Sitcom Writing

Osiyo. Dohiju? Hey welcome back.

I’ve been working on a new sitcom. I figured that while I was working on that and the script I’d open up about my formula and how I outline. I can’t say much about the sitcom so I’m going to have to figure out a way to do this that doesn’t let any of the proprietary sitcom info leak out.

I can’t really say much about this latest sitcom. However, I can tell you how I chose to layout this episode.

This script is a bit different from my others. It came with character sketches already and a web pilot already filmed and edited. This was easier and harder for me. When writing spec scripts you’ve watched a show so much you know the characters of that show intimately. So the spec is a sample of your work for that show that you’ll turn in to other shows. When I write my own pilots they’re characters I’ve created and expanded on in a universe I’ve created. For this, I had the information and a little leeway to adjust as I needed or wanted. There was already a deep set of character arcs and interactions that are like a wall of index cards that need to be sorted. I had to learn about the characters as I saw them which may mean that the actors who created the characters may play the character different. That’s ok because once we get to the table read then the two worlds will merge into one for me.

I had a basic premise for the A-story. One of the characters accidentally gets hurt and the other characters are led to believe that he hurt himself prompting coworkers to take care of him and it’s nice for once. This also leads to an office meeting about safety in the office and so as not to seem like they’re talking about this one character they include many types of safety including suicide prevention.

B-story is that one character finds out about another characters secret

C-story is that the character who accidentally hurt the character in the A-story is taunted by someone who witnessed the accident

D-story is really everyone else. The theme of the episode is safety. This is an ensemble show and not every character gets a spotlight. However, they can have some magical and funny moments. This story is about making the location safe or stories about safety. That kind of thing.

I chose to go with a 3 act formula including a cold open and tag. The structure will look like this: Cold Open, credits, Act I, commercial, Act 2, commercial, Act 3, commercial, Tag. I find this structure a bit easier for me to visualize and write. That means the end of Act I and the end of Act 2 will have some bigger thing. The end of Act 2 is where everything falls apart completely. Now, if the structure needs to change where there’s only one commercial then the mid point of Act 2 will be the commercial break. I like seeing the exact moment a cliffhanger is delivered and then commercial break. It could just as easily be the Act 2 climax is punched in the face then the Act 3 apologetic portion begins without a commercial break.

The next question is: how did I lay this out? I started with vague entries and then inserted them where I wanted them to go. For example, through most of the episode the D-story is still happening it’s just not as visible. This could be characters performing tasks in the background. It could be characters asking a question that doesn’t come to fruition until later. In my case I know that the climax needs to have the moment of maximum tension punched in. This means that all of the elements that are going to really smack it to the A-story character are going to really hit hard in the last half of Act 2. The resolution in Act 3 is going to be one more push beyond what we think the character is capable of and then they resolve everything (all story lines are resolved). In this case, there’s a safety meeting in the office space so I added all of those elements to the last part of Act 2. I then reviewed those and thought about which ones would be the best to come back with at the end of Act 2. So, the very last element that’s introduced at the end of Act 2 is the character’s worst fear. in this scenario. Coming back in Act 3 is the consequence of that worst fear becoming real.

Remember, sitcoms are situational comedies. Every character is a narcissist. They don’t do anything for others they do things to further themselves and others may benefit from their actions, but their actions are never altruistic. This is so there is conflict. Increasing conflict is what makes the comedy in sitcoms because at the end everything returns to normal. So you can have insane things happen to the characters and the next episode everything, or almost everything, has returned to normal.

Also remember the situations are not normal. They might start normal and sometimes seem like they could be normal. However, the character has to over react to the situation. If someone steals their car they can’t just call the police. They could call the police then while out driving to the store spot their car. Then steal it back only to find out that they stole someone elses car that looked just like theirs. Their car is then returned totaled and they’re in trouble for stealing a car. In the real world, if you spotted your car that was stolen you’d call the police and do some checking like make sure the license plate is yours. Most rational people aren’t going to steal their car back from someone.

In the above car theft situation the story would go something like this: Character is at a car show and sees the car of their dreams (or a car lot and sees a car they’d really like). They get the car without telling their partner (if it’s a family comedy). Their partner is mad that they did this without talking to them about it. They pamper this car. Their partner gets mad that they’re not pampering them like they are the car. An amping up moment is when the partner decides to take the car to the store and while it’s there it gets stolen. Now they have to tell the original partner that the car was stolen. So they go looking for the car. they find it and get it back. the police show up because they stole a car. Then the owner of that car doesn’t press charges because they empathize with the main character’s plight and the misunderstanding. However, the car that was theirs is returned on a flatbed tow truck and it has been smashed. the police officer explains it was involved in a high speed chase and the driver lost control hit a telephone pole and rolled it several times. Luckily, insurance will cover the damages and they go buy a car that both of them will be happy with.

That’s a shortened version, but you’ve seen something similar happen in sitcoms. There are obviously more items that could happen. Like you could push it a bit further and they break into someone’s house to steal the car. Maybe they stole the car and it really was their car? Maybe the dealer was selling cars then stealing them back and selling them again. there are a lot of different directions this could go. The point is that you, hopefully, see the overall arc for the story in the three acts.

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