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THE TV SITCOM – WRITER’S TIPS

We here at Grintage are committed to publishing features promoting and helping new Irish comedy writers to grow.

This article is one of our own and as the image was featured in our grintage promo we have had requests to re-post. If it interests you there are a couple more features already published on developing your sitcom Cast and Plot. Just enter those words in the Search bar on the home page and up they will pop.

Best of luck and NB we here are happy to read and evaluate any new sitcom scripts at share@grintageireland.com 

CHECK LIST FOR YOUR SITCOM   –    WORKING METHOD

We in grintage recognise that there is no recipe or easy way to ‘write funny’. But there are methods to get you there. Here is the first of a few training modules exploring the ways and methods of writing comedy – basically checklist for creating and delivering a TV studio sitcom.

There is no magic wand but we do hope this helps or at least focuses the mind. And remember to research UK and Irish broadcasters comedy briefs on their commissioning websites to see if your brilliant idea for a location or basic theme hasn’t been produced in the past.

If not good luck.

PART ONE:  CONCEPT & THEME

 

  1. Ensure that your medium is a half hour situation comedy with a disparate group of characters and has comic/dramatic potential.

 

  1. Decide on your Concept. What are you really writing about?

 

  1. Define your characters. Do you have likable lead(s)? Larger than life? Reacting to real situations? With prime emotional states that the audience can relate to and share? A clear idea of the protagonist, the antagonist and ancillary characters?

 

  1. Define the situation. Is it too wacky? Too dark? Has the premise been conceived before the characters?

 

  1. Select a name for your sitcom that could describe both the situation and theme. Imagine it in the TV billings.

 

PART TWO: CHARACTER

 

  1. Define the dramatic conflict. THE TRAP? Why can’t the main character(s) leave?

 

  1. Choose character names carefully. Define their familial relationships.

 

  1. Work on a biography of your main characters. Know everything about them. Be comfortable with them. Get to predict how they would react (differently to various situations, crises, prejudices, etc). Give them memorable characteristics, visual or oral attributes, fashion quirks, extra dimensions – all the time building up a mental picture. Enjoy writing for them.

 

  1. Assess the effectiveness and comic potential of each character. Be clear about their place in the overall situation. Useless to have all characters ‘funny’. The humour emerges from the ‘conflict’.

 

  1. Don’t have too many characters to compensate for a weak premise or plot

 

PART THREE: PLOTTING

 

  1. Brainstorm ideas for plot strands. Don’t have to be for complete episodes. Make sure the plots come out of character.

 

  1. Choose up to ten. Do you have main plots and sub plots? Do you need to invent ‘external’ one off characters to add variety? Can some of the plots be integrated into others to strengthen the character/dramatic elements? Do you have 6 satisfactory plot breakdowns for a series?

 

  1. Write a treatment for your ‘pilot’ episode. Get the most surprises out it. This is your pitching document to yourself. Work on it until it jumps off the page screaming – “Sit down. Write Me!”

 

  1. Write down the plot outline. Take your time. About 2/3 pages. Justify every scene and what happens. Does each scene move the story and plot along? Does each scene have a beginning, middle and end on a dramatic / comic high? Do your main characters drive the action? Take note of your twists and subplots. Have you kept the audience guessing – as well as made them laugh?

 

  1. Write out the basic plots, twists and subplots for episodes 2-5.

 

PART FOUR: THE WRITING

 

  1. Write the first episode as fast as you can. Then take a break and then read it. Many times.

 

  1. Note the dialogue. Is it natural or stylised? Have the main characters each got a distinctive voice? Reflect normal speech patterns. Look carefully at your choice of words. The phrasing? Can you distinguish between each character?

 

  1. Have you overwritten? Every line written should be justified –

 

  1. it moves the plot along
  2. reveals character or
  3. gets a laugh.

 

Will a ‘visual’ work better than a sentence? The camera can be your best friend.

 

  1. Editing. Can you start scenes later? Can you start sentences later? Are some scenes necessary? Do you need to write new scenes, new dialogue pieces to reveal character and plot more closely? Don’t have your characters ‘talking funny’.

 

Better to have funny characters talking than characters talking funny! If it’s cast right the comedy emerges from the character – Fr Ted, Del Boy, Fawlty etc.

 

  1. Re-write your episode and ‘punch up’ the script. Add jokes, visual slapstick, drama and facial reactions. Remember you are writing for television! Don’t have your characters just talking – give them something to do. Choreograph scenes so they come to life and ‘jump off the page’!

 

  1. Can you shorten scenes? Split them up? Use your set cleverly (one character leaving / one character entering etc.) so a variety of related scenes occur within one master scene? Keep the pages turning. Short scenes that are setting up the next. Remember most sitcom scripts are not funny on the page – you should build up the situation and recognise that casting, performance and direction is so important to the end product.

 

  1. Edit and rewrite once again. Get feedback from people whose judgment you respect. Don’t be precious or protective. Prepare for, seek and take in constructive criticism. It may introduce a fresh angle or twist that wasn’t there before.

 

  1. Read your script aloud and time it allowing for opening / closing, visual action and the required pace of dialogue. If you are lucky you may be able to get a few performers together to to perform a stage reading that you can record and play back to spark re-writes. There are an increasing number of live sitcom events being advertised – without signing away any rights in your work it could be a good idea to see and hear your half hour comedy staged in front of a live audience. Hearing (or not hearing) laughter can be a big learning exercise.

 

PART FIVE: PRESENTATION

 

  1. Your first page should have the minimum of information – TITLE, GENRE, DATE OF DRAFT, WRITER’S NAME AND/OR AGENTS ADDRESS, TEL/FAX. Font – Courier. Size – 12.

 

  1. Page 2 to include cast list with their age, job and special characteristics. Few words only on each. Plus a scene-by-scene breakdown of which set you are using. Both essentially are ‘bullet points’ by which the reader / producer can scan the amount of characters and sets in use to sense you understand the restrictions of studio comedy and also can estimate a preliminary budget.

 

  1. You should format your script leaving a 3.5 margin on the left hand side of the page. This space is for the camera directions (later). Keep the script to a tight 25 / 30 pages. Remember to ‘save’ all offloaded scenes or parts thereof – they could be used again in future story lines. FYI Commercial stations will prefer 22/24 minutes but the ad free BBC will seek 29 minutes.

 

  1. Start each scene with a number and clarify which set and time of day. The necessary stage directions should be in capitals and kept to a minimum. There are no prizes for over written set ups and set explanations. Remember that some readers only read the dialogue. Each character’s name talking should be in bold and underlined.

 

  1. There are hundreds of scripts landing on desks every month. Most are presented professionally – others include set drawings, character cartoons and excessive background information. Your main priority is to write the best script you possibly can.

 

PART SIX; THE WRITING BUSINESS

 

  1. Take note of all the TV stations that employ script readers and encourage new writers. They will at least read your script but do not send it out until it is the best script you can write. The annual Writer’s Handbook is a good tool for names and addresses.

 

  1. Research which broadcaster and/or commissioner would best suit the project. Write the best synopsis of your life. Find out the relevant person in charge of new scripts and prepare for the long wait and hard slog. If you are seeking an agent seek out the best ones who may already rep one of your favorite writers. Some UK based agents like Irish writers more than others. Lisa Richards has offices in both London and Dublin. Choose carefully and if you get it right it could be a fruitful future for both of you.

 

  1. Try and get meetings with production companies and broadcasters. Prepare a marketing / pitching presentation which will attract their interest, firstly, in you as a writer, and, secondly in your project as a commercial production.

 

  1. Always remember there are a variety of different routes to comedy writing and a variety of ways to make some money. Try them all. Don’t be precious when you are starting off. It is vital to keep writing even if it’s only a ‘routine’ for a friendly stand up comedian, material for a local radio station or a live sketch group.

 

  1. If there is genuine interest in your script always have another idea well thought out and ready to pitch. Don’t sit around waiting for your sitcom script to be snapped up. If you are feeling ‘lost’ write another episode or a completely new treatment. Never stop playing around with the medium.

 

  1. There are comedy writing courses advertised and maybe going to one maybe a good start. If you do attend a good writers course maybe you will hook up with another writer and swap material for honest appraisal and discussion. You may end up collaborating on a new project. but don’t keep signing up for more courses. Instead WRITE! Look online too for good articles and other writers sharing their tips and experiences. See Cheers / Friends fan sites – you can download full scripts of classic episodes. Grintage has more features on Writing Comedy plus Plotting and Developing your Characters. Search on the home page.

 

  1. Get a reputation as an organised writer who delivers on time.

 

  1. Enjoy draft 3 and open your mind up to episodes 2 – 6. Here you demonstrate that there are a variety of comedy drama storylines – featuring your main character(s) – to offer confidence to the commissioner and the broadcaster.

 

BEST OF LUCK

 

 

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