Thursday 20 April 2017

Polishing Your Script

Deadlines are like bees. Right up close and in large numbers, they’re horrendous. But from a distance, and overall, they produce good things. If you’re an aspiring scriptwriter, there’s a deadline looming. The BBC Writersroom is accepting unsolicited comedy scripts at the time of writing. That means a human being will actually read your script. Or at least ten pages of it.

Do you have script? Is it ready to send? Really? I bet it isn’t. Put your hand on your heart and tell me your script is perfect. Of course it isn’t. But that’s okay. You’ve got a bit of time to make it better. Here are some obvious ways of doing that (and you’d be surprised how many people don’t do these things). I wrote a list like this a couple of years ago but I’d like to expand it a little, having read quite a lot of first ten pages in the Sitcom Geeks podcast I do with Dave Cohen.

Let’s say you’ve written a script. You’re happy with it. You’re aware that it’s not perfect, but you’ve taken it as far as it can. Here are some notes I can give you on the script without having read it.

1. Start Your Story Earlier

In almost every single spec sitcom script I read, this is the biggest problem. The script introduces us to a bunch of characters and they talk. And talk. And talk. For about 4-8 pages. There is some backstory. There is setting. There is scenery. Maybe some jokes. There is more talking. Then on page 9, something happens. Someone sets out on a quest (if you’re lucky) but by then nearly a third of the show has gone and I'm a bit bored.

Story is character. Yeah, Rob. We know.
The usual response I get to that is ‘Yes, but I’m setting the scene and introducing the characters’. *takes off glasses* *pinches nose* Yes. I know that. And that is all you are doing. Do more. You don’t just introduce characters by having them talk to or at each other. You reveal character by action. Character is story. That’s the £500 take-home from a Robert McKee weekend. The choices a character makes, the things they want, the goals they go after reveal a character every bit as much as dialogue, if not more. In fact, characters often say one thing but do another. Because they’re delusional. Just like us.

Your first ten pages are not Act 1 of a movie in which you’re trying to establish normality for 10-20 minutes where everything is normal, normal, normal before your hero goes on a quest, finds a dead body, discovers she is a robot, is visited by a time-travelling gecko or is transported back to the Paleolithic period. Sitcom is all Act 2. No real set up. No permanent resolution.

Start your story early. Really early. Your character should be declared banktupt on Page 2 or 1. Not page 9. Your heroine should decide to sail around the world at the start, not after a long discussion with several other people.

Grab the reader’s attention early on. They are reading at least ten other scripts that day. Maybe twenty. Or more. Make stuff happen. If it’s the right stuff, it will show and develop the characters.

2. Introduce Your Characters Faster

A character who wanders into a scene or is sitting drinking tea might take a whole page to tease out. If you have five or six characters, that’s five or six pages of teasing. Make that first impression work harder.

What do they say that gives the reader a clear idea about who this character is and why they are funny? That first action or line for each character is crucial. It should really sum up who they are. If they are a pedant, their first line should be pendantic. If they’re needy, their first line should be clearly seeking approval. Set the tone from the very first line.

When we first meet Janet or Simon, what are they doing? What are they wearing? What are they carrying? Are they making themselves tea? Or are they adding sugar to an energy drink because they have to stay up all-night to do something important. Are they wearing jeans and a T-shirt, or are they only half dressed, or in overalls for some useful reason? Do they start tapping on their smart phone, or do they carry round a list of people who have wronged them?

In the first episode of Friends, Rachel Green turns up in a wedding dress. Bang. You’re away.

3. But Don’t Introduce Them All At Once

With stronger first impressions and more action you can set up your characters faster, but don’t set them up all at once. I’ve read quite a lot of eight pages opening scenes with 6-8 characters, at least three of whom have a name that begins with the same letter. There’s a Steve, a Simon, a Mary, a Mick, a Peter and Jeff. Boring names that meld into one. Have a Steve, sure, but have a Felix too. Have a Mary but also a Persephone or a Serenity.

And don’t have them all in the one scene, unless you make it very easy to follow. Start the show with two or three characters. Get them going. Then introduce a fourth. And a fifth. A script which only has three or four characters in the first ten pages is a lot easier to read and enjoy than one with nine or ten. You may be stuck with ten characters (like we were in Bluestone 42) but be careful and clear about how you introduce your characters to your reader.

If you have to have lots in one scene, make it clear who the important characters and have them drive or dominate that scene so it is clear who is going to be in that whole episode so the reader/audience is not worried about where the action is, or is going to be.

4. Check That Each Character Has A Unique Voice

Once you've established your characters, are you sure their patterns of speech clear and distinct? This will not only make the script more interesting, but will make it easier for the reader to distinguish the characters. Ideally, every single line of dialogue should be unique to that one character. Only that one character would say that thing that way, or make that joke. If another character expressed the same thought, they'd say it differently. Eddie and Richie in Bottom don't talk the same way. Nor do Blackadder and Baldrick, or Edina and Sapphie. Cover up the name of who's talking, and you should be able to tell who's line it is from the way they say what they say.

5. Look Very Closely At The First Few Pages

Let's be realistic. A reader is going to make up their mind about your script by the end of page 2. If your first two pages are badly spelled waffle, you're going to struggle to make any kind of impact with the remaining thirty pages. You first two or three pages are critical. Focus extra time and attention on those.

6. Be Brutal About Action Lines

People, even professionals, do not read action lines and direction properly. They skim them, if they even look at them. That's just a fact. Nothing is more depressing to read at the opening of a new script is lines and lines of action, scenery and more action – unless it’s very dramatic, or striking, or clearly laid out. Keep the action as simple as possible and don’t try and direct too much on the page, especially when the fine detail doesn’t matter at this stage.

7. Clarity

There's so much to do on those first few pages, but you're making life difficult for the reader if it's not crystal clear what's going on. Is the situation clear? Where are they? Who is there and what are they trying to achieve? Having lots of action lines is not the solution to this (see above) and often just creates confusion, so agonise over action as much as dialogue in terms of brevity and clarity.

You're writing sitcom. Not suspense.
There is often temptation to create some mystery or suspense. That’s not comedy. That’s suspense. You are writing a comedy. This is a sitcom script. Clarity is your friend. I'd recommend announcing your comedy themes with a blunderbuss, rather than a cloak and dagger.

8. Tighten It Up

Can every single line in the script justify its place? Delete any line that isn't character, action or a joke. Every line in fact. There's no room for 'meh' lines. Or filler. Or wit. Or turn a character line into a joke. Or action. Or a joke into something that drives the story along.

Look at each scene and ask whether it could be shorter. It probably could. Could you come in later? Could you cut earlier? Do you need every line? Are you repeating information? Almost every script can be shorter. Make yours shorter, tighter, leaner and meaner. A funny 28 pages is way more appealing than a baggy 36 pages.

9. Check For Typos

Are there typos all over the place? Or one or two still lurking around? Typos are reelly annnoying. And very easily avoided if You just put in a bit of extra tim. Get a fiend to read it. I find it really hard to see typos in my own writing (as this blog regularly demonstrates), so get someone else to check it over.

10. Check for, er, Jokes?

Are there enough jokes? Again, it's a sitcom script so are you trying to make the reader laugh at least three times per page? You really should be aiming for that. I know the current vogue is to have nuanced and noodly comedy drama, but given that it is a comedy, veer on the side of jokes.

Is there any way of turning half-jokes into proper jokes?  Are you making the most of each funny moment? If you've done the hard work of getting your characters into funny situations, make sure you maximise the funny when you're there. Or if it's only a half-joke and it can't be turned into a whole joke, delete it.

Go through the script a few times with all of these in mind. Maybe take a pass for tightness. And again for jokes. And again for typos. And again for speech distinctiveness. It will take time, but you want your script to stand out, don't you? Sure, the basic idea is important, but that's a given. Your script needs to just be better than others.

It may be that the script starts to fall to pieces as you really scrutinise it. Your plot starts on page 12. You have a jumbling open scene and you're pulling on threads and it's all unravelling. You realise you need to start again. In which case, start again. That’s what writers do. If you want to be a writer, get into the habit of starting again.

Quite often you discover that it wasn’t quite a broken as you thought and new version comes together rather quickly – but it only does that when you’ve mentally let go of the previous version.
Then do all of the above again. Then send it. Forget about it. And start the next thing.


Have you written a sitcom script? Would you like me to have a look and give you some notes? That can be arranged.

Or you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon here.

Alternatively, it's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so:

"A MUST Read for Aspiring Comedy Writers. This book gave me the feedback I needed and the tools to change and greatly improve my script." Dr. Rw Fallon

And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast here.

1 comment:

  1. Persephone, Persephone, that girl will be the death of me.

    A great name, particularly for a well-meaning but blunt Chinese restaurant manager!