Monday 26 November 2018

5 Mistakes In The First Ten Pages Of Your Sitcom Script: Mistake 2

This blogpost is now a YouTube video at The Situation Room:

You’re writing a spec sitcom script. It’s probably the pilot episode. And want to grab the audience’s attention and hook them in.

One way is to trick the audience with gimmicky storytelling which can lead to Mistake 2:

You’re Basically Writing A Murder Mystery, Not a Sitcom

I read quite a few scripts which begin with three apparently unrelated scenes or characters and I’m left wondering how they all connect up. Each scene stands alone, and I’m clearly not meant to know who anyone is.

That’s all fine if you’re watching a murder mystery like those two-hour ITV series like Endeavour or an Agatha Christie adaptation. As with movies, those shows have a much longer running time and will take at least ninety minutes to unravel.

You're writing a sitcom. You don’t have ninety minutes. You’ve got about twenty five. Get on with it.

If you want to see what 'getting on with it' looks like, watch any episode of Modern Family which crunches through story at a ferocious pace. There are usually three stories started and developed within seven minutes. Within seven minutes, nine or ten characters are flapping around, or walking on egg-shells or trying to avoid each other. It’s masterful. And funny.

That last one is so important. Funny. Easy to overlook that one. You're writing a sitcom, remember?

Endeavour and Agatha Christie are not only 90 minutes long. They’re not trying to be funny. This is just as well because murder mysteries struggle to be funny. Why? Because the writer is trying to confuse and misdirect the audience. Confusion, as I often write on this blog, is the enemy of comedy. A confused audience can’t laugh. It won’t laugh. Jokes require the delivery of information in a carefully controlled way to avoid confusion. (See my forthcoming book, The Sacred Art of Joking for plenty on the mechanics of this).

You’re writing a sitcom, remember? Funny is what we want.

So don’t spend ten pages trying to intrigue your audience. You need to make them laugh. Gimmicky tricks with timelines, powerful juxtapositions or artistic references are not your friend here. In the right hands, they can be brilliant (see episodes of Coupling by Steven Moffat, for example). As a rule, these tricks are comedy kryptonite.

Besides, these devices will obscure the one thing that you’re trying to showcase and sell: your cast of characters.

Audience tend to respond to people, rather than ideas or concepts. Advertisers know this. It’s why most adverts have human faces in them. It’s why testimonials are so effective. It’s why just reading the words Del Boy, Victor Meldrew or Edina might raise a smile. So put your characters front and centre. Tell us who they are, what they’re about and what they're trying to do.

But in so doing, don’t fall into another trap. There is a third and fourth way of falling off this horse. The first of those is the making the mistake of giving us backstory. We’ll look at that in the next post or watch me give it to your straight on the The Situation Room on YouTube.

Details on my new forthcoming video series are coming soon, but why not get hold of my free handy download called 7 Ways To Improve Your Sitcom Script Right Now?

Friday 16 November 2018

5 Mistakes In The First Ten Pages Of Your Sitcom Script: Mistake 1

This post is now also a YouTube video on The Situation Room:

It always seems unfair that new sitcom writers have to do the hardest things first. Creating a new sitcom that feels original, but identifiable, fresh, but somehow familiar, is really difficult. Plotting and writing the pilot script is fraught with pitfalls.

Let's assume that your sitcom idea is not the problem. You have the characters. You have a story. You've written a script. Those first ten pages are crucial in selling that script and, more importantly, selling you as a writer.

On the Sitcom Geeks podcast, Dave Cohen and I encounter quite a few scripts. (If you join the Patreon scheme, we will read the first ten pages of your script and do a podcast about it for subscribers.) In reading such scripts, and numerous others over the last few years, I've noticed five ways in which newer writers tend to fall off the horse in their first ten pages of their sitcom script.

Here's Mistake #1.

Mistake 1: You’re Basically Writing A Movie, Not a Sitcom

Movies have their own way of starting. Or at least they used to. (I only watch half a dozen movies a year, and most of them are family movies which can be a bit crash-bang-wallop at the beginning.) But the general idea is that in grown-up movies, you establish some normality and build the world before dropping a bombshell.

So people drive around listening to the radio, or walk through corridors greeting people, or get home from work, throw keys on tables and go out into the garden to play with their kids. Or they clock on to their dead end job in a video store and mutter and murmur and pour themselves coffee.

That’s all fine in a movie. We are establishing where are we, and who the characters are before the inciting incident which will send at least one of them on a journey of self-discovery and, crucially, change.

In movies people change. In sitcoms, they don't. They mustn't. They cannot. (In that sense, sitcoms are probably more true to life, but we can have that discussion another time). It’s why sitcom movies don’t work.

Movies have a beginning, middle and end. Sitcoms are all middle.

The point here is that in a movie, you’ve got 90-120 pages to play with. So you have at least ten pages to set up your world and your characters. The credits are rolling. The scene is being set. The audience has paid their money and booked a babysitter to watch your movie. They’re not going to walk out after 9 minutes because they’re a bit bored.

In TV, it's all different. There are hundreds of channels, streaming services and remote controls. Your viewer might well turn over after three minutes if they’re bored. More likely, the producer reading your spec script is going to give up and move on to the next one. (They have a pile of fifteen scripts that they are trying to get through) How are you going to grab their attention and keep it?

Remember you've only got 30 pages to introduce your characters, start your story, put in some twists and some jokes and get it all wrapped. Thirty pages. GET ON WITH IT. Tell a story. Lead the viewer through it.

This is most common mistake when Dave and I read the first ten pages of a script. Nothing happens until page ten. It's all set up and scene setting. People are talking - often with decent jokes. But ten minutes of screen time are being wasted.

Start your story on Page 1. Okay, do some set-up and jokes on page 1 if you must. But get the characters moving, not just talking or driving around. By page 10, your character should have established their quest, tried, failed and ideally made it worse

You're writing a sitcom. Not a movie. Make sure you don't fall off the horse on this side.

In an attempting to avoid this first mistake you might fall off the horse on the other side, which is the mistake of writing a murder mystery, not a sitcom. And we will look at that next time. Or have me tell it to you straight on the playlist on YouTube here.

Details on my new forthcoming video series are coming soon, but why not get hold of my free handy download called 7 Ways To Improve Your Sitcom Script Right Now?