know your characters
dialogue & visuals
plants & pay-offs
re-writing & reading
format & layout
themes & ideas
why write sketches?
So, you've had an idea for a Situation Comedy? You need to ask yourself
a few basic questions. Is it viable? What are its themes? Who are
its characters? Where is it set?
The easiest one to answer is this last one - it is probably the
first thing you know. Perhaps you've identified a niche, something,
somewhere, that no-one else has thought of. Beware, original settings
do not necessarily make for brilliant comedy. Some of the best (and
most successful) sitcoms do not have original settings - Men Behaving
Badly, Only Fools and Horses or Father Ted. What sets them apart
is their characters.
But also, and perhaps more importantly, they have clearly defined
themes. Men Behaving Badly is just that, laddish blokes and how
they affect their own environment. Fools and Horses clearly states
its themes: This time next year, we'll be millionaires. Father Ted
is about the foolishness of organised religion.
Again though, these themes are for nothing without engaging characters.
And engaging does not have to mean likeable. In fact, likeable sitcom
characters are boring. Gary and Tony, Basil Fawlty, Richie and Eddie,
Captain Mainwaring, Del Boy, Alan B'Stard and so on, are all engaging
but not entirely likeable.
Judging whether your sitcom is viable may not seem like your job.
You might think that that decision lies with a Producer or a Commissioning
Editor, but if you don't know if it is sustainable, then they certainly
won't want to know. Can you outline at least six plots (thumbnail
ideas will do)? Or even twelve? Can you design sub-plots around
each character, or pairings of characters? But the best way to know
if it is viable is to write a series of episodes (for more reasons
than one). If you can't be bothered with this, then you might just
as well give up now. To be a writer, you DO need to write (duh!).
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If you are unsure how to write a sitcom or how it should be structured,
try writing someone else's work. Long running, clearly defined series
are the best. Try an episode of The Simpsons, or Seinfeld(these
will make excellent calling cards if you are trying to get on to
a long running show, but do not write an episode of the show you
want to write for). American sitcoms are structured differently
to British ones, so this is a beneficial exercise for many reasons.
Plot the episode, perhaps using cards, dividing it clearly into
plot points, or act divisions if necessary. The act divisions on
US shows work in a different way to ours - the end of Act One should
present a character with a situation it seems impossible to resolve,
and Act Two is generally a set piece of resolution.
The act divisions in commercial UK sitcoms seem to be there for
the most part to accommodate commercials. It is not a bad idea to
follow the US model, even for a commercial UK sitcom.
Characters that are not part of the main plot, should either be
disregarded, or given sub-plots. Sub-plots can serve the main plot,
or offer support to it, by showing a different point of view, or
just providing extra jokes.
Keep asking yourself questions like: Can I see this as an
episode of this show? Or Would Elaine really say that? This way
you will get to know these characters, and this will help you get
to know your own characters later. When the script is at a stage
you are happy with, do not discard it - it will serve as an excellent
sample of your writing abilities, and demonstrate that you know
how to write for established shows.
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know your characters
This all depends on your working method. If you are anally retentive,
then you will want to write complicated character bibles, charting
each person's life, which school they went to, who they have or
haven't loved, or even their curriculum vitae. If you are anally
expulsive, you will want to pour things onto your blank page and
discover your characters this way.
Each way is equally valid, but a word to the anal expulsive - a
little planning will go a long way. Even if you just write a short
paragraph for each main character, this will help focus you. I find,
without focus, characters lack focus. Even if the person on the
written page is different from the one in the brief outline, you'll
find the exercise valuable.
Characters should really dictate plot, not vice versa. Pro-active
characters are like characters you hate, much more interesting than
the passive guy who follows the flow. However, that is not to say
plot should not influence character at all. It's a fine line.
I find that the best way to get to know your characters is to put
them in different situations and see how they react. The easiest
way to achieve this is to write three of four draft episodes and
watch them develop. Then go back and look at Episode One and see
how you can implement what you have learnt.
Remember, plot arc in character development is just as important
as in plot - so don't make them exactly the same, allow them development.
I would be very surprised if you do not learn anything by doing
this. Also, it tests the project's viability. With four episodes
in draft form, you have an awful lot of material to work with -
even if you end up distilling all four into the first episode.
You will also find that you prefer writing for particular characters
in favour of others. I'm sure Father Dougal was much more fun to
write than Mrs Doyle. In fact, I seem to remember Lineham and Matthews
mentioning she became harder and harder to develop as the series
If you find that important characters are pushed into the periphery
by the flamboyance of your favourite, try pairing them, and see
what develops. You might discover something completely new about
both of them. Even if this is just a test scene, it cannot do any
Peripheral characters are very important, so do not under-estimate
them. Kochanski in Red Dwarf became a catalyst that developed Kryten.
Guests in the hotel make Basil much more funny. Watch an episode
of Father Ted, and examine the peripheral characters in that. Bishop
Brennan (stern, scary, imposing), Father Stone (the most boring
man in the world) or even the Dancing Vicar. Each one has an over-emphasised
trait, and this is an excellent tool with which to work.
Indeed, your main characters should follow this model too:- take
one trait and exaggerate it. Basil is consummately rude, Lister
is a slob, Alan B'Stard is a bastard, Captain Mainwairing is a pompous
fool. Indeed, it is always worth studying Dad's Army. A true ensemble
piece, with clearly defined characters throughout.
Make your characters engaging, even if they are not likeable. Also,
remember that not likeable does not mean irritating - we must at
least be able to empathise with them, if not truly understand them.
It's also worth looking at John Sullivan's work, and not just Only
Fools and Horses. Dear John has just been released on video, and
also try and watch Citizen Smith.
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If you are unsure how a sitcom should be structured, the best thing
I can advise is to sit down and watch several episodes of The Young
Ones, with a view to deconstructing it. This is a Media Studies
tool which means you examine how, and why, certain methods are being
adopted. The Young Ones is a deliberate exercise in breaking sitcom
conventions. At the time (and still) it broke a lot of the traditional
models, and in doing so, invented some new ones.
When you know what's being broken, then you have learnt the traditional
model. Look out particularly for the role reversals, the non-linear
narrative, the irrelevant sketches, the lack of closure. If you
can't be bothered to do this, then try reading this
- it's an academic one (written by me in 1995) and is interspersed
with pretentious kak, but it's worth a look.
Don't just break conventions for the sake of it. Your format and
structure should be true to itself.
Last Of The Summer Wine (or any Roy Clarke comedy) has a very defined
format, and even if you hate the shows, you should look at them
and deconstruct them.
If you are writing specifically for a commercial channel, I do suggest
you try and adopt the US model (it is not imperative), but I think
there seems to be a swing towards it at the moment (at least on
the ITV networks, and this isn't necessarily wise either).
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dialogue & visuals
Good dialogue is extremely important. Voice is even more important.
By this, I mean each character should have a distinct voice, should
speak slightly differently to every other character. I don't necessarily
mean accents, or different level of intelligence, more they should
have a different rhythm, a different means of delivery.
Listen to the characters on Father Ted. Ted himself is quite lucid,
Dougal won't use long words, Jack barks monosyllabically, and Mrs
Doyle is fond of repetition.
Dialogue should be as realistic as possible, or at least as realistic
to its own situation. The surreal fantasy world of Bottom demands
a different kind of dialogue and voice to Is It Legal?. If you want
to use 'bad' language, do so, so long as it is relevant. The restrictions
on swear words are crumbling by the day (good thing) as we become
less sensitive to everyday language on TV. However, there are ways
around it, if it becomes a problem. Invent unique words and phrases
that serve your purpose. Look at smeg. Before Red Dwarf who had
heard it? I'm particularly fond of Pump as an exclamation, or Vas
Deferens as a truly derogatory term (look it up in a medical dictionary).
Keep it simple. If you can use two words to say it instead of seven,
then do so. Succinct is sacrosanct
. Unless of course, you
have a long winded character. Keep it relevant to the moment. Again,
this does not mean you should not have lucid characters, but don't
bore us with over-written poetry.
One liners are great, but don't live for them. The comedy should
come first from the characters, then from the situation. If you
can write one-liners that seem natural, that's the best thing. Don't
write around a great line. A great line should be hilarious, but
only in context. If the joke is good on its own - fine, but if it
is better because of what sandwiches it, then that's best.
Do not overlook the importance of visuals. That doesn't just mean
slapstick violence, but more subtle visual jokes can be funnier
than your best-constructed line. Remember, TV is a visual medium,
and so use it to your advantage. If you can say it with pictures,
do so. If your character is a slob don't inform us of this through
the mouths of your other characters, demonstrate it to us. Have
him eat his own armpit gunk. Demonstrate, don't explain.
Nuances - perhaps this should really be in the characters section.
However, nuances, I think, are very important, and will make your
characters seem more real. You could let an actor discover the nuance,
but it may help them if you write it, even if they subsequently
reject it. Try not to let your people just sit there and talk. Make
them be doing something. Even if they are eating, try and make it
unique to that character. Have her eat chocolate spread from the
jar with her finger, or make him contort in his chair for no reason.
Perhaps she has an irritating habit of sniffing a lot. Even if you
only mention it in your first character description, it will be
taken on board by actors.
The same goes for description of visual style - directors will take
note, even if it is to disregard it as a possibility. More and more
sitcoms are moving out of the studio, and so directors may have
a free hand with which to play (oo er).
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plants & payoffs
These are as important in comedy as anywhere else. Flatter your
audience by making them remember things. Dramas with a good twist
will always have had the plant, and the pay-off comes when you realise
what's going on.
This is a good tip if you want a strongly plotted episode, but it
works equally effectively as a joke. For excellent examples of this
look at Fawlty Towers, in particular, an episode like The Hotel
Plants and pay-offs are paramount to any farce. See also Joking
Apart or Some Mother's Do 'Ave 'Em. They can be much more subtle
as well. Be creative.
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No matter how much you hate it, or how lazy you are, re-writing
is of utmost importance. Identify weakness in plot, badly written
characters, unintentional lulls in the action, jokes that could
be improved or just plain boring spelling mistakes. Make the script
a joy to read, and you have won half the battle.
If you feel a joke can be done better, play around with it. If you
find a character is doing nothing in the scene, find something for
them to do - or delete them if they are totally irrelevant. Read
your own work. If you find you are bored with it, try and pep up
the reading experience. But always know when to stop. Too much could
kill the flow, or detract from the experience.
Try reading other people's scripts - preferably ones that have been
produced. This doesn't mean transcripts that someone has kindly
typed up and uploaded onto the Internet for you. If possible, get
hold of shooting scripts (visit
see what's been removed and re-arranged. Ideally you should try
and see the drafts that lead to the final shooting script, and try
and identify weaknesses before moving on to the next draft.
The Bottom scripts are available, as are a selection of Red Dwarf
ones. Reeves & Mortimer sketch books are around (at least for
The Smell Of
), and I know A Bit of Fry And Laurie were published
too. Even if these are sketch shows, you can still see work in progress.
If you have to search for the material, then do so, it can only
benefit your writing.
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: sketch writing
format & layout
Layout is not as important as you might think, especially when it
comes to sketch writing. As long as you follow a few simple rules,
you should be okay. The idea of a standard layout serves merely
as a guideline with regards to the length of the sketch. Usually,
a page will equal a minute of screen time.
WITHOUT NEEDING TO REFORMAT A STANDARD WORD PROCESSOR PAGE:-
Scene headings stand on a separate line, and include details such
as INTERIOR (INT.), EXTERIOR (EXT.), The Setting (A BAR), Time of
Day (DUSK) and maybe Time of Year.
Scene description stand alone, and it may be good to distinguish
it from other text by italicising.
Character names, either underlined or bold, on a separate line.
Character direction in brackets beneath this.
Int. Bar. Dusk. Winter.
The bar is quiet, and empty, with only a few lone DRINKERS slouched
on stools, and a BARMAN idly polishing glasses. He is very bored.
Anyone want a drink?
Set your right border to half the page i.e., about 7.
Scene headings should be in bold
, and set up as before.
On a separate line, italicise
any scene description.
Character names and direction sit on the same line as dialogue.
themes & ideas
It may sound stupid, but explore as many ideas and themes as possible.
It doesn't hurt to have a bulging file full of ideas, just so long
as they are in some sort of written form. Even if you are unhappy
with the sketch as it stands, atleast it's written.
DON'T GET IT RIGHT, GET IT WRITTEN.
Once it is written, only then can you know if it is right. A written
piece is much easier to re-write than an unwritten one (duh!).
A good tip is to write your central idea down, then brainstorm around
it with other sub-ideas. For instance, you want to write about an
Assassin who has become a pacifist. You might want to chart how
he arrived at his new belief system, and brainstorm situations that
lead him to the final punch line, where he kisses his potential
target. I thought this sounded incredibly anal to begin with, but
some cajoling from a potential producer endeared the idea to me.
Short of ideas? Listen to people and watch them. Even if they themselves
are not funny, they might inspire you. Also, people in inappropriate
situations are always good - e.g. Pissed Surgeons, Claustrophobic
Astronauts, or Altruistic Lawyers.
Never set out to create catchphrases. These should be borne out
of situations, never written around. Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield
never do this. Character first, not catchphrase. Also, don't be
afraid to explore the tragic side of your characters - look at Ted
and Ralph or The League Of Gentleman. This will make them more rounded
and subsequently more fun to write.
It may sound trite, but re-writing is very important, if a little
irritating. However, you can tinker with something too much, so
be careful to strike the right balance. Graham Lineham and Arthur
Matthews re-wrote every episode of Father Ted at least eight times.
It is much easier to revise something the length of a sketch. Not
every line has to be a gag, but it helps if every line is working
towards the gag. Don't waste time on unnecessary material, even
if it is funny - it must be funny in context.
Also, don't try and drag out a sketch, even if it is tempting. Make
it as short as it needs to be, not as long as you can make it. Sketches
often lose their appeal if they are too long. Big Train fell into
this trap. The excellence of the ideas was sometimes lost in the
non-judicious editing. That wasn't necessarily a fault of the writing
Context is very important. Whatever sketch show you are writing
for will have its own themes and strands. The sketches written for
Smith & Jones are much different to those written for Hale &
Pace. If you are writing on spec, study old episodes, and try to
emulate the style, but not rehash old ideas. If you are writing
for a new show, you may have seen a pilot, which will help, but
if you have a good producer, you will be given a good idea of what
they are looking for.
why write sketches?
Sketches are a useful tool for two reasons. One, they are a veritable
mine of material, and the writing of a short sketch may be an inspiration
for an entire sitcom. Absolutely Fabulous was based on a single
French & Saunders sketch. I myself have written a speculative
sitcom based on a sketch in a batch of material.
Second, if you are a new writer, the best place to find work is
on a show that needs a good turnover of material. Sketch shows do
- and often times, producers are very willing to look at material
from new writers. Also, sketches don't always take such an obvious
form. Segments on The Big Breakfast or the Jack Doherty Show have
to be written, and this is good breeding ground for new talent.
Also, The Day Today was essentially a sketch show, albeit with a
rather more structured format.
A batch of well-written sketches can also be a good calling card.
I got my first commission based on a speculative collection sent
to Talkback. A Producer (Victoria Pile) got to see a copy and invited
me to write on Smack The Pony. I structured the batch as an episode
of a fictional series - do not send Harry Enfield characters to
Tiger Aspect for example, it may well not be read for copyright
reasons. Everything I submitted was original work, and appealed
to Vicki because it showed that I understood the notion of a show's
format. What I submitted had nothing to do with her show, but it
did win a commission.