Thursday 13 May 2021

Plotting My Sitcom: Do I Need a Series Arc?

A question that comes up a lot when talking about plotting is the problem of the series arc. Do you need one? And if so, how does that affect the pilot episode?

Short answer: No. You don’t need a series arc. In fact, I think it’s better if you don’t have one. But I also know I won’t be able to talk you out of it. So let’s dig into this.

The advent of streaming services, boxed sets and binge-watching makes it feels like we’re in new territory and that sitcoms are playing catch up. It’s easy to think that technology has changed the genre, but that's not the case.

We’ve Been Here Before

In the 1970s, before video recorders, you just had to watch a sitcom when it was on. And if you missed it, you missed it. Telling a story over six, ten or thirteen episodes seemed impossible. Some, perhaps, most sitcoms had no real progression between episodes. So you can dip into Porridge, Bilko or Dad’s Army at any point and not need to know anything about the episode before or after.

Reality and time are suspended which means you have a sitcom like M*A*S*H lasting eleven years set during war that only lasted three. No-one cares. The only significant difference in long running shows like this is when actors die, characters leave or episodes are now shot in colour.

A long running successful show cannot avoid changes and some kind of series arc. Characters grow up, fall in love, get married and have children. These are things that cannot be ignored, undone or reset at the end of the episode.

We see the life and loves of sitcom characters with almost a soap-opera-like quality in the wildly successful Bread, following the fortunes of a family in Liverpool wheeling and dealing to survive. In the same way, some of us grew up and came of age watching Friends, seeing the six characters move from singleton’s sticking together to couples forming new families.

The world changes around the characters too. In Only Fools and Horses, Del Boy embodies the spirit of the age, moving from market trader to wannabe yuppie. These are all nice problems to have if you're writing a long running show.

Before Remotes

The pace of change in a sitcom was there, but it was glacial. We watched characters turn grey very slowly. But there were other shows that were tightly plotted, which followed on one from the other.

This is possible because, although there were no video recorders, there were only three or four channels, and people couldn’t switch channels without standing up. So an awful lot of people ended up watching and tracking a long complex story.

Examples that leap to mind include Allo Allo in which we watched one long unfolding farce. Series 5 (1988-89) ran weekly for 24 episodes. I seem to remember each episode began with a recap from Rene Artois talking directly to camera. This is a good tip if your idea is heavily dependent on a continuing story.

The voiceover of Arrested Development allows the story to move very fast, and recall previous incidents in former episodes and remind the viewers off all kinds of essential information in order to each episode to make sense.

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was a sitcom based on novel – and followed some kind of story without a narrator. What I mean to see in say is this: this is not a new problem. And there’s no one single answer to this not-new-problem that might not be a problem.

But here’s another question that might help. Are you sure you want to write a sitcom? Or, at least, a comedy?

Is It A Sitcom?

After watching The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Line of Duty, the temptation is to think that the story is everything. Maybe it is in drama. In comedy, it isn’t.

It really isn’t.

If your aim is to make people laugh, stories are tools, and not ends in themselves. The ‘story of the week’ is putting your characters into difficult or compelling situation where they will be funny.

Clearly, there is a demand for the next Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. And those shows have comic elements. For me, the Tyrion/Bronn relationship was priceless and could have been it’s own spin off comedy show. (In fact, someone imagined one here)

But these shows aren’t comedies. In fact, their storytelling elements will make comedy harder because the plots interweave and mingle, creating suspense. This is a deliberate form of confusion. And, say it with me now, Confusion is the Enemy of Comedy. An audience that is confused won’t laugh.  They can't. They don’t get they joke – because they can’t get the joke. They’ve not been given all of the components.

The result is a long, complicated, tortuous story which may be fun to tell, and to watch. But it won’t be as funny as Frasier. And people still watch Frasier.

Tastes change, but two things seem certain.

  1. People like watching TV.
  2. People like laughing.

So if you want to write a sitcom, stick to your guns.

The Sitcom Risk

There will always be room for sitcoms with no significant story arc. Every week, your characters clash, conspire, collude and crash in a different way. Every week, your character is trying to save the world, or her community, or his sister or his sub-species, in their own inimitable way. If you offered BBC1, Netflix or Apple TV a compelling situation that feels 'of the moment' and you've got a killer script, they’re not going to turn it down because there’s no story arc.

But the lack of story arc might make them nervous. And you. And there's a reason for that. It's risky.

The sitcom without a long-running story is really hard to come up with. It lives or dies by its characters and the blend of relationships rather than the story. It is very hard to get this right in a vacuum. Launching this sort of sitcom is like a baby owl jumping out of the nest. It's got about six second to discover if it’s going to fly and survive, or hit the ground at pace and be eaten by foxes.

I wonder, then, if the desire to find a central long-running story is, for some, a way of taking the pressure off the characters and the jokes - and the writer, and the channel.

For some this may be subconscious. For others, this reveals they are more interested in the story than the characters. Or more interested in enthralling than amusing. Fair enough. Comedy is not the only game in town, but as we wrap up this post (to be continued), let’s ask the crucial and awkward question:

Are you trying to write a comedy script?

Or do you want to write a six-part three hour movie?

Only you can answer that question.

But, but, but...

You might point to examples of a successful six-part three hour movie/sitcom – like The Wrong Mans. I think that’s why I found it rather frustrating to watch when it was on TV. Both James Corden and Matthew Baynton are properly weapons-grade funny. For me, The Wrong Mans felt like less than the sum total of the parts, and would have been a fab 90 minute movie. (Remember The Parole Officer with Steve Coogan? Like that.)

The Wrong Mans was made at a point when very few low-budget comedy movies were being made. It was part-funded by Hulu – and this seemed like an exciting premise for comedy narrative.

What’s good about the show is that it really focusses on the two main characters. It's clear what's happening as it has the shape of a movie, and taps into the tropes of ‘finding yourself in an action movie’, but as a rule, I think the three hour/six-part movie is a difficult trick to pull off. I'm not sure The Wrong Mans did. But I'd watch a movie Corden-Baynton-Road-Trip-Buddy-Movie-Caper-Comedy any day.

But let’s say you do want to write a comedy with a story arc.

I haven’t talked you out of it, have I? Fine.

We’ll look at some ways of how to write a script with a series arc next time.

Get Help

I’m running a day-long webinar called 
Write A Sitcom In A Day. Actually is in the afternoon and evening on 4th November Join us!

You obviously can’t write a sitcom in a day. But you can spend a day finding out how, getting your head around it, and, crucially, making a plan to get a script written. It’ll be with me, via Zoom, going through the whole process and with loads of time for questions.

Details plus a short video on the ONE THING that's wrong with almost all spec sitcom scripts: here.

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