Tuesday 29 January 2013

Storylining & Plotting Part 3 – A Day In The Life

In Part 2, I suggested that the best way to make story-lining fun and easy, or less like pulling teeth and easier, is to have a bigger list of ideas to choose from. You need a pilot episode and 5 one-paragraph outlines to sell you show. So you should be picking from 10 well-worked and plotted ideas. Those 10 should be chosen from 20-30 decent, usable ideas. And those ideas should be drawn from pages of one-line ideas. Maybe 50-100. (Ok, everyone does it differently. But this is roughly how I do things).

50-100 ideas may sound like a lot to some. But let’s remember these are just one-line ideas. Not fully formed stories with a beginning, middle and end. This are ideas like ‘Geoff decides to sell his dreadful garden produce at a farmer’s market’. ‘Sally finally confronts her hairdresser with the news that she is truly dreadful at cutting hair’. That’s it. Nothing more needed at this stage.

All you need for this long list are jumping off points. Ideas that trigger stories. So, think about your characters. What do they do all day? And is there a story or moment for each stage or moment in that day? Let’s try this now. (I’ve never done this before, so that’s exciting).

Think about one of your main characters and keep asking questions about who they are, what they’re doing and, crucially, why they do them:

Geoff is asleep in bed. What does he wear in bed? Is there a funny reason for that (based around an traumatic event that happened one night – he used to wear pajamas until…)? Does have something on the bedside table, under the pillow or under the bed? A book? A weapon? Why? What wakes him up? An alarm clock. The bin men? Is he likely to oversleep? Why? Why not? He gets up. Shower, bath or excessive deodorant. Why does he have to do things differently this morning? Does his bathroom plumbing work okay? When did it last go wrong? Why? He's getting dressed. What does he wear to work? Why? Why can't he wear that today? How does he buy his clothes? Catalogue? Online? Has he had a bad experience of this? Why? What is it about him that made it ridiculous/impractical/tense. He have breakfast. Porridge? Cereal? Toast? Is there a new regime for the mornings? Is he going to meditate instead? Meditate then fresh fruit? How does he do his grocery shopping? Supermarket? Online? Farmers Markets? If he's unhappy with something, would he take it back and complain? What would happen in that case? Or does he have a run in with a delivery guy? They go work. How do they get there? Drive? How does your character feel about cars? How did he acquire this car? Did he get ripped off? Why? Was it MOTed and serviced? Is he driving around uninsured and untaxed without realizing?

You get the idea. Keep going. All day. It will take you all day – but this is essential work. You can’t make an omelette without going out and getting eggs in the first place. But these stories are your raw material. You need lots of them.

This ‘Day in the Life’ trick that I’ve just thought of is unlikely to produce scintillating stories, but here’s what it might do. Trigger stories in your own life – or the lives of people you know or lived with. Something about being woken in the night, bad plumbing, a bizarre online shopping experience, complaining at a supermarket, having your car fixed or driving it illegally unaware (or fully aware, you rebel). And these stories are a much better starting point for stories, because these feel like stories that are fresh, real and could happen – because they did happen. They have detail in them that is hard to make up. But for now, make a long list of these stories. One or two lines. Keep moving.

Watch the Seinfeld DVDs. Many episodes have an ‘Inside Look’ with the writer and it seems that almost every story in the show is based on something that happened to one of the writers or someone they know personally. Loads of George stories happened to Larry David. One of the most memorable is where George quits a good job in rage, realises his mistake and goes back in the next day pretending he didn't quit. You couldn't suggest that for a story unless you'd tried it yourself. Ultimately, comedy, even artificial, overlit audience sitcom, is about truth. True characters, true motivations, true moments. That's the stuff your after. Interesting stories with the ring of truth.

Now, flick through a newspaper or some magazines. Sit in a café and observe people. (Avoid turning on the TV or surfing the web – as you’ll just end up watching rubbish daytime TV or looking at Facebook, which probably won’t help). Go back to ideas you’ve had for other shows. There may be a movie idea you had five years ago but has come to nothing. It could be an episode of a sitcom. If your character has a specific job, read trade magazines and websites for that industry. Even better, talk to people who do that job in person. Ask them lots of questions about their best day at work, their worst day, a typical day, etc. Visit where they work if you can. Do whatever it takes to generate triggers for stories that ring true.

Keep going for as long as you can. Then stop. Come back to it. Stop again. Do a bit more. Come back to it again. Soon, you should have a list of 50-100 ideas. Maybe more. You now have plenty of eggs with which to make your omelette. We’ll work out how to pick which eggs to use in the Part 4, and hopefully come up with a better metaphor in the process.


  1. really useful. i've changed one character a lot after reading this and a bit in a book which said, if you cant say what their subject on mastermind is straight away you should change the character

  2. I would recommend to anyone wanting to break into sitcom writing to read every single post on this blog. I have felt compelled to do so and feel I am already a million miles from where I began. Thanks for your generosity in sharing so much if your wisdom.

  3. I like this story so much , Thanks

  4. Excellent post. Very interesting. Great advice. Love the immersion way of thinking.