This blogpost is now also a YouTube Video:
In a sitcom script, especially the pilot, you’re trying to focus the audience’s attention on your lead characters. We don’t want the audience worrying about who the story is really about. Of course, if you call the show Miranda, and there’s a character called Miranda, then the name of the show and opening titles are doing a lot of heavily lifting for you. Same goes for Veep or My Name is Earl. It’s about the Vice President. Go it. It’s about Earl. Right.
So far, so clear. But even here it’s easy to slip up as you make mistake number 3 where it turns out that:
You’re Basically Writing A CV, Not a Sitcom
The temptation is always to focus on who the main characters are, where they are and where they have come from. Some of that detail is useful. But it’s a lot less important and compelling than who they want to be and where they want to go. The desires and dreams of your characters will probably tell you a lot more about their personality than their past. And their present situation will be obvious to see from their surroundings and their status clear from the way people interact with them.
If your character is a wannabe philosopher-poet, great. Let’s see them trying it out, and let’s see their flat or the work colleagues demonstrate how likely that goal is to be attained. Maybe they already think they are a philosopher-poet and the world is all wrong. Even better. What we don’t need to know is what GCSEs they got and what they’ve been doing for the last ten years, unless it’s strictly relevant to the plot going forward.
What did Captain Blackadder do before he ended up in the trenches of World War 1? We hear one tale of how he saved the future Field Marshall at the Battle of Mboto Gorge, but that’s about it. How did Alan B’Stard come into being? We don’t really care. We just know that he exists, that he rings true and that he is only interested in using the fig leaf of Thatcherism to promote himself.
Why is Edina a grown-up child? What as the Vicar of Dibley doing before she was even allowed to be a vicar? Why is Father Ted on Craggy Island? Who knows? Maybe we find out in Series 4 when writers are casting around for anything to spark a new plot. But what we don’t need is some sort of list of achievements (and failures) of the characters up until the time we're encountering them.
Your character needs a goal. We don’t need to know where they’ve come from, just where they’re going. Or at least, where they’re truly longing to be. Everything they do and say will be subsumed by that uber-goal. All their mini quests are taking steps along that road, even though they always end up back at the beginning.
So we’re not writing a Movie, a Murder Mystery or a CV. You’re writing a sitcom. So here’s something else to bear in mind:
Is it funny? If not, be funny!
But there a pitfalls to that. Welcome to the fourth way of falling off the horse. You’re galloping along, the horse pulls up and over you go. Not quite sure how that fits into this metaphor from the last two posts, but I just wanted to prove there are four sides you can fall off a horse. We’ll look at that in the next post.
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?