Thursday, 21 October 2021

How to Hit That Deadline With A Sitcom Script You’re Proud Of

Since I started blogging about writing sitcoms ten years ago, and more recently podcasting, I’ve spoken to lots of writers who have sent scripts into competitions like the BBC Writersroom or the BAFTA Rocliffe. A surprising number say things like, “The script wasn’t any good, but I sent it anyway.”

Maybe it’s a just humility, or knowing that every script could be better. So I ran a Twitter poll. Asking Sitcom writers to complete the following:

The last time I submitted a script to a competition, the script was…

  • The best I could do.
  • Funny but deeply flawed.
  • Bad but I sent it anyway.

Wanna know the results?

  • The best I could do. 52%
  • Funny but deeply flawed. 25%
  • Bad but I sent it anyway. 23%

Right now, I’d like to focus on those who said the script was deeply flawed, or bad. That's 48% of those submitting a script. Is that you?

And here’s the next question: Why wasn’t the script any good? Why was it flawed?

Most Likely Reason for Submitting Script you're Ashamed of

You started writing the script too early.

You had some characters. You had a situation. You had a plot. You may even had some jokes. But crucially, you had thirty blank pages that needed filling. And so you got to work.

The first five pages were like pulling teeth. That’s fine. It’s always like that.

By the time you got to page 10, you realised this wasn’t quite working.

By page 17, you thought you might actually get away with this.

By page 23, you realised you were not going to get away with it.

By page 28, you realised your ending wasn't going to work.

By page 33, you realised your ending didn't work.

By page 36, you realised the script was probably going to be too long.

By page 40, you realised it was definitely too long.

And so you finished on page 42.

Now what?

Going back to unpick the whole thing, or starting over is just too painful. I’ve been there. Trust me.

Maybe it wasn't practical to start pulling on the threads of the plot, given the looming deadline. You might not be able to stitch it all back together. So you spend the time re-writing some scenes, and whittling it down to 36 pages, which is still too long, but it’s not really clear what you need to cut and what you don’t.

Hey presto! You’ve submitted in a script that is either bad, or deeply flawed.

If even you don’t think it’s any good, what is the reader of that script going to make of it? Are they going to make it to page five, let alone page ten?

We’ve all been there. It happens.

But it’s just too much work and too much heartache to end up with a script you’re not happy with. What’s the solution?

The Solution

That script probably needed a nice clear outline – ideally laying it all out in scenes – so you see ahead of time what is working and what isn’t.

It’s SO much easier to fix it that the outline, when the scenes aren’t written yet. Otherwise, that scene you wrote with that joke you really like has to go. The scene with that wonderful moment turns out to be redundant and needs to go. But cutting it will be agony. Better not to have written the scene.

But where does this script outline come from? It comes from combining the separate plots that have been worked on… and yes, I get it. Where do we get those plots? And the characters?

The Process

There is a process to writing a sitcom script. I’ve figured out a system which has worked for me over the last 20 years, during which time I’ve written 100+ broad sitcom scripts for the BBC TV and Radio. And I’ve worked on plenty of other shows as part of team where a similar workable process is used.

So let me help you out.

How to supercharge your sitcom script

You probably know a bit about story, situations and character, and how scenes should work. So you don't need to start from scratch. (For that sort of thing, take a look at my video course, Writing Your Sitcom)

In my Sitcom Supercharged course, I talk about story and plots – and a bunch of other things.

I run through some highlights and what script readers and producers are looking for from a ‘spec’ pilot sitcom script. It might not be what you think.

Then I give some concrete advice on how long each stage might take, and how to make sure you’ve got time to not just write the script, but rewrite and polish that script so that by the time you’re submitting it, you can honestly say that it’s the best you could do - and we avoid the wailing and gnashing of teeth of regret that another opportunity has been missed.

Sitcom Supercharged short and punchy, big on practical advice based on two decades of experience of writing, and the UK sitcom world. Find out more here.

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