So, if you’ve been involved in generating ideas for someone else's sitcom, or been part of a gag pass, or the show creator is your brother. Whatever. You've been asked to write an episode. Now what?
How does it Work?
It will differ from show to show, but most likely you’ll need to pitch a load of ideas for your episode to the show creator, head writer and/or producer. They’ll probably be offering you one episode in the first instance, so you’ll need to pitch at least half a dozen really good ideas that suit the show. Ideally, a main plot, a sub plot and a little running joke so all the characters are involved. Nothing too detailed, just a thumbnail sketch but ideally with a couple of decent jokes to sweeten the pudding. Overall, maybe a paragraph or two for each episode idea, so you’ve got about two pages of ideas to talk about.
For this, you’ll need to have come up with ideas for 20 or 30 main plots, sub plots and runners - and chosen your best, and work out which main plot goes with which subplot. Think really carefully about this and make sure your ideas work well for the characters and show you’re pitching for, rather than the generic ‘Surprise Birthday party’ idea that could happen in any sitcom. And avoid bringing in outside characters. More on that here and especially here.
(made grubbier by visual effects)
It may be they like the main plot from one but a subplot from another and ask you to combine those instead. Great. They’ve seen something they like and you’re off to the races. And by ‘races’, I mean hours alone in a room in front of a grubby keyboard.
You might be asked to work out the story in detail with other writers in a writers’ room. This is what happened when I wrote of episode of My Family. Or you may have to do it by yourself and present it, and then meet up to discuss it with the producer, creator and script editor, which is what happened when I wrote episodes of My Hero.
You may need to rewrite your outline a few times before you get a tick in a box from the producer and told to go and write it. It can be frustrating, but frankly, there’s just no point writing the script until the outline is right, especially on someone else’s show. Also, you may have a tight deadline and outlines tend to help hit those. Charging off on an unplanned flight of fancy in script might be fun, but you might end up in having to throw it away and starting again, which is no fun when the deadline is tomorrow. Or yesterday.
The Fun Bit, In Theory
You’ll probably have a couple of weeks to actually write the episode, which should be enough, given the detail of your outline. This is the bit where you really feel like a writer, and the years of slog and rejection melt away for a week or two. You’re writing an episode of telly. And being paid for it. Great. Enjoy it. This doesn’t happen much unless you’re called Roy Clarke.
Ask for a copy of one of their regular scripts so you can get the formatting right, so you’re using their house style. If they use Microsoft Word – and you don’t have Word, for some weird reason, buy Word. Likewise Final Draft. These are basic work tools that you need to do your job – which you are being paid to do. And it’s tax-deductible. I’m often surprised at how reluctant new writers can be to buy the basic tools of the trade and use free versions of odd applications downloaded from the Web. Don’t ask ‘Can I send it as an rtf?’ or whatever, because you’ll look like an idiot. Because you are an idiot. (Too much?)
Asking is Fine
Some bits of your outline won’t work as you try to write them, in which case fix them. Earn your money. But if you get really stuck, and you've tried everything, and it’s just not working, there’s no disgrace in shouting for help. Talk to the producer or the script editor. They know the show much better than you and may well be much more experienced. They’d rather you asked for help and hit the deadline rather than having a teary unusable mess handed to them on the day of reckoning.
And here’s what I do. I aim to finish my draft a couple of days before the deadline, so I can forget about it for a day. Then I’ll print it out, go take it to a café with a pen and read it, making notes, thinking of better jokes and trying to find cuts. If I do this on paper without my laptop, I find can read it better, and don’t try to fix everything the moment I see a problem. Read it through, makes some notes, then open up the draft and make the changes.
Trim it, prune it, tighten it. Don’t leave it baggy and let them decide which bits they like. I did that once. Rookie Mistake. And I won’t do it again. (I wrote about it here).
Then they’ll have notes. Brace yourself. More on that here. But bear in mind in this case – this is their show. You’re being paid to write something you didn’t come up with and ultimately don’t carry the can for, even though your name’s on the script. They can’t force you to rewrite anything you don’t want to, but you can be fired, although this really doesn’t happen very often. And bear in mind they’re shooting lots of episodes that you don’t know about, have a relationship with the cast, crew and commissioners that you don’t fully understand, so notes may have all kinds of odd reasons that make sense to them, but don’t to you.
If you’re not sure about a note, and it sounds confusing, or downright silly – politely ask for clarification, so you can give them the script that they want, and that you’re happy with. Then rewrite. And then there may be more notes. And more rewriting.
At some point, you’ll be able there when the cast read it aloud, which is terrifying. And we’ll cover that next time.