How to write a sitcom (step #4): Delivering the snappy dialogue

Andy Kaufman, Danny DeVito from TaxiSometimes it’s tempting to start pounding out dialogue for a scene before you’ve fully plotted the story or thought about core character traits, but such hastily written dialogue quite often is the worst thing screenwriters write — at least during the first draft anyway — because the goal of the first draft is to finish a first draft, not to have in hand a refined industry-worthy screenplay. But it’s okay, because dialogue easily can be improved simply by staying focused on the characters, the situation and the tone of the scene.

(Note: This is part of a series of posts about my sitcom development process in preparation for a free staged script reading Aug. 1, 2011.)

For sitcoms, the jokes have to come frequently and, if through dialogue, at the end of the sentence. And if you’ve created a story world that adds an extra-personal level of conflict for your divergent characters, you’ve already succeeded in part to set up a punchline.

Likewise, if you have characters with different methodologies, you are a step closer to setting up a punchline. And when it comes time for a character to speak, that in itself could prompt a laugh. For example, in The Odd Couple, Felix and Oscar didn’t have to say much to each other to make us laugh because the humor stemmed from their character, methodologies, and situation.

My point: The key to great dialogue is not entirely the dialogue.

When you think of your favorite line of dialogue from a film or television show or novel, its impact in every case can be traced back to the character and the situation, that’s why the critical phases of writing are related to character development and the story world the characters inhabit.

Inside of 24 hours I’ll hear my sitcom script read aloud by professional actors, in front of an audience, and I’m curious not only to hear how the actors will interpret what I’ve written, but also how the audience will respond. Will there be laughs where I anticipate laughter? Will the actors stumble over any clumsily written dialogue? Will the characters sound alike or have I succeeded in developing a unique voice for each?

Here are my top recommended comedy writing workshops you can attend or take online:

Anyway, one thing for certain I expect to identify during the script reading is where I’ve overwritten action descriptions and dialogue — and overwriting sometimes is difficult to identify without hearing your script read aloud, which is why script readings are so critical to the rewrite process; which, in turn, is key to delivering the snappy dialogue.

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