Thursday, 22 November 2012

What To Do When You're Stuck

Plotting a half-hour sitcom episode is hard work. Really hard work. Writing a first episode of a new show is doubly hard work. And it's easy to get stuck. I mention this because a friend has just got in touch to say that they're stuck on the outline - and wondering if proceeding to script is the way to go and hopefully the plot problems will sort themselves out.

Everyone's different in their approach. Carla Lane (Bread, Liver Birds, Butterflies), apparently, doesn't even plot. She just writes. Others plots big scenes and join them up. Others plot and plan and plot. I'm veer towards the latter of these. Before I write a first draft script, I tend to have a 1500 word outline with two or three paragraphs on each scene. It might easily be a third or fourth draft of an outline. And this outline isn't the first thing I've written. I've normally planned out the plot and the subplot separately and them combined them. Normally, by the time I start writing the script, I'm desperate to do so, and have key jokes and moments for every scene, so it almost feels like joining the dots. I make it as easy as possible to grind out that first draft. That's how I do things, but I realise my way isn't the only way. All I can say about this is four things from my experience:

1. Whenever I've started writing the script before I'm a 100% clear on the plot, I've regretted it. Pretty much without exception. Sometimes I've ground my way to the end and spend a week producing something that is 6000 words and unusablel. Who's got time to waste writing a script when the plot isn't ready?

2. Sometimes I've written scripts for plots I thought were fine and discovered in writing them they weren't fine. And I've had to go back to the drawing board. This is annoying, but doesn't invalidate the plotting and planning process.

3. Usually, once you've written the script and re-written it etc and then heard the whole thing read out loud, you hear screaming problems with the story or great long scenes that are flapping around and are no use to anyone. It always seems astonishing that this wasn't spotted in the planning, but that's just the way it works out. The plotting was not a waste of time.

4. Normally, as you write the first draft, you think of a better ending as you write - something that's clearer, simpler, sweeter and funnier. Again, that doesn't invalidate the planning process. Starting to write the script where you don't have an ending at all tends not to work. It's really hard to improve on nothing. You need to start with something.

So. What to do you do when you're banging your head against the storyline that isn't working? Rather than start writing and hoping for the best, here are some suggestions that might get the wheels turning and eventually pull your story out of a ditch.

1. Go for a swim. This is what I do. I swim a few times a week and while I'm in the pool, I normally have a plot problem churning in my head. It often becomes unknotted in the process. Maybe for you it could be running, walking, dog-walking, dogging, whatever it is. Do it.

2. If it's a brand new show, there may be a character problem. Your character isn't giving you the answer. You don't know how they would move a story along because they don't. Maybe your character  is too passive. What does your character want out of life in general? How does the quest in this episode fit into that? What do they really want? What do they actually need? Who's stopping them from getting it? What do they actually get? How is this thing they get better for them in the long run? Summarise their quest in a sentence or two. If you can't, they don't have a quest. You don't have a show. Your story may be stuck in a ditch because there's no engine in the car so nothing happens when you turn the key. Your character needs an engine, or motor to push them along.

3. What goes wrong? Have you injected enough calamity and catastrophe? My character is trying to get fit, impress a guy, buy a present for their mother, win an award, whatever - what goes wrong? How does their attempt to fix it make it worse? What do they need to let go of in order to succeed? What do they least want to do? And why do they actually need to do that thing?

4. Try starting your story earlier. Or later. Maybe what you thought was your climax is just the end of Act 1 or 2? We tried that plotting Miranda. We tried to hit a really funny climax/calamity half way through the show that lots of other shows might be happy to end on.

5. Does your story rely to heavily on coincidence? And therefore not character? You can have one convenient thing at the start of an episode - a mistaken identity or a piece of luck - but not half way through and certainly not at the end.

6. Try dropping your subplot and thinking of a new one that works better with your plot. This is probably a hopeless idea, but it's worth a go. Or try making your subplot the main plot.

7. Start by thinking of the best ending you can imagine that would be perfect for your show and your main characters - and work out how to get there.

8. Put the whole thing to one side and write something else - a short story, another script, plot out a movie. And then come back to it.

9. Start filling in your tax return. That normally sparks something.

So there it is. Hope that helps. Feel free to leave comments about what you do that helps you solve plot problems (other than simply sitting there til you've figured it out, which is still top of the list, really).


  1. This is such great advice. I will resist plunging in and nail the plot and subplot. Yes, dog-walking/exercise and tax return (done this week) is great advice. I love the idea of starting it earlier, and juggling the sub/main plots. The whole piece really mirrors where I'm at - thank you.

  2. Finally, the excuse I needed to go dogging. Thanks James.

  3. So if I buy a dog my writing will improve? Sales of dogs are going to rocket.

    Remember a dog is for a series not just an episode

  4. Thanks for the solid advice. It's encouraging to see someone promoting better writing in the sitcom world. I especially like the advice about not letting too many coincidences find their way into your story. Best Comedy Shows

  5. Solid bedrock writing advice as per usual. Such critical perspectives always help to challenge the mindssets of creatives, who frequently mistake flights of fancy for inspiration, which is often a poor substitute for perspiration