Monday, 16 October 2017

Why Would You Even Bother With Studio Sitcom?

On a recent Sitcom Geeks podcast, Dave Cohen and I interviewed Pete Sinclair, who wrote Bad Move (right) with Jack Dee for ITV having previously written Lead Balloon together. Both of those shows are single camera shows, but Pete's previous sitcoms were both studio shows (Mr Charity and All Along the Watchtower).

In the podcast - and in a written interview on this blog here, here and here - Pete goes through just how difficult it is to make a studio sitcom work. There are so many factors to get wrong. And even if you have a great script, a fab cast and get it right 'on the night' of the studio recording, that is no guarantee that it will work on the small screen in people's living rooms.

I remember Paul Mayhew-Archer, a few years ago, telling the story of how Chalk ended up on TV - and how at the cast read-throughs and rehearsals, everyone just laughed and laughed and laughed. No-one had any idea how people would take against it - and it isn't clear why they did.

On the podcast, the story is told of how Steven Moffat, the writer of Chalk, was said to be so relieved when his next sitcom, Coupling, went down well since he was then confident that he would no longer go down in history as the clown who wrote Chalk.

It's so easy to get studio sitcom wrong. So why bother?

Good question. Especially given that you can achieve so much more with a single camera show.

The studio format can be so limiting. My show, Bluestone 42, could simply not have existed in a studio setting. And the pace of a single camera show can be so much faster. Look at Modern Family or 30 Rock for sheer rapidity of gags and development of story. And you can do achieve amazing or cute effects when you're no longer confined to a studio - like the Modern Family episode that is mostly all on FaceTime.

So the question remains. Why would even bother with a studio sitcom?

I only have one answer to that question:

People love them.

In the Past
Firstly, look at the Top Ten Sitcoms from the 2004 BBC Britain Best Sitcom poll. Blackadder, Fawlty Towers, The Good Life, Yes Minister, One Foot in the Grave, Porridge, Only Fools and Horses, Open All Hours, The Vicar of Dibley and Dad's Army. Not to mention the next ones on the list: Father Ted, Keeping Up Appearances, Allo Allo, Last of the Summer Wine, Steptoe and Son, Men Behaving Badly, Ab Fab and Red Dwarf.

ALL of theses are studio shows. And you have to wait 'til Number 19 before you get to the Royle Family. And then you're back to To The Manor Born, Some Mother's Do Ave Em, and The Likely Lads.

Not only are these shows classics, they are remembered fondly, they are still available and still enjoyed and watched on UK Gold, DVD and YouTube. Dad's Army is still repeated on BBC2 and outperforms every other sitcom on BBC2 and Channel 4 almost every single week.

From America
Let's not forget how TV schedules have been propped up by hours and hours of American studio comedy. I've noted before how Channel 4 often starts the day with Everyone Loves Raymond, King of Queens and Frasier. That's a lot of studio comedy. Why, then, would people say it's out of fashion? I simply can't see how that's true.

In the Present
There is no doubt that BBC's biggest comedy hitters are studio audience shows, mostly obviously Mrs Brown's Boys, along with Still Open All Hours. Citizen Khan also does very respectable numbers. You may not like these shows, or assume they are just shows for old people and families and assume studio shows aren't for the young. But quite often the most watched studio sitcom on TV is on E4. And it's Big Bang Theory.

Look at the data. Studio audience sitcoms tend to do better. And the highly acclaimed nuanced single-camera shows tend to do worse in the ratings - or delight smaller numbers of people. We live in a world when you can have both. So why not have both?

So why would even bother with a studio sitcom? People love them. They enjoy their broad brush strokes (ooh, there's another one, Brush Strokes) and the feel of togetherness you get from the style of comedy and the studio audience laughing along. We're all included.

Of course, if you don't like the show, the sound of laughter is irritating, but so what? You don't like it. Walk away. There is no need to decry the form. But people do, and I'm afraid Ben Elton's right about the snobbiness that is around about 'trying to make people laugh'. (And you can listen to our discussion of Ben Elton's Lecture right here!)

Stephen Moffat, a great sitcom writer, walked away from studio sitcoms (see also Joking Apart). Can you blame him?

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If you want to have a go at writing a sitcom, or your struggling with your script, get my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.


If Amazon or Kindle is not your bag, it's also available as a bog-standard PDF here.


People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so: 


"first-hand information on what it's like to write for major British sitcoms and get your own one made." Amazon Review

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Sitcom Geeks Podcast

It's partly laziness and partly overwork that has caused me not to blog as often as I have in previous years. But the main factor is this: time I would have spent blogging has been also been spent podcasting.

Dave Cohen and I have been knocking out a Sitcom Geeks podcast every fortnight for the last couple of years which has proved to be a lot of fun. It's the kind of show you wish BBC Radio 4 Extra would do, but don't, mainly because it's just too geeky.

Dave and I are keen to do more, up the content and maybe the frequency of podcasts. To that end, we've started a Patreon page so that you can become a subscriber and access various extra goodies. Do go and have a look.

If you're new to the podcast, let me point you in the direction of some of our greatest hits to get your started in no particular order.

In Episodes 42 & 43 we get some proper comedy wisdom from a Jedi Grandmaster of Comedy, John Lloyd.

In Episodes 46 & 47, I go to Eric Chappell's house, yes, to his house and talk to him about his glorious sitcoms like Rising Damp, Only When I Laugh and Duty Free.

Episode 51 is a personal favourite of mine in which Dave and I talk with Tom Edge (Lovesick, The Crown, Strike) about working with producers. In this one, something just clicked.

Episode 57 is a deep dive into Ever Decreasing Circles with the super-writer super-fan, Jason Hazeley.

In Episode 50, we talk with more sitcom royalty, Marks & Gran (right) at a live event for the WGGB.

Episode 17 has some really useful tips on writing topical comedy with The Now Show & Dead Ringers creator, Bill Dare.

Not to mention interviews with Barry Cryer (right), Andy Riley & Kevin CecilIan Martin and David Tyler. That's probably enough to get your started.

They're all here - thanks to the guys at British Comedy Guide - and on iTunes. Do have a look, and a listen. And if you like what you hear, subscribe to the podcast via Patreon and we can push the show further and make it more useful, exciting and special.

Monday, 4 September 2017

3 Ways to Improve Your Sitcom Script On Your Own

So, you've written a script. You do improve it without input from others? Three ways leap to mind.

1. Put it in a Drawer

Some drawers.
This is a metaphor obviously. Who prints out scripts? But the idea is that you write the script and allow yourself some time away from it. Write another script. Do your taxes. Go on holiday. Allow yourself as much distance as you can between drafts so that you can maximum distance on that thing you wrote. The more of it you can forget the better. And then you can be surprised by some of the jokes and the twists. Or baffled by your plot leaps that made sense at the time, but this time, not so much.

2. Print It Out and Switch off Your Computer

This is not a metaphor. Who prints out scripts? You. Print out the script.

Why? I find that reading scripts on a screen can be very unsatisfactory, not least because the internet keeps popping up, poking you and tugging at your coat. An easy way to avoid that is to print out the script, turn off your computer or walk away from it. I know. Don't freak out. How do you make changes without a computer?

A pen
Keep calm. Just get out a thing called a pen and make notes on the script. You might think of better of jokes, spot errors, realise scenes don't make sense or spot that a whole scene it boring or unnecessary.

The other reason I like to do this is because reading a script on your screen might encourage you to start making changes before you're ready. It's better to read the whole script through - ideally a couple of times - so that you can get a sense of the whole thing and whether or not it works overall.

3. Summarise Your Script

Write a summary of your script, that's scene by scene or page by page. This is a new one for me. I thought I'd try it the other day and it really helped. You may well have written an outline before writing your script. But scripts don't always follow outlines. That can be a mixed blessing. So throw away that outline (metaphorically) - and write a new one based on the script you have actually written.

I find this helps me to get to the end of the script without trying to make too many changes and helps me see it as a whole. So make a note of the scenes, and how long they are. Summarise what happens in each scene. Key jokes and moments. Where are the turning points?

Doing this, you might spot that the key moments come too close together, or too close to the end. Or don't even come at all! You might discover that nothing really happens until page 12. It really needs to happen on page 4. You might discover one character vanished for 20 pages. Fix that. You might need to make some cuts. Or you might need to jiggle things around. Or a bit of both. The structural problems should become obvious. Or at least more obvious.

I'm about to do 2 and 3 to a script right now. (Be Lucky for BBC Radio Wales, since you ask). I wonder what I'll find?

For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.


It's available as a bog-standard PDF here.


People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so: 


"Straight talking, supportive but never patronising, and clearly the work of one who actually knows." Amazon Review

Friday, 16 June 2017

Should I write a Spec Script?

Firstly, what is a spec script?
A ‘spec’ script is one that is written speculatively. Or ‘on spec’. Which means that no-one has paid you or commissioned you to write it. Because of the way the TV industry in USA has worked in the past, a ‘spec script’ implies that the script written ‘on spec’ is a script for an existing show. So not too long ago, an aspiring writer might have written a ‘spec’ episode of Frasier or Seinfeld.

Why would you write an episode of an existing show?
In America, especially in the 80s and 90s when there were only really a few networks making sitcoms, the emphasis for writers was on getting work on long-running existing shows. You’d need a room of 8-12 writers for that. So the most common writing job for the sitcom writer was, and still is, writing on someone else's show. To get that job, you'd need to demonstrate your ability to write funny lines for existing characters and plot episodes that worked for a specific world. Originality was not really required.

So, a writer starting out might write a 'spec' episode of Seinfeld – without maybe even intending to work on Seinfeld. But show-runners of other shows would be able to read your Seinfeld spec script and decide whether you had the skills required to work on their show, be it Ellen or Caroline in the City or Married with Children.

These days, I believe that spec scripts no longer open doors as they used to. Show-runners are now expecting to read original material and hear fresh voices. But this is a tall order, since presumably they expect the same level of competence at writing for existing characters. Plus, wannabe writers now have to be able to write cracking pilot scripts, which is, ironically, the hardest episode to write. Still, far be it from me to tell the Americans they are going about it all the wrong way, since they  making all the shows I love like Brooklyn 99, The Goldbergs, Silicon Valley and Modern Family.

What about in UK?
'Spec scripts' in the UK are not a thing. Traditionally, British shows are written by one person (eg. Carla Lane, John Sullivan) or a writing partnership (eg. Marks and Gran, Esmonde & Larbey). The chances of working on someone else’s sitcom is fairly low. I was lucky enough to work on My Hero and My Family, both of which had ‘teams’ of sorts, but this is quite unusual. Therefore, the concept of writing spec scripts never really took off. Why would you spend weeks perfecting a script given there’s almost no way that script will get you work?

That is not to say that writing a spec is a complete waste of time. It's a valuable writing exercise and if you're keen to improve and want to have a go, far be it from me to stop you. I think I wrote a spec Blackadder script when I was 18, set in 1066. (I seem to remember Baldrick was responsible for shooting Harold in the eye) But in UK, the sitcom market has always been towards originality so you should priorities an original script – which you will have to do speculatively since it is unlikely that you will be paid to write a script with very little track record.

Bear in mind your original script needs to do three things.

Objective One – Proof of Concept

Your script needs to demonstrate that your characters, your idea, your scenario works as a half-hour comedy. You need to show that your sitcom about a nanny in space, or set on in a betting shop, or based on Timon of Athens, will sustain for half an hour with decent jokes. Your characters need to be consistent, and are undone by their own flaws and do all the things sitcom characters need to do. And the reader of the script is left wondering what will happen next week. (You should probably tell them, with a paragraph outline a few more episodes)

Objective Two – Proof of Writer

Your script needs to demonstrate that you are technically competent to write the show you are proposing. This is often neglected. You need to execute your idea in a way that gives the reader the confidence that you could pull off this trick six times over. Ideally, 18-24 times over.

Producers are excited about finding new voices, and fresh ideas, but they need to see a baseline level of competence in a script so they can be confident they have something to work with.

Imagine it from their point of view. They have a pile of thirty script to read. Thirty different situations (okay, at least six of those script will be about out-of-work actors, and another six will be flat shares. Three will be set in the future. Etc.) and in the right hands, a dozen of those situations or sets of characters could work, with a bit of luck and development. But your script has to show that you are a safe pair of hands, or at least that you can learn and improve.

Your script can and should also do something else beyond display technical competence. It should demonstrate insight into the human condition, or the particular world you're opening up that feels fresh and original. Or timeless and classic, but timely. If your sitcom is set in a very specific location, like an operating theatre, a refugee camp in Somalia or behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House, you need to show that you know that world. It needs to feel authentic, even if it is heightened.

Objective Three – Proof of Potential

You do need think of your script as a ‘sitcom-in-waiting’, a show that could actually happen. But you also need to realise that your sitcom is statistically very unlikely to make it to the screen, for a whole number of reasons. But if you’re writing scripts that feel like they at least ought to be on TV, you will look like the kind of writer who producers want to work with. Your sitcom script will do the job of a ‘spec script’ and possibly open the door to other opportunities. Maybe the producer reading your script is looking for someone to work on a script they’ve already got in development but isn’t quite working. (I know, you’d think they’d ditch the idea that isn’t working, and start developing your idea instead, but it doesn’t work like that for some reason.)

Your script needs to do all of the above. It’s a tall order and no-one said it would be easy. But hey, no-one asked you to write a script.

If you need a hand with that, dip into my book which takes you from, as the Americans say, soup to nuts on turning your sitcom idea into a script that you can send out.

For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.


It's available as a bog-standard PDF here.


People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so: 


"Straight talking, supportive but never patronising, and clearly the work of one who actually knows." Amazon Review

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Outlining Your Sitcom Script

Writing a half-hour script is hard.

Really hard.

You need to do everything you can to make your life as easy as possible. Of course that involves getting some decent coffee, collapsing your Facebook window – maybe even unplugging your internet altogether, or going somewhere where there’s no wifi. You really need to put your back into this.

Most writers tend to find the best way to get through the painful process is to have a really solid outline in front of them. And it’s worth spending time on this so that by the time you come to write the script, there’s so much detail already there, it feels like joining the dots.

I personally make sure that I don’t start writing a script until I have an outline that runs to at least two or three pages, with a decent paragraph on what happens in each scene, and some key jokes. Overall, the document might be 1500- 2500 words.

If I have that document, I might be able to get the script done (5000-6000 words) in four or five days. That’s working flat out from 10ish ‘til 6-ish with maybe one late night if I’m ‘in the zone’, maybe with a swim or a walk after lunch each day I don’t think I’m exceptionally quick – or ludicrously slow.

Alright. I’ll Do an Outline? But how?

The good news is that you’ve done most of the hard work. Hopefully, you’ve worked out three plots for your show: A Main Plot, a Sub Plot and a Runner. The Main Plot, especially in the pilot, should be all about the hero of the story, the key relationship, or embody the essence of the show in some way. The Sub Plot is a proper story for some of the other characters – which could also involve the main character. And a Running joke is a tiny little C-Plot that might soak up the other characters.

In Miranda, as the title suggests, the show is all about Miranda – so she’s in all three stories. The Main Story might be about Miranda and her mother. A Sub Plot might be about Miranda and Gary and the on-off romance. And a C-Plot might be something to do with Stevie in the Shop. In another episode, it might be flipped, so the Main Plot is about Miranda and Stevie competing over something, the B-Plot might be about Miranda and her mother, possibly involving Tilly; and the C-plot might be about Miranda and Gary.

In Bluestone 42, with a fairly large cast, Richard Hurst and I tried to give the main plot to Captain Nick Medhurst – which might involve a storyline with Mary and Bird. The B-Plot might be Towerblock/Millsy and the Colonel; and the C-Plot Mac, Rocket and Simon. Another week, it might be Nick and Simon leading the A-Plot; with Mac, Rocket and Towerblock messing around in the B-Plot; with Bird and the Colonel as the C-Plot. Over the course of the Series, we try and make sure it all balances it out, although actors frequently think everyone else has more lines than them.

Separate

It’s normally simpler to think of the stories in isolation – and work out the main beats. Don’t worry about what happens in each scene yet. Write out the story in bullet form, with a new line/bullet for each new beat or moment of the story, but add in as much detail as you can. You might have some really neat phrasing, or a decent joke. Put it all down. If it’s the main story, it might have somewhere between eight and twelve beats.

Do the same with the B-Story, which should have fewer beats, maybe between six and ten. Again, keep going with detail, and anything relevant. Then do the same for the runner/C-Story, which may only have three or four beats.

Check the stories over, especially the A-Story. Does it peak and trough? Does it escalate? Do we believe each step? Does each step move on in a way that is both believable but surprising? Does the hero have a way out that means they could walk away from their quest without suffering any consequences? You want to close off any such escape route. Check over the mechanics of the story so no-one needs to call the Logic Police.

But then there’s the issue of being excited about the story. Do you like the whole storyline? Could it be better? Do bits of it bore you or seem predictable? If so, they’ll be very hard to write in a satisfactory way. Fix them. Now. Don’t assume you’ll think of something better when you come to write it. You might, but if you don’t, you’ll have miserable days trying to think of something better when you should be getting on with the next scene. Take the time to fix the problems at this stage.

Combine

When you’re happy with the stories, and they’re flowing nicely, you can start to work out your scenes. This should be fairly straightforward as you’ve probably been subconsciously doing it all along, but you’re working out which scene happens in which location or set. In some scenes, you’ll be pushing along two plots. In others, just one. Occasionally, it’ll be all three. Quite often, you might be kicking off all three in the first scene (although you might start a fire under one of the stories if you have a quick pre-titles scene).

The plots might not mesh together perfectly, so you may need an extra beat of a plot here, or lose another there. But hopefully, you’ll be able to get the episode laid out as a Scene by Scene outline.
It would be worth showing that to someone if you can. A producer, if you’re working with one. If not, a friend who ‘gets’ what you’re trying to do. Talk them through it. They’ll have some thoughts or concerns, about beats of the stories, moments they don’t understand, set-pieces that might not work, or character motivations that seem unclear. Even if they don’t, you will as you explain your story. Again, I recommend fixing them – if you agree with the notes – before you write the episode, so that once you’ve got your revised outline you can finally start writing.

So. We’re going to start writing the script, now right? Okay. Sorry. One more thing? It’ll take two minutes...

But you'll need to get my book, Writing That Sitcom.

For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.


It's available as a bog-standard PDF here.


People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so:

"Straight talking, supportive but never patronising, and clearly the work of one who actually knows." Amazon Review

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Finding A Character's Unique Voice

In the last post, I gave some general advice on polishing up your script so that it's ready to send off and out and away. In this post, I'm just looking to expand one of those points with a really good clear example that cropped up when some of us were talking about sitcoms over on the Sitcom Geeks Facebook page. Here's what I wrote:

4. Check That Each Character Has A Unique Voice
Once you've established your characters, are you sure their patterns of speech clear and distinct? This will not only make the script more interesting, but will make it easier for the reader to distinguish the characters. Ideally, every single line of dialogue should be unique to that one character. Only that one character would say that thing that way, or make that joke. If another character expressed the same thought, they'd say it differently. Eddie and Richie in Bottom don't talk the same way. Nor do Blackadder and Baldrick, or Edina and Sapphie. Cover up the name of who's talking, and you should be able to tell who's line it is from the way they say what they say.

This is hard to do and has to be informed by character, but once you hear the characters talking in your head, you know you're onto something. If it's hard to generate those cadences, imagine a famous actor in the role - it's not cheating. In fact, it might help you fill out the corners or find something new. Or imagine a relative that this character reminds you of and is possibly based on. When I interviewed Eric Chappell for the latest Sitcom Geeks podcast, he was quite clear that Rigsby was based on one particular colleague. Make the most of that.

And here's the example that cropped up on yesterday that made me think of this and a really clear example of what's possible: The speech patterns of Tom Chance (Simon Callow) from Chance in a Million which have stayed with me for decades. The way he talks is simply extraordinary. See below. Never uses pronouns, articles or prepositions unless absolutely vital. Talks in bullet points. No idea why. Just the way it is. Something like that could work too. Didn't mean that Chance in a Million ran for years, but still remember Chance decades later. And that's something.

---------------

For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.

It's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so:


"A MUST Read for Aspiring Comedy Writers. This book gave me the feedback I needed and the tools to change and greatly improve my script." Dr. Rw Fallon



Here's an episode where it shouldn't be - on YouTube - but makes the point. Get the Chance In A Million - The Complete Series [DVD] Boxed Set here.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Polishing Your Script

Deadlines are like bees. Right up close and in large numbers, they’re horrendous. But from a distance, and overall, they produce good things. If you’re an aspiring scriptwriter, there’s a deadline looming. The BBC Writersroom is accepting unsolicited scripts between now and 15th May 2017. That means a human being will actually read your script. Or at least ten pages of it.

Do you have script? Is it ready to send? Really? I bet it isn’t. Put your hand on your heart and tell me your script is perfect. Of course it isn’t. But that’s okay. You’ve got a bit of time to make it better. Here are some obvious ways of doing that (and you’d be surprised how many people don’t do these things). I wrote a list like this a couple of years ago but I’d like to expand it a little, having read quite a lot of first ten pages in the Sitcom Geeks podcast I do with Dave Cohen.

Let’s say you’ve written a script. You’re happy with it. You’re aware that it’s not perfect, but you’ve taken it as far as it can. Here are some notes I can give you on the script without having read it.

1. Start Your Story Earlier

In almost every single spec sitcom script I read, this is the biggest problem. The script introduces us to a bunch of characters and they talk. And talk. And talk. For about 4-8 pages. There is some backstory. There is setting. There is scenery. Maybe some jokes. There is more talking. Then on page 9, something happens. Someone sets out on a quest (if you’re lucky) but by then nearly a third of the show has gone and I'm a bit bored.

Story is character. Yeah, Rob. We know.
The usual response I get to that is ‘Yes, but I’m setting the scene and introducing the characters’. *takes off glasses* *pinches nose* Yes. I know that. And that is all you are doing. Do more. You don’t just introduce characters by having them talk to or at each other. You reveal character by action. Character is story. That’s the £500 take-home from a Robert McKee weekend. The choices a character makes, the things they want, the goals they go after reveal a character every bit as much as dialogue, if not more. In fact, characters often say one thing but do another. Because they’re delusional. Just like us.

Your first ten pages are not Act 1 of a movie in which you’re trying to establish normality for 10-20 minutes where everything is normal, normal, normal before your hero goes on a quest, finds a dead body, discovers she is a robot, is visited by a time-travelling gecko or is transported back to the Paleolithic period. Sitcom is all Act 2. No real set up. No permanent resolution.

Start your story early. Really early. Your character should be declared banktupt on Page 2 or 1. Not page 9. Your heroine should decide to sail around the world at the start, not after a long discussion with several other people.

Grab the reader’s attention early on. They are reading at least ten other scripts that day. Maybe twenty. Or more. Make stuff happen. If it’s the right stuff, it will show and develop the characters.

2. Introduce Your Characters Faster

A character who wanders into a scene or is sitting drinking tea might take a whole page to tease out. If you have five or six characters, that’s five or six pages of teasing. Make that first impression work harder.

What do they say that gives the reader a clear idea about who this character is and why they are funny? That first action or line for each character is crucial. It should really sum up who they are. If they are a pedant, their first line should be pendantic. If they’re needy, their first line should be clearly seeking approval. Set the tone from the very first line.

When we first meet Janet or Simon, what are they doing? What are they wearing? What are they carrying? Are they making themselves tea? Or are they adding sugar to an energy drink because they have to stay up all-night to do something important. Are they wearing jeans and a T-shirt, or are they only half dressed, or in overalls for some useful reason? Do they start tapping on their smart phone, or do they carry round a list of people who have wronged them?

In the first episode of Friends, Rachel Green turns up in a wedding dress. Bang. You’re away.

3. But Don’t Introduce Them All At Once

With stronger first impressions and more action you can set up your characters faster, but don’t set them up all at once. I’ve read quite a lot of eight pages opening scenes with 6-8 characters, at least three of whom have a name that begins with the same letter. There’s a Steve, a Simon, a Mary, a Mick, a Peter and Jeff. Boring names that meld into one. Have a Steve, sure, but have a Felix too. Have a Mary but also a Persephone or a Serenity.

And don’t have them all in the one scene, unless you make it very easy to follow. Start the show with two or three characters. Get them going. Then introduce a fourth. And a fifth. A script which only has three or four characters in the first ten pages is a lot easier to read and enjoy than one with nine or ten. You may be stuck with ten characters (like we were in Bluestone 42) but be careful and clear about how you introduce your characters to your reader.

If you have to have lots in one scene, make it clear who the important characters and have them drive or dominate that scene so it is clear who is going to be in that whole episode so the reader/audience is not worried about where the action is, or is going to be.

4. Check That Each Character Has A Unique Voice

Once you've established your characters, are you sure their patterns of speech clear and distinct? This will not only make the script more interesting, but will make it easier for the reader to distinguish the characters. Ideally, every single line of dialogue should be unique to that one character. Only that one character would say that thing that way, or make that joke. If another character expressed the same thought, they'd say it differently. Eddie and Richie in Bottom don't talk the same way. Nor do Blackadder and Baldrick, or Edina and Sapphie. Cover up the name of who's talking, and you should be able to tell who's line it is from the way they say what they say.

5. Look Very Closely At The First Few Pages

Let's be realistic. A reader is going to make up their mind about your script by the end of page 2. If your first two pages are badly spelled waffle, you're going to struggle to make any kind of impact with the remaining thirty pages. You first two or three pages are critical. Focus extra time and attention on those.

6. Be Brutal About Action Lines

People, even professionals, do not read action lines and direction properly. They skim them, if they even look at them. That's just a fact. Nothing is more depressing to read at the opening of a new script is lines and lines of action, scenery and more action – unless it’s very dramatic, or striking, or clearly laid out. Keep the action as simple as possible and don’t try and direct too much on the page, especially when the fine detail doesn’t matter at this stage.

7. Clarity

There's so much to do on those first few pages, but you're making life difficult for the reader if it's not crystal clear what's going on. Is the situation clear? Where are they? Who is there and what are they trying to achieve? Having lots of action lines is not the solution to this (see above) and often just creates confusion, so agonise over action as much as dialogue in terms of brevity and clarity.

You're writing sitcom. Not suspense.
There is often temptation to create some mystery or suspense. That’s not comedy. That’s suspense. You are writing a comedy. This is a sitcom script. Clarity is your friend. I'd recommend announcing your comedy themes with a blunderbuss, rather than a cloak and dagger.

8. Tighten It Up

Can every single line in the script justify its place? Delete any line that isn't character, action or a joke. Every line in fact. There's no room for 'meh' lines. Or filler. Or wit. Or turn a character line into a joke. Or action. Or a joke into something that drives the story along.

Look at each scene and ask whether it could be shorter. It probably could. Could you come in later? Could you cut earlier? Do you need every line? Are you repeating information? Almost every script can be shorter. Make yours shorter, tighter, leaner and meaner. A funny 28 pages is way more appealing than a baggy 36 pages.

9. Check For Typos

Are there typos all over the place? Or one or two still lurking around? Typos are reelly annnoying. And very easily avoided if You just put in a bit of extra tim. Get a fiend to read it. I find it really hard to see typos in my own writing (as this blog regularly demonstrates), so get someone else to check it over.

10. Check for, er, Jokes?

Are there enough jokes? Again, it's a sitcom script so are you trying to make the reader laugh at least three times per page? You really should be aiming for that. I know the current vogue is to have nuanced and noodly comedy drama, but given that it is a comedy, veer on the side of jokes.

Is there any way of turning half-jokes into proper jokes?  Are you making the most of each funny moment? If you've done the hard work of getting your characters into funny situations, make sure you maximise the funny when you're there. Or if it's only a half-joke and it can't be turned into a whole joke, delete it.


Go through the script a few times with all of these in mind. Maybe take a pass for tightness. And again for jokes. And again for typos. And again for speech distinctiveness. It will take time, but you want your script to stand out, don't you? Sure, the basic idea is important, but that's a given. Your script needs to just be better than others.

It may be that the script starts to fall to pieces as you really scrutinise it. Your plot starts on page 12. You have a jumbling open scene and you're pulling on threads and it's all unravelling. You realise you need to start again. In which case, start again. That’s what writers do. If you want to be a writer, get into the habit of starting again.

Quite often you discover that it wasn’t quite a broken as you thought and new version comes together rather quickly – but it only does that when you’ve mentally let go of the previous version.
Then do all of the above again. Then send it. Forget about it. And start the next thing.

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Or you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon. Alternatively, it's available as a bog-standard PDF here. People seem to like it and have been kind enough to say so.


"A MUST Read for Aspiring Comedy Writers. This book gave me the feedback I needed and the tools to change and greatly improve my script." Dr. Rw Fallon