Thursday 4 April 2013

The Plot See-Saw

Some time ago, I was advised to watch Newsradio. I was keen to do so as it stars Phil Hartman, one of my favourite actors in the world, who is tragically no longer with us. Today, I watched an episode that show on YouTube. I chose this episode because it was the fiftieth - and I figured the show had hit its stride and all the characters were established. (In some ways, it's like taking a sample from the middle of the stream rather than the beginning or end, so there's some science behind my choice.)

This blog post will be best enjoyed if you do actually watch the episode. It'll take you 20 minutes. And it's quite funny. So why not do that? It's here.

*drums fingers for twenty minutes*

I quite enjoyed it. Despite not really knowing any of the characters, there was a story that was easy to follow and it had jokes and a guest starring role for Jon Lovitz. In it, Phil Hartman's character has a run in with a traffic warden and it escalates to the police, resisting arrest and a psychiatric assessment. He fails the assessment. Cut to our hero in a mental institution. He wants to get out, but can't because they think you're crazy no matter what he does. When his colleagues come to get him, though, he's decided to stay. And then realises he's made a mistake.

No Offence, but Why Review a Sitcom Episode that was First Aired Almost Exactly 16 Years Ago?
Fair question. I only mention this show because reminded me of a plot device that it worth knowing when about when it comes to plotting your show - which is something I've been writing about on this blog recently (like here). It's 'what I call' a plot see-saw that can work well as a variation in your show. I'll come onto the specifics in a moment, but what I like about the episode of Newradio is the choice they made.I'd imagine the writers room discussion presented various options for Phil Hartman's quest:

Option 1: Our hero has a run-in with law, resists arrest, and it gets a serious because he has to take a psychiatric test. And he really needs to pass or he'll end up in a mental institution - and there'll be no escape. And so his main quest in the episode would be to avoid being declared insane and return to work.

But wouldn't it be better to see him actually in a mental institution? So:

Option 2: Our hero has a run-in with the law, resists arrest, and takes the psychiatric test - and fails. And ends up in a mental instituion. And now he needs to get out. So his main quest is avoid going into a mental institution. He fails. And now he needs to avoid being stuck in the mental institution forever. Eventually he succeeds.

In the end, they went with the more interesting Option 3 - which is getting to the mental institution quickly - and half way through he achieves his inital quest to get out, but decides against it. He stays of his own free will because he's happy there. My only quibble with the episode is that when he changes his mind and decides to leave at the end, it's too easy for him. He should have to do or say something he doesn't want to do or say in order to prove his own sanity. It felt like a really missed opportunity there.

The See-Saw Quest
So, here's what's interesting. If you're feeling your sitcom plot is a bit boring, accelerate it - and give let the character achieve their quest quickly, and then see how they regret it or wish to undo it. It reminds be of Ep2 Series2 of Miranda entitled Before I Die that I was involved in plotting. Miranda is offended not to be asked to be the godmother to a child of some friends she can't stand. But it's the principle of the thing. So her quest is to be asked to be a godmother, so she arranges to look responsible in front of them. She does such a good job that half way through the episode, she achieves her goal. And then realises she's made an awful mistake and the seesaw tips. She spends the rest of the episode trying to reverse this and look irresponsible in front of these friends, which involves reading Mein Kampf to kids in a library and punching a vicar. Funny. (Well, I think so.)

So this is worth considering if you feel your storyline is running out of steam or becoming pedestrian. Try a seesaw. Give the character success in their quest. And then see what the consequences are. It might be funny.

And before we finish, let's just have one more bit of Phil Hartman from one of my favourite films of all time, So I Married an Axe Murderer:

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