Friday 22 January 2021

Characters, Stories and Entangled Souls

In the last post, I looked at characters. And we'll get back to that very soon, but I'd like to look at something that's been bothering me and, when I think about it, it comes down to story and character.

I watched some movies over Christmas and New Year. The first is Pixar's latest, Soul. It's on the Disney+ App and by now you might have gotten around to watching it. There will be spoilers. But, as I explain, there are very few spoilers to spoil.

Being a comedy writer who loves jazz piano and theology, I was really looking forward to Soul, a comedy about a jazz pianist going into the afterlife.

I was chronically disappointed and I've been thinking hard about why.

I was concerned that my expectations were too high, and that I was just being hyper critical or jaded. But then I watched It’s a Wonderful Life on New Year’s Day, which remains a masterpiece (albeit fifteen minutes too long, if we’re honest). It covers similar subject matter to Soul, and is a much better use of your viewing time. (Not that that is limited in these times of lockdown)

The day after, I watched Tangled for the first time. Tangled is a truly brilliant movie, a classic fairy tale retold in a way that seems fresh, funny and full of action. The storytelling is masterful (except for that bit where her tear lands on him at the end. That was proper cheating. Naughty).

These three movies reminded me how critical good storytelling is.

In this regard, unusually for Pixar, Soul is real clunker.

What We Expect From Pixar's Pete

Pixar, to be fair to them, have raised the bar ludicrously high when it comes to storytelling. Dave Cohen and I have even done Sitcom Geeks podcasts about their 22 Rules of Storytelling. They've rewritten the rules and raised the bar really hard. So criticising Pixar here seems a bit like having a go at Paul McCartney for Wings, an extremely successful band with some gigantic hits, that only suffer by comparison to the platinum standard set by McCartney himself with the Beatles.

And let's face it. Pete Docter has nothing to prove. He has writing credits on Inside Out, Up, Wall-E, Monsters Inc and Toy Story 2. I watched Wall-E for the first time last year, and speculated if I wrote anything that good, I'd retire because I'm never getting close to that again. It's brilliant. Really really good. Big yet subtle, and it's about robots and yet utterly humane.

That said, Wall-E still not as good as Toy Story 2. In which Pete Docter also had a hand. That movie is perfect.

So Pete Docter knows stories. I am not worthy even to sharpen his pencils. I get it.

But somehow this Soul story slipped through the net. Maybe because he’s very very senior in Pixar now so who’s going to take him to one side and tell him that the storytelling on Soul isn’t up to his usual standards?

Getting In The Provisos

Let’s do the other provisos now, shall we? Maybe you agreed with almost all the critics who thought that the movie was enchanting, delightful and transcendent. If you liked it, that’s fine. It’s possible to like bad movies that don’t really work. In my YouTube series about script problems, I cover some major flaws that could be contained in the first ten pages of your sitcom script. But if the reader or viewer just connects with the material or the character for whatever reason, some fairly major flaws can be overlooked or don’t seem to matter.

I was reminded of this when I rewatched The Italian Job with my kids, also over Christmas. I love so much about that movie. In fact, I will go as far as saying that I love that movie.

But The Italian Job doesn’t work. And I only noticed this on this latest viewing. Charlie (Michael Caine) is released from prison, and handed all the info for a heist in Turin. And he executes it, with a mess up at the end that’s just annoying, but doesn’t fundamentally mean anything. Why does Charlie want to pull off this job? We don’t know. What’s he trying to prove? To whom? No idea.

(Correction: See comment below which is a good point. And I was wrong, but I'm going to let my idiocy stand here. But all I'd say is there appears to be very little personal connection with the guy who dies. And once the job gets going, this motivation completely falls away. When it goes wrong, there's no sense of letting this guy down. The fact I can't remember his name is telling.)

This is a problem. As we established in the last post, your character is not a name, a suit and a situation. He's not even defined by what he or she does. A career criminal is not a character. Why commit crimes? Does he want glamour? Does he think the rich don't deserve it? Is he just trying to feed his family or pay medical bills (eg. Breaking Bad)? Why is Tony Soprano a criminal? In fact, he's having an existential crisis about that in the series.

But you couldn't make a sitcom series about The Italian Job. It's all icing and no cake. It's missing an Act 1 and Act 3. It’s essentially Michael Caine sporadically shouting at people, and minis driving around to a brilliant soundtrack.

This is a roundabout way of saying you can like Soul. And I can tell you why it doesn’t really work. Or how it could have been better. And, even though I don't know you, we can still be friends. And you don’t need to be sad I didn’t like the thing you liked. Deal?

Why Soul Doesn't Work For Me

If you didn’t know who Pete Docter was, and you were reading the script from a big pile, you’d probably stop reading at page 10. It’s not a strong opening. We have an uninspired music teacher, Joe, being offered a full time job, and he’s not happy about it. And slightly resents the children. But he’s not grumpy. But he’s not exactly Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. He’s not exactly… anything. 

Joe goes to see his mum and it’s clear that he’s never made it as a musician. But why? Bad luck? Maternal pressure? What is it about him and his character that has held him back? There doesn’t seem to be a reason. It looks like he’s just been unlucky.

But then his luck changes. Okay, you can have a piece of luck at the start of the movie. And he is then very very lucky dodging things that might harm him, until his luck runs out. And he dies.

Then he finds himself on a conveyor belt heading towards a great light and here we get even more questions. I’ve made my peace with the uber-bland post-religious afterlife stuff. I presume they were trying not to offend anyone, because the movie’s not about that. Fine. But you’re then left with how you depict characters who are archangelic or metaphysical in some way. I wasn’t convinced. But that wasn’t my issue. I had many many more.

Fine About Dying

For starters, everyone on that conveyor belt seemed fine about dying. And Joe didn’t. And Joe seemed odd for ‘having stuff to get back to’. Don’t we all? The lack of realism around that incident was just bizarre. And somehow, he was the only person in the history of infinity who jumped off the conveyor belt. Seriously? What makes Joe so special that he manages something that we’re given to understand no-one else has ever done before? And when he does manage it, the angelic beings don’t seem to know much about it. It was very weird.

And then we just get the constant explanation of rules, quests, astral planes and all kinds of ethereal business.

It. Just. So. Expositional.

All. The Time. 

What happens now? This. Why? Because of this. Then what? This. Why? Here's why. etc.

And then we get another unearned twist of fate. Joe gets to go back to earth! Except there’s a mix up and a body swap. But this sheer dumb luck, rather than based around story and character. You really shouldn’t be doing that (again) half way through the movie.

Then we have series of incidents where Joe wanders around with his cat and it all plays out exactly as you would expect. And when he gets his moment, it's an anti-climax. Like we new it would be. So what's his purpose now?

I don't really know what his purpose was to begin with. He wanted to be a professional jazz pianist because... he loved the music? He wanted to be like his dad? He didn't want to teach kids? I don't know.

Back to Rapunzel

Contrast this with Tangled. At the end of the second act, there was a brilliant low point. Rapunzel felt she had been betrayed, the man appeared to be sailing away, and she was going back to the arms of the woman she thinks is her mother. I had no idea how our heroes were going to get out of their pickle and how things would turn out.

No surprises like that in Soul at all. And there were some slightly confusing life lessons that your passions aren’t your purpose or something? Take a moment to smell the roses. Okay.

And then, at the very last moment, the eternal beings make an exception for Joe (even though no-one else has ever deserved this before) in a final resolution that was utterly predictable and infuriating in equal measure.

As you can tell, I didn’t like it.

And if you didn’t like it, maybe I’ve shown you why.

The moral of the story here is that the story is so important. Pixar get this right time after time. And we can learn so much from their movies. And here we learn, for once, how not to do it.

Wait, isn’t this a blog about Sitcoms?

Yes. This has everything to do with sitcoms. Sitcoms are stories.

Yes, there are characters. That’s why people come back again and again. There are jokes that get the laughs. Really good jokes can last for years and give people pleasure for decades. There are situations, poignant moments and tears as well as laughter that make a show or episode truly memorable. All of this happens in a story. It’s the chassis of the car on which you bolt the engine, electrics and bodywork.

Reading around the movie, it sounds like Pete Docter wanted to tell a story about souls before they are born. Which he does. Eventually. Having someone die and go to the afterlife - and then into the before-life feels like setting up a story you're not actually telling.

Getting the story right takes waaaaaay longer than most people think. When a script isn’t working, it’s usually the story that’s the problem.

And if the story isn't fixable, it's normally because the character is the problem. I think our hero, Joe, is not quite set up right as a character.

Rookie Mistake

In the case of spec scripts, the writer has normally started writing the script too early, and hoped that the story issues will sort themselves out. They very rarely do. They might well have started out with the wrong story altogether. Unless you’re some kind of genius, good sitcom stories are carefully chosen and scripts are planned and plotted so that every line, action and scene tips us into the next. That way, we have a chance of ending up with a script that is greater than the sum total of the parts. The scripts still needs soul, for sure, but it needs so much more.

Fixing Your Stories and Characters

That’s what I’m covering in my new sitcom video course, Writing Your Sitcom. We go right back to the beginning and think about characters and stories and how they can work together rather than fight each other. In fact, we learn about the characters through thinking about stories. So if you’re sick of trying to fix a story and some characters that just aren’t working, or the jokes aren’t coming, or the script is going nowhere, maybe it’s time to start over. In fact, it will probably save time in the long run, and get you to that script you can be proud of months earlier. Why not find out more on this video below?

Wednesday 20 January 2021

Creating Better Sitcom Characters

Years ago, I used to play Dungeons and Dragons.

Wait. Don’t go. Come back! I want to tell you about creating sitcom characters!

It’s a fairly open-ended kind of game which involves creating characters. I forget the details, but I think you pick a character type (eg. Warrior, Wizard, Bard etc) and some kind of outlook on life (eg. Lawful Good; Chaotic Neutral), and then rolled dice for six character attributes and then another dice for their ‘hit points’. You then had ‘a character’.

Creating characters this way is not a bad start for a game where you’re mostly hacking goblins to bits. And where your character's life plan is to hack goblins to bits. And find treasure.

But this approach is really not enough for sitcoms.

Describe Your Characters

What characters do you have in your sitcom?

Even if you've only just thought of a location or situation, you'll start to fill it our with characters almost immediately. So who are your characters?

You might instinctively describe them based on their age, gender and job title or situation. It’s easy to describe characters based on how they look, what they do or even what they say. But telling us what they are like is not enough.

No way near enough.

What's the Story?

I've been writing and podcasting a lot recently about the importance of story in sitcoms. This is much overlooked. Very very rarely indeed do I read a script in which the story of the script actually works well. Normally, a good script, a script that will do quite well in a competition, is some funny characters, an interesting situation, a refreshing attitude and some jokes. The big let down is always the story, which normally lacks a beginning, or if it has a beginning, there is no clear end point. And if it has a beginning and end, it lacks a muddle in the middle.

So, spend more time on the story, right? Right. And that's what I spend a lot of time on in my video course, Writing Your Sitcom.


You can't get the story right without getting the characters right. You can't tell a decent story about a sitcom character if you don't know who they really are, and what they really want. Knowing what the character is like is not enough.

Digging Deeper

I’ve said previously that sitcoms are a marathon, not a sprint. You need a character that will have a motivation that will carry them through 30-180 episodes. Even 12 is quite a lot of stories. And each week, they have a mini-quest. But those mini-quests are not a series of incidents, or impulses or whims. Those are easy. Your character wants to lose weight, make more money, dump their girlfriend, learn to drive, take up Morris Dancing or run for Mayor.

But why?

Why would they want to do those things?

Why do they want to do anything? The sitcom 'story of the week' has to be an expression of their life goal and their bigger story.

So the key question is this:

What does your character want?

This means asking further questions like: What is she trying to achieve? What gets her out of bed in the morning, keeps her up at night and drives her loved ones to distraction? There needs to be a unifying theme to these things. This is about life goals.

Everybody loves Jessica
Let's take the example of Jessica.

She's young. She's energetic. She's positive. And she loves to cook. In fact, she's obsessed with cooking. She's always cooking. She loves food, she loves ingredients. She loves going to farmers markets to get the best, most natural ingredients. Her fridge is always full of things to cook. And her freezer is full of things she has cooked. Does that sound like a sitcom character?

Nope. Not yet.

What Does Jessica Want?

I just said. She wants to cook.

But that's not enough. I can't write that character yet. But we could easily be fooled into thinking we can start plotting Jessica stories. After all, there’s lots of specificity there and we might get to work on the Jessica show thinking that all is well.

Is this Jessica?
There are some easy stories right there:

Jessica throws a dinner party.

Jessica goes to the farmers market.

Jessica needs a bigger fridge.

Jessica finds thing in the freezer and doesn’t know what it is.

Jessica gives someone food poisoning.

Jessica’s pressure cooker explodes.

But these aren’t stories, or even plots. They are events.

Why are they happening? Why is Jessica doing them? Why is she doing it this way and not that way? What does it matter to Jessica or anyone if she fails? Why is the exploding pressure cooker a disaster? Why not just buy another one?

Who is Jessica and why does she love to cook? I’ve no idea.


Too Many Cooks

This is not Jessica.

Look around at TV chefs and they all have a different angle. Think about the contrasting philosophies behind the cooking of Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Mary Berry, Gordon Ramsay, Pru Leith, Delia Smith, Heston Blumenthal and Nigel Slater. Why do they all cook?

For Jamie Oliver, food is about togetherness and family.

For Gordon Ramsay, it’s about excellence and professionalism - and making money.

For Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, it’s about the seasons and the bounty of Mother Nature.

For Heston Blumenthal it’s about innovation and experimentation.

These reasons to cook are all worlds apart from each other. In fact, they're barely even about cooking. There’s room for this glut of cooks and TV chefs and food writers because they all have different philosophies. They connect with completely different audiences who are looking for different things. It’s all related to cooking. But it’s not about cooking.

Choose Your Jessicas

What about your Jessica? Why does she cook?

This Jessica cooks because she has a polytunnel

Does Jessica want to be a celebrity chef because she wants to be famous?

So she’s making her food look amazing and is struggling to build her Instagram profile. She wants to get onto bake off to give her a platform for her persona. She's already picking out what she'll wear each week. That's one Jessica.

Does Jessica want to cook food from scratch from natural ingredients because she is trying to protect her family from chemicals and poisons?

So she’s sourcing ingredients from all over the country and the world, and receiving shipments from plantations in Sri Lanka and Ecuador, often in comically large bulky amounts. But she has to make the food taste good because otherwise they'll tease her for her paranoia. That's another Jessica.

Does Jessica want to create perfect meals because she has low-self-esteem and this is how she thinks she can win approval and acceptance?

So she’s slaving away over a hot stove, throwing away bake after bake until she reaches perfection that will win the affection of her husband, or would-be husband, or judgmental mother or sister? (Again, pick one - either a picky husband or a nightmare mother)

Does Jessica use food to express superiority because she’s a snob?

So she cooks rare ingredients to perfection and serve them to influential people and her enemies as a form of gloating.

You’ve got four completely different characters there. You could probably think of more. (eg. the Jessica who wants to prove that veganism works etc)

Which Jessica is yours?

You need to be crystal clear on your characters' motivations. This is what gets them out of bed – or keeps Jessica from her bed because she’s checking the oven every fifteen minutes, or shelling peas before sunrise or freezing to death in the wind picking blackberries or mushrooms.

And then, her trip to the farmers market have meaning. She’s going there to protect her family from chemicals and so it’s a matter of life and death when she can’t find. Or she’s going to show she’s posher than her neighbour in which case she needs to be seen there and time her visit accordingly.

Once your character has a strong of motivation, you can place her in dozens of situations and she will act consistently and, we hope, entertainingly. She will be making choices based on her long-term goal.

Congratulations. You have the beginnings of a sitcom character.

But just the beginnings.

Where we go from here? There’s a long road ahead, and if you need a map and a shove in the right direction, stay tuned for more, and I’ll be running a free webinar on how to build on this to create even better, deeper characters for your sitcoms and comedy dramas.

In the Meantime

In the meantime, you might have a script that's already plotted and written, and you just want to make it as good as it can be. There's a lot to be said for that. Get into the habit of making your writing as good as it can be. So have I've produced a PDF called 7 Things You Can Do To Improve Your Script Right Now. It has clear action points and specific things to do that should lift your script and make it sparkle. Get it here.

Thursday 14 January 2021

Reinventing The Sitcom

It’s tempting to try and reinvent the sitcom.

You are welcome to try. Far be it from me to stop you.

Writing a ‘traditional’ sitcom is already hard enough so trying to reinvent this genre is going to be even harder. But it might not feel like you have any choice. How else can you make your script stand out? Everyone's a writer. There are new platforms, and lots of money sloshing around. One way to break through could be to come up with a sitcom that isn’t a sitcom, or is a new kind of sitcom.

Maybe. But probably not.


In episode 153 of the Sitcomgeek podcast, Dave Cohen and I spoke to Jasper Rees who wrote a brilliant biography of Victoria Wood, Let's Do It. It’s easy to forget that Victoria Wood – among her many successes – wrote and starred in a sitcom called dinnerladies. On 30th Dec 1999, this show drew in an audience of 15 million. That’s a lot. This must surely make it broad, safe and mainstream?

Watch it again and you’ll see it’s far more subversive and edgy than it looks. And very rude. And dinnerladies has a lower case ‘d’ so something’s going on.

Jasper Rees says that the moment Victoria Wood saw The Royle Family, she wished she had done everything differently. It felt like the world had changed with this low-key, less-is-more kind of show from Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash.

Artistically, the look and format and tone of a show like The Royle Family can be really exciting, but if you scratch beneath the surface, you normally find that the story and narrative and jeopardy are very traditional. You still have a main plot and a sub plot with a quest and obstacles along the way, but the goals are smaller and more subtle. The pace is slower. Maybe the dialogue is more naturalistic. There’s no laugh track. But the principles are the same.

The Royle Family paved the way for The Office and then The Smoking Room, Him and Her, Early Doors and Roger and Val Have Just Got In. A very modern-day legacy of those shows would be This Country which has done very well in the UK.

But there’s a danger here.

Characters Looking for a Story

I often read scripts by new writers who are going for this low-key approach. But rather than go down the ‘less is more’ route, the script is just less. They write scenes were people are just talking. And talking. There are long scenes with no actual drama. Which means there's little comedy either.

The only clear quest on display is the characters in search of a story.

You need a story.

That story needs a beginning, a middle, some escalation, short-term victory, defeat, disaster and then some bitter sweet triumph.

You don’t need to do all this in an overlit-studio-sitcom-style like Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em where everything comes crashing down. But the story is key. Those more subtle sitcoms that look like comedy dramas, have every bit as solid and compelling a story as the more traditional hits.

The Tarantino Mistake

Quentin Tarantino has something to answer for here. He inspired writers to create scenes that are ‘Tarantino-esque’. One way his films felt so fresh was the occasionally ponderous realistic dialogue in movies where people are arguing over petty and mundane details.

It’s easy to miss that its assassins or villains doing that, so you get that comic juxtaposition there. The banality is mixed with the high drama, which creates the comedy.

Also, Tarantino is writing movies. He has two hours or more to play with. And if the movie just gets crazy long, he can slice it in half, like Kill Bill. You’re writing a sitcom. Not a movie. (Read this.)

If you like that ‘less is more’ style, you need to know that it’s not as easy as it looks. Study those shows that you like, and maybe read some Pinter plays which are low on action and big on subtlety and subtext.

The Mother of Reinvention

Don’t try to reinvent the wheel if you don’t feel that’s something you have to do. If you have a story, a situation and some characters you want to tell, and then do it by whatever means you think are necessary. If your script executes the story in a conventional but compelling way, it will stand out and do well.

No-one is asking you or anyone else to reinvent the genre. But if you can think of a different way of telling the story of you characters, with carefully timed flashbacks, or subtitles, or some other format, great. As long as it helps tell the story, rather than changing the format for the sake of it.

Dream On

Look at Dream On (1990-96), an early HBO show from the duo who went on to create Friends. Dream On made it to the UK on ‘edgy’ Channel 4 where I saw a distinctive format point. Okay, there were two. The first was a slightly shameful and pragmatic one: female nudity. (Discuss.) Being a cable show, it didn’t have to play by the rules of NBC and CBS. Although perhaps we could concede the point that this was an attempt to make the show more ‘adult’ as it also made use of profanity. This was to establish that it was different from the goofy mainstream fair on network television. This wasn’t The Cosby Show. This was about a divorcee who could never compete with his ex-wife’s new husband.

In a way, that ‘adult’ theme is a counterpoint to the stylistic format which is clips of old black and white movies that punctuate the narrative. That's the second distinctive format point. This is baked into the opening titles where we see the protagonist dumped in front of the TV as a child. He clearly drinks it all in. The implication is that the stuff we watched as kids really affects the way we think as adults.

The Lesson of Dream On

Figure out what your show is really about.

And then work out the best way of telling that story, or showing those characters or capturing that mood. You probably don’t need to change much to make it feel distinctive and original and it will appear you have reinvented the sitcom. In fact, you probably shouldn't. Innovation is normally what went before but with one single change, or extra ingredient.

Not everyone is going to thank you for doing this. Or tune in, stream, download or whatever people do now. At the time lot of people didn’t like The Royle Family, which they thought was slow and boring. I remember watching a Royle Family Christmas Special with my parents one year. They were baffled by it and couldn’t understand why it was billed as a comedy. Given it ended with the dad (Ricky Tomlinson) crying his eyes out in the bathroom, I could see their point.

So maybe it’s for the best that Victoria Wood didn’t give us the low-key, less-is-more dinnerladies. But knowing her, she probably would have made it work.

Getting Your Story Straight

If you want to build your own sitcom, you really need to get the story right and know what the show is about. That is emphasis of my sitcom video course, Writing Your Sitcom. Spec scripts are almost always deficient in the storytelling, and if you can get that right, your script really will stand out from the huge pile of other scripts. Why not find out more about the course here?

Tuesday 12 January 2021

What Even Is a Sitcom These Days?

If you’re trying to write a sitcom, or get into sitcom writing, it’s worth taking a step back to ask what you’re getting into. What even is a sitcom?

In the days of Cheers and Terry and June, it was pretty obvious. These days it’s harder to know as the genre has morphed in these times of multi-channel, multi-platform, second screening and binge-watching boxed sets which also mash up comedy and drama.

If you want to know more about the difference between a sitcom and comedy drama, because you're trying to write a comedy drama, or can't decide if what you're writing is a sitcom, or a comedy drama, I made a video that should help, and you can watch for free via here.

There's A Lot Of It About

There is a lot of comedy drama about. But sitcoms have not changed as much as you might think.

The word ‘sitcom’ might sound meaningless or dated, especially if you’re watching all kinds of genre-busting content from all over the world through streaming services. But, despite what the media suggests, we don’t live in a world dominated by Netflix.

Not everyone has Netflix
In fact, the majority of households don’t have Netflix. Google the stats. It's true.

And those that who do stump up for Netflix, Prime or Disney+ often get overwhelmed or can’t find anything they fancy so go back to watching Frasier or The Vicar of Dibley reruns on the TV or iPlayer.

Or they binge watch Friends on Netflix.

Before Christmas, BBC1 slot repeated an old episode of traditional studio sitcom, Blackadder. On a Friday night. That's prime TV real estate given over to old fashioned studio sitcom.

So what’s the lesson here?

The vast majority of people still like good old fashioned sitcoms.

Friends, by itself, is a multi-billion-dollar franchise that still generates a ton of money. People are still watching it and rewatching it. Teens are discovering it. A few of the references are dated, and we cringe now and then, but it’s rock-solid wall-to-wall never-fails funny. The same goes for Seinfeld and Frasier.

In the UK, for years, the best performing sitcom on BBC2 that garners more viewers than every new sitcom by half a million viewer is Dad’s Army. It also get more viewers than any new comedy on Channel 4, with the possible exception of The Windsors. In fact, switch over to Channel 4’s network of channels and you’re never far away from an episode of Father Ted, or Black Books. And many people have seen those episodes many, many times over.

Most of these shows are traditional studio sitcoms, being shot on a few sets in front of an audience, with a small group of familiar characters. The time frame is normally 24-28 hours. And there’s normally one clear main story and a couple of subplots, all with a beginning, a middle and an end. Friends makes that very obvious, where each episode is called ‘The one with…’

And these sitcoms are still being made.

After Friends came How I Met Your Mother, which did pretty well. Then there was the massive studio sitcom hit Big Bang Theory. In the UK, we had IT Crowd, Miranda (in which I was involved), Not Going Out, Mrs Brown’s Boys and Kate and Koji. These big traditional shows, when you get them right, can do really really well. And channel controllers want that.

Now that sign says apple sauce...
The Awful Sounds of Human Laughter

But who wants to shoot a show in a studio these days? With that awful confected sound of human laughter? Let’s not get into canned laughter right now. For now let’s note the big secret hiding in plain sight:

Single-camera non-studio shows are basically the same in format.

You mostly have a small group of characters, with a main plot with a beginning, a middle and an end over the course of 24-48 hours.

This is how most episodes of single camera shows work: The Office, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, The Larry Sanders Show, Parks and Rec, Veep and Modern Family.

They may feel fresh and innovative, and have interesting story techniques and special episodes that entirely take place on a laptop (see Modern Family (right)) but at heart, they’re just good old-fashioned sitcoms.

So what’s the point for those of us in the business of writing and creating sitcoms, and writing scripts?

It’s this: Keep it simple. Trust the format.

These sitcoms, past, recent and present, are not just a tried and tested formula, but a huge part of audience expectation. And, let’s be honest, it just works. That ‘simple’ story, well told, with a beginning, middle and end, is what we are looking for in a sitcom. We deviate from that at our peril.

Hold your nerve.

Writing Your Sitcom

Keeping it simple and holding your nerve is all very well if you know what you're doing. I get it. So if you want to write a sitcom from scratch, or whatever you have been doing before hasn’t been working and you want to start all over again, why not consider my comprehensive Writing Your Sitcom video course. There are twelve clear steps, each with a video and some homework, all contributing to the final product: a sitcom script that you can be proud of. Worth a look? Let me tell you more about it here.

Friday 8 January 2021

Habits of Highly Effective Writers #7: Planning

Lord Byron wouldn’t have done it. Nor Shelley or Keats. Maybe Wordsworth once he’d calmed down.

I’m talking about planning. It’s not cool. It’s not writerly. It doesn’t feel creative.

But it saves a lot of time, pain and disappointment. And right now, who needs more of that?

Didn't think so.

Granted, 2020 was a lesson in not over-planning. All our best laid plans almost certainly went awry several times over. The old military cliché is also true: no plan survives the first encounter with the enemy. Once the fight starts, it all goes out the window. But you still plan.

Not Scripts. But Yes, Scripts

I’m not talking about planning scripts. Although you should plan scripts. Most of the scripts I read bear all the hallmarks of someone who’s started writing the script before they’d properly planned it out. It’s usually a bunch of characters in search of a plot. Nothing happens for the first ten pages. Then there’s a build up to something happening. It happens. Everyone reacts. It ends.

The problem here was a lack of planning. (That’s something I address in my video course, Writing Your Sitcom.)

In this post, I’m urging you to have a career plan, or at least a plan for the year. Given the hours you have available in any given week to write, or kick start your career, you don’t really have time to waste, do you? So you need to plan.

Think about the year ahead. It’s probably hard to see how your fortunes will change in a year. But it is possible to end the year in a better position than the way you began. And to end the year with slightly better skills. And a few more opportunities.

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” Bill Gates (among others)

These are wise words. We are impatient and lose heart quickly. And we want quick results. We see instant celebrity through reality shows. We read about obscure authors getting multi-million pound book deals. But most things - and certainly nothing that lasts - happens overnight.

Let's go back to JK Rowling sitting in a cafe writing her first Harry Potter book. It probably took her a year to finish the second half of that first book, send it out and get a dozen rejection letters. Did that feel like progress? But check back in on her five years later: Progress. Ten years? Success. Fifteen years? She's on her way to being a billionaire.

Please. Make a realistic plan for what you can get done in a year. Account for the fact that everything takes longer than you think it will. (This Freakonomics podcast about why things run late might help.)

But make a plan for this month, for this 'term' or season, and this year.


Douglas Adams famously quipped about loving deadlines and the sound they make as they whoosh past. That's funny. It captures the romance of being a writer. But it's not helpful if you're trying to get on and make best use of limited time, pursue a dream and/or make a living.

So here’s one thing I’d urge you to do. Ignore Douglas Adams. Set a script deadline. And stick to it. Write one really good script by that deadline. Just one. You won't have time to do more than one. But finish it. Polish it. Make it good. (If you have a script that needs finishing, improving, tightening or tweak, I've produced a PDF called 7 Things You Can Do To Improve Your Script Right Now.)

Could Do Better

I often encounter aspiring writers who say they entered a script into a competition knowing the script was no good. Are you one of those? Why was the script no good? Clearly, there a decision was never made to make it no good. A decision was never made. That’s the main problem.

So identify a date by which you would like to have a really good script. And work backwards from that date.

You might want to use a competition deadline as a date, which is as good as any. Or, you might want to take a date that has emotional significance. Maybe your mum’s birthday, or something like that. Maybe you know that by 1st September, you’ll have a whole new season of life to worry about so you want your script done by then. It’s up to you. But pick a date. And make a plan. Working backwards.


Then tell someone close to you who will hold you to account. Who will help you stick to the date. Who will check up that you're putting the time in. If this matters to you, it will matter to them and they will keep tabs on you, and then give you that disappointed look if you miss that deadline.

Then work backwards. Leave yourself a realistic amount of time for each phase.

Let’s say you have three writing sessions a week, each lasting 90 minutes. That’s four and a half hours of writing a week. That’s okay. You could write a sitcom script in a month. Just about. At a push. Maybe take half a Saturday too. But that’s the actual script. That's almost the easy bit. You'd need a scene by scene outline to write that script in that time.

That scene by scene outline - which plots out what happens in each scene, plus has a few bits of dialogue and jokes in it and could be a few thousand words - will take you another month.

To get that scene by scene outline, you need to have found the right story for your pilot script. That’s another month writing four and a half hours a week of picking and developing the right story.

But you can’t identify the story that’s really going to demonstrate your characters and situation – and your voice – without some serious groundwork about the set-up and their relationships at play. That’s another month. At least. 

You get the idea. This takes time. A lot of time. It would just happen. You need a plan.

And most people underestimate how long scripts take.

Your Script

That script you want to write looks beguilingly easy to produce. Scripts are, in fact, fairly quick to type. A sitcom script is about thirty pages. That’s about five thousands words. You could type that in a few hours. Maybe faster. Opening a file and typing doesn’t require any special technical ability or qualifications. You just type. There’s obviously much more to it, but people often don’t realise how much.

Here’s where people make the crucial mistake:

If you’re finding it hard to write a script, that’s normal. I find it hard and I've been doing it for twenty years. I've written or co-written 150+ half hour comedy narrative scripts. It's still hard. But not impossible.

If you’re finding writing your script impossible, you probably haven’t planned it right.

There’s a little trick for that: Make a plan. Plan your script. Plan each scene. Break it down in chunks.

But you need time to do all this. It needs to be built into your plan. A good script takes plenty of time and doesn’t just happen. A few bursts of energy and a couple of inspired late nights are unlikely to produce the goods.

It’s like assuming you can run a marathon fasting than other people by sprinting at the end. It’s just a non-starter as plans go. In fact, it’s not a plan. 

So make a plan. Tell someone. And do your best to stick to it.

One More Thing

If you’d like help doing that, I’d like to recommend my video course, Writing Your Sitcom which really emphasises doing the groundwork. And doing it in the right way. So that writing that script is as painless as possible. The course walks you through the writing process in 12 steps – and will work for comedy drama as well as out-and-out sitcoms. 

You might be able to get the course done in 12 weeks, although it will probably take longer unless you’ve got serious time to throw at this. But build the lessons and sessions into your plan. If you start now, you might have a script you are proud of by the end of the Spring. How about that?

Does that sound like a plan?

The result is a script you can be proud of. That's the aim of the course: to help you write your best sitcom script. After all, sho’s got time to send out half-baked scripts that even you don’t think is any good? It’s just a colossal waste of time. And that’s the one thing we can’t get back: time.

There also monthly Zoom chats where you can ask me anything and we can talk about how it’s going, so you’re not doing this all on your own. In fact, if you’ll give me a few minutes, I can tell you about the course here: 

Thursday 7 January 2021

Habits of Highly Effective Writers #6: Finishing

Two people are chatting. 'I'm writing a novel,' says one, whereupon the other says: 'Yes, neither am I.' (Peter Cook)

In 2020, I started writing a novel. I know, I know. Neither are you. It was based on two characters I created for a play I wrote called The God Particle, about a vicar and a quantum physicist. I wrote the first 12000 words of the novel. And then I rewrote them. And then I stopped. Why?

There were a couple of reasons. The first was that the opportunity to pitch for some work came along that I was excited by and offered me a chance to expand my skills – and get paid. So I threw my time into pitching for an episode of this TV series. I managed to get commissioned and wrote it. It's being filmed later this year. 

The economic realities were that this was more likely to pay off, and pay better, than a novel. I also reckoned that a lot of other people were using lockdown to write novels. The stack of novel manuscripts would be higher than ever by the end of the year, so an already difficult task of having a novel published had gotten even harder. So I hit pause on the novel.

I was ditching it - as I suggested in the previous post - but I was okay about walking away, knowing I wouldn't have time to go back to it for a while. I had to write a non-fiction book in which I have established myself a little more (the comedy/religion niche). That book, called The Gospel According to a Sitcom Writer, is out in June this year. And then I developed and produced my own video course called Writing Your Sitcom.

So what do I do in 2021? The first thing I’m going to do is going back to the novel. I’m going to finish it. Why?

I know I said to ditch projects that are just hanging around, feeling stale and holding you back. I still say that. But absence can make the heart grow fonder. The idea might still be nagging away at you. It might turn out you are passionate about that idea after all. In which case, go back to it. It's fine. There are no rules here.

Your Writing Slate

If you’re serious about being a writer, you need a number of ideas in various states of development. You need a spec script to show what you can do, and that you can execute your idea and show your voice. But you also need another strong idea to talk about in meetings. And ideally you need one more that can be that final Hail Mary pass once your first two ideas have been rebuffed.

So, having urged you to ditch a project and start something new – I’m also saying you can go back to something you abandoned last year, or a few years ago, if you feel you have unfinished business. It may be that you have fresh eyes and new ideas on the problems that caused you to give up on it in the first place. It may be that it feels ‘of the moment’.

But it may be that it feels redundant, stale or dull. In which case move on.


Timing is important. An idea that felt like an orphan a few years earlier can suddenly feel ‘of the moment’ and find a home.

If Richard Hurst and I had pitched our bomb-disposal comedy, Bluestone 42, to BBC3 a couple of years earlier, when the war in Afghanistan was really costly in terms of human life, it would have seemed in really poor taste.

If we’d pitched it a couple of years later, if would have felt like we’d missed the boat. Ideas have a timeliness about them.

Maybe now is the time for that old idea. Or a new idea. But timing is important.

But there is another reason to pick up something back up and finish it.

You may be an inveterate starter. And not a finisher.

In which case, you plan to finish something and make it as good as you can, rather than being distracted by the shiny new idea.

Know Thyself

Are you the kind of writer who loves the new thing? That’s me. I have no trouble filling a blank sheet of paper with dozens of ideas, stories or characters. But I get bored of them quite quickly. Once I’ve outlined the story, or written the first draft, my interest starts to wane. I’m not a completer-finisher. So I need to recognised what sort of writer I am – and make adjustments to my strategy accordingly.

I need to finish things. And not only ‘get them done’ but spend more time polishing them and making them as good as I can. Maybe that's something you need to do to be a better writer.

No script is perfect. (Except Toy Story 2). Everything can be improved, normally by making it tighter. But there are many other tweaks, tucks and trims that can be made. And of course, you might to be honest about the fact that the Second Act really doesn’t work, and you can’t just paper over the cracks, but tear it all down and start again, at least on that section.

So that’s one of the reasons I’m going back to my novel. I need to finish more things. Plus, I’ve done most of the hard work in terms of the characters, story and research. Wish me luck! And best of luck with that novel you're not writing either.

One Last Thing

If you have a script that needs finishing, improving, tightening or tweak, I've produced a PDF called 7 Things You Can Do To Improve Your Script Right Now. It has clear action points and specific things to do that should lift your script and make is sparkle. Get it here.

But if you're thinking no amount of spit and polish is going to improve that script and you want to start again, why not consider doing my Writing Your Sitcom course? Now could well be the time to invest in your career, and a new script that shows what you can really do. More info here.

Wednesday 6 January 2021

Habits of Highly Effective Writers #5: Ditching

In the last post, I suggested you that if you want to be a better writer, you need start writing and keep writing. In fact, make a habit of writing.

Now I’m telling you to stop writing.

I don’t mean stop the habit. I mean stop trying to write that thing you’ve been writing for ages that isn’t really going anywhere.

Lots of people will tell you to keep going. See it through. Your friends, your supporters and maybe some fellow writers might be cheering you on. Maybe this is the year to finish that script.

But maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s time to ditch it. Park it. Throw it in the lake. Or at least drag and drop into a folder marked ‘Archive’ or ‘Former Projects’. Maybe now is the time start something new, fresh, exciting or timely. And something that will show what you can do as a writer.

Reasons To Bin It

You may be emotionally invested in that sitcom idea or comedy drama script for a number of reasons. Maybe it’s the first idea you thought of. Maybe you’ve ploughed hours and hours of thought and work into it.

But consider this: in all likelihood, days and months of work lie ahead.

Is it really worth that kind of investment of time and energy?

Is this the story you really want to tell?

Is this the script you really want to develop, write, rewrite and show to people who can actually read?

If your script is really feeling a lot like homework or a chore, there’s a chance that the idea has gone stale, or was never that great in the first place.

It’s not distinctive. It’s not you. It’s not now.

Maybe it’s time to ditch it. Start again with something else altogether. Or, at the very least, go back to the original idea and work out a better way of expressing it.

Happier Times

You might have had the idea in 2012. That was the year of the London Olympics. The UK, at least, was a fairly happy place, especially after the opening ceremony and then we started winning medals. Remember Super Saturday? Aah.

Back then, social media and politics hadn’t quite ripped us fully apart. We were still members of the EU and no-one seemed to mind all that much. There wasn’t a pandemic. People felt differently about a range of issues. If you’re going to pitch your sitcom or comedy drama at someone in 2021/22, is it going to feel dated? Or oddly out of time? Maybe that’s why you’re struggling to write it.

You may be struggling to write that script because writing is hard. That’s a given.

But why not start something else? Dream big. Start again. Ditch that project that’s been hanging around for years.

Okay, I get it. You don’t want to do this. Let’s have a quick look at some of the reasons for that.

Get Out The Plunger

You might be worried that you’re not going to come up with anything else. I shouldn’t worry about that. You will. The current idea may blocking lots of others. So get out the plunger, flush away the blockage and see what happens. If you’re going to be a writer, you have to be the sort of person that has more than one idea. If you aren’t, then writing probably isn’t for you. So maybe take up sculpting, crochet or hill-walking.

Your Story

Are you reluctant to let go of this idea because it’s 'your story’? If so, that makes it more compelling. That's good. Personal perspective is more important than ever. Producers aren’t just looking for writers but ‘voices’. That’s one of the key elements of my new video course, Writing Your Sitcom. The ‘your’ is important.

Be honest. You have more than one story, and one set of circumstances. One identity doesn’t define you. Or at least it shouldn’t. You have a gender, an ethnicity, a network of communities, a perspective, a bunch of passions, a past and a future. There’s so much to write about. Make a list.

What Kind of Pony Are You?

If you want a career as a writer, you need to be able to write characters from all backgrounds and viewpoints. Otherwise you are essentially a one-trick pony. You’re trying to build a career. You need to be the kind of writer who can write on multiple projects.

In my career (I give as an example rather than brag), I've written Radio sitcoms about codebreakers and management consultants; TV sitcoms about a bomb disposal team in active war zone, an Asian family, a superhero and an unmarried women, CBBC sitcoms, CBeebies pre-school shows and an episode of a 45-minute murder mystery. And several nativity plays.

It’s unlikely you’d be able to make a living writing purely your own material, especially if that material is essentially just ‘your story’. That pony is lovely, but soon we’re going to want to see more than the one trick.

If you have a strong voice then you need to work out a way of demonstrating that, along with writing talent. Consider this: maybe your first idea isn’t the best way of doing that.

Take Action

Take a long hard look at that thing you’ve been working on for ages. There’s a chance that it’s holding you back. You’re holding it so tight it’s starting to cut you. What happens when you let go? I should give that a try if I were you.

Time for some Marie Kondo. Hold it in your hand. Does it bring you joy? If not, say ‘thank you’ and chuck it.

If, in a few months’ time, you can’t bear to parted from that original idea, maybe there was something it.

Maybe that's the time for that idea after all. Let it earn its place back in your life, in your diary and in your imagination. And get to work on it with renewed vigour and insights.

I’ll leave you to rummage through the bin bags.

In the next post, I’ll suggest why you might want to persevere with that idea.

But for now, I’d like to just mention my new video course which has just launched. It's called Writing Your Sitcom. If you're looking for a fresh start, or don't want to keep making the same mistakes again and again, I break down the whole sitcom writing process into 12 manageable steps. None of them are easy. This blog keeps telling you how difficult it is. But it points you in the right direction, gives you clear ways forward and keeps you going. Plus there are monthly Zoom chats with me and other course members so we can find out how everyone's doing. How does that sound? More details here at The Situation Room on Youtube or see below:

Tuesday 5 January 2021

Habits of Highly Effective Writers #4: Writing Part 2

In Part 1, we looked at the motivation for writing, both right and wrong. Here in Part 2, let's look at the business of actually writing. How is going to happen more consistently in 2021?

What’s my advice to aspiring writers?

It seems rather silly, but I’ll say it anyway: Write.

It is surprising how many people talk about wanting to write – and genuinely do want to write – but don’t actually write. Why?

Feel the Fear

A common barrier to putting finger to keyboard is fear. What if it’s no good? I can help you there. In fact, I can let you into a secret.

Come closer.

(whisper) It won’t be good. Not at first. Your writing will probably not be very good for a while. (normal voice) Why would it be? Writing looks easy. But what you see isn’t writing, but typing. Typing is easy. Writing is hard.

Like anything, you only get better at writing with practice. No matter how good you are at the start, and how successful you are later on, your early work will make you cringe. This is unavoidable. The early stuff often has a freshness, novelty or even naivety that is appealing, but also some big clunking mistakes. But you can’t get experienced and grizzled and embarrassed about your early stuff without making a start now and getting that early stuff out of the way.

Start Anyway

Start writing. Some of it will be good. Now and then, I stumble across things I wrote nearly two decades ago and am surprised I managed to think of that joke or have that idea. But as a rule, I avoid all my previous TV and Radio series. In fact, there are many episodes of radio that I've not heard since being at the recording in front of then audience. I've not heard the final edit, the first transmission, the CDs I've been sent or the MP3 or versions on Audible. All I see and hear are the mistakes, the scenes that don’t end right and the jokes that don’t land.

There was even worse stuff on my hard drive that never made it off the screen. So here’s another secret. Lean in.

Oh, you were. Sorry, can you move back?

Thanks. Here's the secret: You don't need to show anyone.

You can write and write and not show anyone the results. For ages. If ever. No-one needs to read it.

But you need to write it. If you want to be a writer, if you have a story to tell, if this is something you want to master, you do need to write. Something. At some point. Soon. And regularly.

The Mood Will Not Take You

If you want to improve you will need to write a lot. That's means regularly. If you only write ‘when the moods takes you’, you will probably discover the mood doesn’t take you very often, or quickly changes. Any experienced writer knows that you just keep writing.

Some days it’s good. Some days it’s bad. You rewrite the bad stuff on the good days. And some bad days turn out better than you thought. And sometimes you delete the whole thing. But you keep writing. Go back and improve it another time. But you can’t readily improve a blank page. You need to write something. Then you can rewrite it.

Making Time

You will only write if you make time for it. This doesn’t just happen. Everything takes longer than you think it will. The urgent always squashes the important. You need to get into the habit of writing at a particular time of the day or week. Make that happen.

Can you write something every weekday first thing in the morning? That’s what I try to do. I’m freshest in the morning. I try not to agree to any meetings or phone calls in the morning unless they are unavoidable. I try and get as much written as I can before lunch.

Unless I’m really up against it, I find I can’t write for more than a few hours a day anyway. I’m not alone in that. If you can write for three or fours hours in a day, you’re doing really well. From reading about the habits of other professional writers and authors, most tend to find that they write best in the morning, and do other things in the afternoon.

After lunch, I try to get out for a walk or do something else. When come back I edit podcasts, answer emails, edit YouTube videos, Tweet, take meetings, do my accounts and crunch admin. I’m not frustrated when I do those things because I’ve actually written something in the morning and I’m not chasing the day.

Writing Zones

Recently, I’ve tried to have two zones in my office. One zone if for writing in the mornings, with lots of natural light and a good view. That’s how I’m writing this now – using my old laptop which does fine for this sort of thing. (Full disclosure: I’m rewriting this on the kitchen table in the afternoon.)

In the afternoons, I use my newer computer which is better for heavy lifting, like processing videos for my YouTube channel, The Situation Room. When I write, I try to have the email apps closed, and turn off notifications. Every morning, I get a reminder from myself which says that I can’t look at Facebook until 4pm. All of these things are distractions that have to be shut off for those precious few hours when I get the business of writing words done.

It's Alright For Some

What I’ve just described is like an impossible luxury for some. I get it. I realise how blessed I am to make a living as a writer. But firstly, I didn't used to be writer. Like everyone else, I used to want to be a writer and had to figure it out. Richard Bach (no idea) says, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”

My writing principles apply to writers in all situations. You can’t write at a kitchen table with people coming and going and constant interruptions. It’s just too hard. Either go out to a café (pandemic permitting) and put in headphones. Or go to another room in the house. Upstairs. Quiet. Or put on over-the-ear headphones. Figure it out.

But here's what you really need to do:

Tell Someone

Tell members of your family, or housemates, that that is what you are doing: writing. For a specific period of time. They almost certainly want you to succeed at your writing (to stop you going on about it, if nothing else). But they don’t know how to support you. They can do that by shutting up and going away and letting you write for a couple of hours. Or even just 45 minutes.

But they won’t know to do that unless you tell them. And they won’t know when to do that unless you inform them of your writing time. Do it.

This, in turn, gives you an extra incentive to write. If people you love are making allowances for you to take time to write, you’re now morally obliged to actually write something. So turn off notications – switch of your router or wi-fi if necessary – put your phone in another room and write. (Remember it will be bad. So don't get frustrated. Write anyway)

Repeat the process as many times a week as you can for three months. Then a year. And you will have written something substantial. And there's a chance it doesn't suck.

Take Action

If you’re fitting your writing around raising kids or a full time job – or both – do three things:

First, find two or three times in the week to write, even if it's twenty minutes at a time, and put them in diary or planner.

Then, second: tell people you live with that that is your time to write. Give them the chance to support you in your endeavour. Ask your other half to take the kids out of the way or put on Disney+. Tell your other half you won’t be watching TV on Thursday nights (so they can watch that boxed set you never fancied) because that’s when you want to write. And you want to write Netflix, not just watch it. Put some time in the diary, and pour concrete around it.

Third, turn off notifications, switch off your phone, and write.

Do this and you might find you’re writing for 1-4 hours a week. Could you manage an hour on Saturday too? Take Sunday off. Rest.

Eventually, but suddenly, you’ve written something. That’d be good, wouldn’t it?

One More Thing

This is all takes time. That's one emphasis of my new video course, Writing Your Sitcom. Creating a 5000 word sitcom script that you don't hate takes many many hours over many many weeks. That's why it's a 12 step course which breaks it all down into manageable chunks that you can act on, rather than packing it into a frenetic weekend. 

You can watch each video as many times as you like, learn each lesson and build your script in your own time at your own pace. It's all there. Just set aside time to watch the lesson, and grab the notes, and view it. And make your own notes.

Do the set homework in your own time - which is geared around writing your script, rather than arbitrary writing exercises. But it's all meant to make you a better writer.

There are even monthly Zoom chats with me included, to check on progress and ask me anything you like to make you're not going mad (or establish your script, at least, is not the primary cause).

And after a few months, you might have a script you can bear to put your name on and send to someone. Worth a look?

In the meantime, keep checking back for updates on this blog, which will be updated frequently in 2021. Follow me on Twitter for updates.

Monday 4 January 2021

Habits of Highly Effective Writers #4: Writing Part 1

Writers read, listen, observe, think and make notes. We've covered that. They also, er, write? So let’s think about actually writing – in two parts. We need to distinguish between motivation and practice. In this post, we will deal with motivation.

What's My Motivation?

Lots of people say they want to write, or be a writer, yet somehow don’t write very much. If anything. Why is that?

People like the idea of being a writer. In a poll in 2015, the most desirable job turned out to be 'author'. Anyone who actually writes knows that most authors make very little money and that writing itself is extremely difficult and frustrating. People tend not picture screaming at a piece of flip-chart paper which highlights the deep flaws in the second act. They don’t think about the relentless grind of having to write a certain numbers of words a day by a particular deadline.

Romanticised views of the writing life never die. They just get rewritten. There used to be the image of the artist in their chilly garret hammering out a screenplay on a typewriter. Now that image has become sitting in a warm, semi-deserted café, sipping an espresso while writing a great novel.

JK Rowling went to cafes to write her much rejected first novel about Harry Potter. We know. It’s a good story. And these stories can inspire you or get you out of bed once or twice, but in the long run they are deeply unhelpful.

Be honest with yourself: Do you want to be writer more than you actually want to write?

If you don’t want to write, or enjoy any part of it, or continually find excuses to not write, there’s a good chance you should probably find another craft which you make take to more readily. Consider something else.

That’s right. I’m telling you to give up now.

And I’m telling you that because no-one else will.

It’s not that I’m trying to scare away the competition. It's too late for that. Apparently writing is the dream job for 60% of the population. I’m just trying to spare you frustration and agony.

Maybe you're eying JK Rowlings millions. She might even be sitting on a billion. Writing could be your path to riches. And hey, children’s books are short. How hard can it be?


Let me tell you now that if want to make money, virtually anything else is more profitable for the amount of work, pain and rejection that lies ahead. JK Rowling’s story is inspiring and remarkable because it so rarely happens, and so rarely makes one person so fabulously wealthy. And let’s be honest, her net worth is probably on 15% book sales, and the rest is merch, movie rights, spin-offs, apps, games and general Pottermania.

What We Learn from JK Rowling

Don’t miss the main point of JK Rowling’s story: It is that she had a story to tell, and she had built a world, a Potterverse, and she wanted to share it. She wanted to write about it. She had to, despite deep personal inconvenience. It would have been far easier not to have bothered, or just talked about it, or blame her own life situation. But she wanted to write more than anything else in the world. So she found a way.

The money was a bonus, not the motivation. Writing was something she had to do, because in the short term, what she was doing made very little sense.

So take a moment now to think whether you want to actually write, or whether you like the idea of being a writer. The two are as far apart as enjoying travelling and actually being the driver of a steam train.

What Will You Write?

If you really do want to write, and you're still reading, and I've not put you off, great. Next job. Think about what you want to write. What story do you want to tell? What genre do you want to write in? What medium? What format?

Don’t chose something just because it seems the easiest in which to progress. There are no shortcuts. And writing’s too hard to be cynical. You need to write about what you want to write about. What you are passionate about. Or interested in. Or excited by.

This blog is about sitcom writing, primarily, so let's use that as an example. In a sitcom context, it’s easy to be in love with the form, think of a new situation, assemble some characters and start writing scripts. Well, not easy, but comparatively easy. But that won’t do. That’s just essentially fan fiction (see YouTube video below).

It's also easy to learn that hardly anyone is writing studio sitcoms, and you heard that they tend to be looked upon more favourably. So you want to get ahead by writing one of those. Or you heard that they still want another Fleabag, so you're trying to write one of those.

Don't. It's too hard and time consuming to write a script that you don't truly believe in. You need to ask yourself hard questions. What do you want to write about? What is your sitcom?

Writing Your Sitcom

That’s the emphasis of my new video course, Writing Your Sitcom. The 'Your' is important. It has to be your sitcom and no-one else’s. Something that is cynically engineered, or generically put together, won’t cut it. And that script won’t get you work and help you progress. And who's got time to waste writing a script that isn't going to get you anywhere?

That's why I've put the course together. It starts from scratch and takes you through the process of helping you create a sitcom that shows what you can do, and will demonstrate your voice and perspective, because all that stuff is more important now than it ever has been.

So if you're new to this, and determined to write a sitcom script, this course is for you. And if you've been around the houses a few times, and nothing seems to be working, maybe you need a fresh approach. So why not take a look?

In the meantime, keep checking back for updates on this blog, which I hope will help you along the way. Next time, we’ll look at the actually process of writing and developing some habits that might actually make that possible and more productive.