the odd one out. Zig while the world is zagging. After all, we had 887 scripts for our Sitcom Geeks Hattrick competition.

That’s true enough. When a huge number of scripts are starting the same way, the reader of the script – who is a human being, remember – is going to groan.

But the reason not to start your script with the protagonist turning up to work on their first day is this: your protagonist is going to be passive. This is a serious problem.

In a sitcom, we need to see the hero making choices. In fact, that’s not unique to sitcom. That’s drama. That’s novels. That’s movies. That is how character is revealed, through choices which bring chaos and conflict, and with a bit of luck, a following wind and several rewrites, a chance of comedy.

Being Nice

How were you on your first day at work?

I’ll tell you. You were on your best behaviour. You were not yourself.

Unless your protagonist a maniac or psychopath, they’re going to be terribly nice to everyone while they are guided from room to room, being introduced to other members of the team. We’re not going to find out what they’re really like for ages. The reader needs to know what the character is like because she’s got a hundred other scripts to read. The viewer needs to know that because he’s got serious options when it comes to alternatives to your show.

So my advice – having read 3000+ pages of sitcoms in the last two months - would be this: Avoid pilot sitcoms script where it’s the main character’s first day.

Now, you might be screaming names of sitcoms which do exactly that. Fine. We might get to those. And I’ve written two sitcoms where it’s a character's first day (Bluestone 42 & Hut 33), but I’m going to justify those in a future post.

But for now, why not join my mailing list, The Situation Room? You'll get all kinds of help writing your pilot sitcom script, including access to free videos about Plotting, Creating Characters and all sorts. It's free. Join here.


Tuesday, 8 March 2022

Why You Should Join my Mailing List

I've been very quiet recently. Plenty is brewing. I've been reading literally hundreds of pilot sitcom scrips for the Sitcom Geeks Hat Trick competition and I have many many things to say as a result.

I'll be saying them here, and on my Situation Room YouTube channel, and producing all manner of resources throughout 2022.

To find out about them, join my Situation Room Mailing List - where you'll also find bonus free videos about Plotting, Character and Comedy Drama. And there are discounts and priority booking to the courses and webinars I'll be running to help you write better sitcom scripts.

Sign up and you get an email in your inbox, rather than having to scroll through the rage and fury ofTwitter or Facebook for reminders or updates. So why not give it a go? Subscribe here.