Thursday 22 November 2012

What To Do When You're Stuck

Plotting a half-hour sitcom episode is hard work. Really hard work. Writing a first episode of a new show is doubly hard work. And it's easy to get stuck. I mention this because a friend has just got in touch to say that they're stuck on the outline - and wondering if proceeding to script is the way to go and hopefully the plot problems will sort themselves out.

Everyone's different in their approach. Carla Lane (Bread, Liver Birds, Butterflies), apparently, doesn't even plot. She just writes. Others plots big scenes and join them up. Others plot and plan and plot. I'm veer towards the latter of these. Before I write a first draft script, I tend to have a 1500 word outline with two or three paragraphs on each scene. It might easily be a third or fourth draft of an outline. And this outline isn't the first thing I've written. I've normally planned out the plot and the subplot separately and them combined them. Normally, by the time I start writing the script, I'm desperate to do so, and have key jokes and moments for every scene, so it almost feels like joining the dots. I make it as easy as possible to grind out that first draft. That's how I do things, but I realise my way isn't the only way. All I can say about this is four things from my experience:

1. Whenever I've started writing the script before I'm a 100% clear on the plot, I've regretted it. Pretty much without exception. Sometimes I've ground my way to the end and spend a week producing something that is 6000 words and unusablel. Who's got time to waste writing a script when the plot isn't ready?

2. Sometimes I've written scripts for plots I thought were fine and discovered in writing them they weren't fine. And I've had to go back to the drawing board. This is annoying, but doesn't invalidate the plotting and planning process.

3. Usually, once you've written the script and re-written it etc and then heard the whole thing read out loud, you hear screaming problems with the story or great long scenes that are flapping around and are no use to anyone. It always seems astonishing that this wasn't spotted in the planning, but that's just the way it works out. The plotting was not a waste of time.

4. Normally, as you write the first draft, you think of a better ending as you write - something that's clearer, simpler, sweeter and funnier. Again, that doesn't invalidate the planning process. Starting to write the script where you don't have an ending at all tends not to work. It's really hard to improve on nothing. You need to start with something.

So. What to do you do when you're banging your head against the storyline that isn't working? Rather than start writing and hoping for the best, here are some suggestions that might get the wheels turning and eventually pull your story out of a ditch.

1. Go for a swim. This is what I do. I swim a few times a week and while I'm in the pool, I normally have a plot problem churning in my head. It often becomes unknotted in the process. Maybe for you it could be running, walking, dog-walking, dogging, whatever it is. Do it.

2. If it's a brand new show, there may be a character problem. Your character isn't giving you the answer. You don't know how they would move a story along because they don't. Maybe your character  is too passive. What does your character want out of life in general? How does the quest in this episode fit into that? What do they really want? What do they actually need? Who's stopping them from getting it? What do they actually get? How is this thing they get better for them in the long run? Summarise their quest in a sentence or two. If you can't, they don't have a quest. You don't have a show. Your story may be stuck in a ditch because there's no engine in the car so nothing happens when you turn the key. Your character needs an engine, or motor to push them along.

3. What goes wrong? Have you injected enough calamity and catastrophe? My character is trying to get fit, impress a guy, buy a present for their mother, win an award, whatever - what goes wrong? How does their attempt to fix it make it worse? What do they need to let go of in order to succeed? What do they least want to do? And why do they actually need to do that thing?

4. Try starting your story earlier. Or later. Maybe what you thought was your climax is just the end of Act 1 or 2? We tried that plotting Miranda. We tried to hit a really funny climax/calamity half way through the show that lots of other shows might be happy to end on.

5. Does your story rely to heavily on coincidence? And therefore not character? You can have one convenient thing at the start of an episode - a mistaken identity or a piece of luck - but not half way through and certainly not at the end.

6. Try dropping your subplot and thinking of a new one that works better with your plot. This is probably a hopeless idea, but it's worth a go. Or try making your subplot the main plot.

7. Start by thinking of the best ending you can imagine that would be perfect for your show and your main characters - and work out how to get there.

8. Put the whole thing to one side and write something else - a short story, another script, plot out a movie. And then come back to it.

9. Start filling in your tax return. That normally sparks something.

So there it is. Hope that helps. Feel free to leave comments about what you do that helps you solve plot problems (other than simply sitting there til you've figured it out, which is still top of the list, really).

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Throwing Out Really Funny Stuff

A long time ago, Mitchell and Webb did an Edinburgh show in which Rob Webb played a playwright who sat at a typewriter. But he wasn't typing. He ended up saying to David Mitchell 'I'm trying to write a play, but I don't know what to put.' That is how most people imagine being a sitcom writer is - trying (and often to failing) to think of something funny to write.

Certainly, when you're starting out, the idea of writing a 40 page, half-hour script is daunting. A decent sitcom script needs at least three good laugh-out-loud jokes per page. I'd say you need four, really. That's 160 laugh-out-loud jokes per script. (This, incidentally is why comedy writers have no respect for people who work in advertising, who work for six months and spend £500k shooting a thirty-second commercial that is essentially one joke). Times that 160 by six if you're writing a series. That's nearly 1000 jokes.

Character is King, but Story is God
The temptation, then, is to think of funny things people can say and funny situations - and cling on to them. Pile them up! Ideally, you need to work out a way to get from one funny bit to the next in a way that's plausible. Some writers (eg the venerable Graham Linehan) do take this approach, but even they would not recommend this as a way to go about things. It's a good starting point, but a sitcom script is not built brick by brick as if the jokes are little pieces of lego - and you stop building once your tower is high enough. A sitcom script is designed, planned and then written. And then redesigned and rewritten.

Although the actual story itself is normally the least amusing part of a sitcom (compared to the characters and their reactions to the story/situation/other character), it can easily be neglected. But it is incredibly important. It's the spine that hold the body up. It's the solid chassis on which the car is built. It's the foundations on which the house is built.

What's more, the audience are subconsciously expecting everything in a show to be significant. A funny set-piece scene is great, but if it doesn't lead anywhere or advance the story, the audience will be genuinely confused, or expecting a development that never happens. And, as I say regularly on this blog, confusion is the enemy of comedy.

Over on Chortle, there's a really good interview with Mitchell and Webb, who pay tribute to Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the writers of Peep Show in saying this:

Mitchell: The key thing with Sam and Jesse’s approach is to get story right. 
Webb: They spend a lot of time on the structure of the story, then it’s almost as if they treat themselves to dialogue at the end, which is the opposite way around to whenever we’ve done stuff, when we’ve done it one joke at a time. 
Mitchell: They’ll throw anything out, however funny it seems, if it doesn’t fit what they see as the right arc for that story, episode or series, they will throw it out without a qualm. 
Webb: They are amazing rewriters. That’s the trick, to be really unprecious about really funny stuff. 
Mitchell: It’s also the difference with us being writer-performers. We got into this to go on stage and make people laugh then and there. If you’ve got something in your hand that you’re 99 per cent sure will go over well and get a laugh, you’re very reluctant to throw it out. Sam and Jessie have never been on stage getting laughs, so they can be a lot more ruthless with what they throw it. It’s such hard work getting the structure of a sitcom right. You have to think how are we going to get him from A to C and they just sit there and think hard...
David Mitchell's point is a good one at the end, there. It's not that good writers are natural geniuses for coming up with suitable jokes and scenes that form a story. Clearly talent and experience are very useful and can save time on occasions. The reality is that good writers realise they need to sit there and think hard and churn through dozens of ideas until they come up with the right jokes for the right story that get from A to C (and back to A again) in the right way - even if it means junking really funny stuff.

Don't Mention Fawlty Towers
John Cleese and Connie Booth famously spent half of the writing time for Fawlty Towers plotting, planning and getting the story right. I'm puzzled that this is seen to be exceptional. Getting the story right, getting the character arcs consistently moving forward so that the jokes will fire on all cylinders is a huge amount of work. I wonder if some writers shy away from it because they assume that if it takes that long they must be doing it wrong. Nope. It just takes ages. That's why it's a full-time job and very difficult to fit in around other things.

The moral of the story is the same as it usually is. You probably need to rewrite your script. Sorry. But as you do, ask yourself what each scene is achieving and what each line is achieving - and how it relates to the central story or your sub plot. When rewriting, a line my colleague and I often say to each other is 'I'm not sure this line is working hard enough for us' - which means the line is woolly and doesn't move things along. If you're script is really good, there's no room for lines like that.

So. Print your script out, and go through it with a red pen and cross out stuff that isn't part of the story. (If it's really painful, paste it into another document and base a new story around that bit you really like and can't live without.) Then go back to your script and trust yourself to fill in the gaps or make up the time with new lines and scenes that are relevant, characterful - and therefore much funnier. But be warned. It'll take ages. If you're doing it right. And you'll discover that 40 pages and half and hour really isn't quite long enough.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Easy Listening

I spend hours and hours alone with a laptop. I like it, but even I get a bit fed up with the solitude. So during my lunch hour I often wander around listening to a podcast. And at the moment, there's tons of stuff out there to enjoy and learn from.

I've been devouring the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast, which is lengthy, detailed, funny and here. There's also KCRW's The Business, which often has an interesting take on Hollywood more generally and regularly features stories of how people made films the hard way. Both of these podcasts are obviously American where the norm is to be a jobbing writer on someone else's show. In Britain, we always tend to think the grass is greener, but frequently I listen to the Nerdist Podcast and realise that the American table-writing system has serious drawbacks (mainly personal ones) as well as plus points (and more money).

For British podcasts, I've been loving Stuart Goldsmith's podcast, The Comedian's Comedian. Although it is primarily about stand-up comedy, it's ultimately about British funny people, the process of writing, breaking in, getting confidence and lots of anecdotes that reassure you that we're all making this up as we go along. What writers can learn from the craft of stand-up comedians is the skill of controlling an audience and being meticulous about how to take them on a journey. There's a brilliant back catalogue of names intereviewed in detail, including Alan Davies and Sarah Millican - but I especially enjoyed the ones with Adam Bloom, Alun Cochrane and Liam Mullone.

There's also the wonderfully infectious UK Scriptwriters podcast with Tim Clague and Danny Stack, who are full of down-to-earth practical advice. They don't always agree on everything, but it's always interesting and realistic - and they're full of information on writing competitions and what's coming up in the screenwriting calendar. All power to their microphone.

BAFTA have got some good content too. Here's a nice one on Comedy Writing with the lovely Kevin Cecil. One reflection on this podcast, though, having just listened to it:

There's lots of talk about 'breaking in to the industry' and how difficult it is. They talk about making youtube videos and all that. That's all fine and probably worth doing if you have the time and expertise. But the thing is, you already have the tools to break in. There's no special secret hammer and chisel or  key to a side-door where it's easier to find a way in. The tools you have are a computer and a word-processor. And with those tools you can write a script like any other screenwriter in the world. You can tell stories about anything in any time and any place. You can produce a script that looks the same as one written by William Goldman, Richard Curtis or Steven Moffat. They're both just pages of text - Scene. Setting. Action. Character. Dialogue. Character. Dialogue. Action. etc. What's yours going to say?

If you want to break into the industry, write a really good script. Send it to people who make things you like. Then start writing another script. There's no secret. Other than getting better.

Monday 5 November 2012

Tell Tale Signs

A lovely story has just broken on Chortle about a man who claims he has a sitcom on BBC but, on balance, probably doesn't. But it's very difficult to tell whether the man is telling the truth or not since he seems no more deluded or confused than many people I've met who actually work in television and comedy. Whether he's Walter Mitty or the next Walter Matthau (okay, that joke doesn't really work but, I think the wordplay carries it) there are some tell tale signs that lead me to smell a rat.

The Chortle article says:
Higgins, 23, told the Bellshill Speaker that his show Skoolies, based three lads who live in the same tower block and attended the same school, was due to air next July.
There isn't really a 'situation' here. It's three lads who know each other. But it could still be a real show. Loads of shows on TV in the last few years are just 'based around people who live near each other'. Which is normally a shame. But so far, there's no whiff here. It could be a true story. The article goes on:
My script came up and comedy producer Jon Aird asked me if he could read it and I sent him it in an email. ‘He got back to me two days later telling me that he thought it was great and asked me to come in for a chat about it.
"He got back to me two later". Ha ha ha ha. Sorry. *wipes tear from eye* It takes ages people to get back to you in television - even if you have a track record and know the person you're dealing with quite well. Not because they're lazy but because they're busy, normally producing comedy shows which takes ages. (Ok, some are lazy I'm sure, but not in my experience). Ha ha. 'two days'. *cough* Anyway, the article also says:
‘When I got there they told me they wanted to buy it and I accepted. They also gave me a job as a comedy writer.’ He later told Chortle the contract, signed after meeting Aird twice in Glasgow, was for three years, and would also involve him working on other comedy shows.
A few things here. 'They wanted to buy it'. No, no. Even if they like the idea and knew this new writer, they would express mild interest and offer a modest fee (say £500) as an option in the hope that the writer would go off and write the script for free. (To be fair, productions companies are far worse for this doing this that the BBC)

Either way, I know what would not happen: the offer of a 'three-year contract'. The BBC wouldn't offer Simon Nye or Andy Hamilton a three year contract. It just doesn't happen. These contracts don't exist. I think Higgins is mistaking being a comedy writer for being a premiership footballer, in which are there fixed term, lucrative contracts. There are no actual jobs in writing comedy. Every job is freelance - either script-based, or on a day-rate - except for a few unusual situations, which are often script editing and development related.

So there we have it. What's the real story here? One thing's for sure. Some producers will not read this idea and something might happen because of this story. And what this comedy game is about more than anything is confidence - and that is something that our friend, Mr Higgins, does not seem to be lacking.