How to write a sitcom (step #3): Strengthen the story

Now that you have a strong idea of who your main characters are, how they relate to each other, and where the sitcom primarily is set, you probably already have thought of a number of funny scenarios that could drive numerous episodes, and now’s the time to choose one idea and add the subplots that will enhance the comic situations and strengthen your episode.

(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.)

Tip: Don’t write the pilot

This may seem nonsensical, but your pilot may have story-establishing aspects that is a poor reflection of why your sitcom will be funny week after week. Producers want to know that your sitcom has the foundation to last 100 episodes or more, so, as Ellen Sandler advises in her fantastic sitcom development workshop, write the third episode — or an episode that frees you from injecting the introductory material producers don’t care about — material you can sprinkle into multiple episodes in more creative ways.

This is your opportunity to prove to producers that your sitcom has the foundation for longevity — that you can write a stand-alone episode without any weighty introductory backstory. As you’ll discover, the audience won’t need all that information, either — they’re tuning in for the episodic ride, so give them an episode they’ll want to watch from start to finish.

The COLD OPEN: Jump right in

The “cold open” is that brief scene you see before the opening credits, and you use it to establish what the episode will be about. If your main character is unlucky in love, but finally scored a date with someone he or she really likes, declare it, creatively, in the cold open, and the rest of the episode will involve comic scenarios that affect the date, positively or negatively — or both.

Act I: Add a subplot or two

So, your main character finally has a date, but now it’s time to for the other characters to weigh in, or to establish a subplot that interfere’s with the main plot of the date. Brainstorm ideas from the other characters’ perspectives. If a supporting character is a beautician or self-proclaimed fashion king/queen, that person probably will want to help — but, in doing so, what can go wrong? Whatever subplot you develop, make sure it relates to and affects the main plot. “Seinfeld” did this consistently well.

Here’s a good example of intersecting plots from an episode of “Seinfeld” I just watched:

  • Jerry wants to help a Pakistani restauranteur whose restaurant is always empty.
  • George, who doesn’t test well but wants to impress his girlfriend, wants Elaine to take an IQ test in his place. He can sneak the test to Elaine from his girlfriend’s 1st floor apartment window.
  • Kramer wants to avoid a man who wants his jacket back.
  • Jerry tells Elaine the Pakistani restaurant will be a quiet place to take the IQ test, but while she’s there taking the test it gets soiled.
  • The IQ test result is pathetically low, but George convinces his girlfriend to give him another shot.
  • This time Elaine takes the test in Jerry’s apartment.
  • Just as Elaine finishes, Kramer rushes in and locks the door — the man who wants his coat has been chasing Kramer. Elaine is under time pressure to return the completed test to George, but Kramer won’t unlock the door because the man is outside.
  • When Elaine doesn’t return in time with the test, George must confess the cheating scheme to his girlfriend.
  • Jerry’s advice to the Pakistani restauranteur is a failure.

Take note of how even the most seemingly banal subplot — Kramer refusing to return a coat — plays a key comedic role in the episode.

End Act One with a complication

What can happen at the end of Act One that will make things more difficult for your main character and will make viewers stick around for Act Two? Remember, with commercial breaks, the 30-minute sitcom is only 22 minutes, so stay focused on the story beats: what can your characters do that either purposefully or accidentally affects the main plot?

Act Two never goes as the characters planned

With the main plot in full swing, and the subplots already introduced, now is the time for your characters’ choices to really do some damage — comically, of course. In the aforementioned “Seinfeld” episode, things seem to be going well for George, as he has gotten a second chance to prove his intelligence, and Elaine is taking the test in an expected safe place, but it all goes awry when Kramer barges in at the most inopportune time — just when Elaine needs to leave. And this wouldn’t have been a problem if the first test hadn’t been soiled or if George hadn’t decided to cheat or if Elaine hadn’t agreed to cheat or if Jerry hadn’t suggested Elaine cheat at the quiet restaurant or if Kramer hadn’t refused to return a man’s coat.

See how the characters’ choices intersect and affect the main plot at the most inopportune times?

The Tag

This is the 15- to 30-second scene you see after the final commercial break — a humorous exclamation point to the episode; however, it’s important to resolve your main story plot at the end of Act Two because if the sitcom goes into syndication, other networks may replace the tag with commercials, and it may never be seen.

Remember, with so little time to establish a story, introduce complications, and resolve it, don’t waste time with one-liners that don’t serve the plot in some way. Let the comedy emanate from the characters and the choices they make.

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