Source : The Little Book of Sitcom
Sitcoms need conflict. Breaking down conflict into three competent parts: Global Conflict, Local Conflict, and Inner Conflict.
Global Conflict is the character’s war with his world. The enemy can be anything from cops to snowstorms to landlords to rats. The essential characteristic of global conflict is that while the character cares passionately about the conflict, the enemy has no emotional investment in the character.
Local Conflict is direct interpersonal war between people who have genuine emotional stake in one another’s lives. Parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers, co-workers, roommates and cellmates all routinely engage in local conflict. Their lives are intertwined.
Inner Conflict is the character’s war with himself. This can manifest itself as self-doubt, as conflicting desires, divided loyalty or confusion about life’s big questions. Anything that makes the character feel uneasy is inner conflict, and it’s here that the real richness of situation comedy lies.
Example : A sitcom named “Family Tree” The Dad, Chet is ordered to an out-of-town business trip on the very weekend that his daughter, Ophelia, is singing in the school play.
Global Conflict : Chet’s bosses don’t care about Chet’s family obligations, they just want Chet at that meeting.
Local Conflict : Chet wants Ophelia to let him off the hook, but Ophelia wants Chet to feel guilty.
Inner Conflict : Chet is caught between divided loyalty to his job and his daughter.
Just from that information you can predict many scenes of an episode.
In this example, global conflict creates local conflict, and local conflict creates inner conflict. It does not have to be that way, you could start with an interesting inner conflict and build out from there.
Lines of Conflict
Specific ways in which characters wage interpersonal war. Usually these battle lines are drawn along strongly opposite points of view such as liberal vs conservative, orderly vs chaotic, rule maker vs rule breaker.
The best lines of conflict are broad, deep and enduring.
Couple: Sam and Diane on Cheers
Conflict: Class Warfare
Couple: Al and Peg Bundy on Married with Children
Conflict: Lazy husband vs demanding wife.
The things keeps characters together and makes them interesting. Money (Roommates), Blood (Family), Work. “Im right and youre wrong”
When you have two characters committed to the same goal, you’ve got set glue. When you pit an innocent against a cynic, you have two people, who are essentially trying to sell each other their point of view.
Think past money, blood and work. Think about what your characters are trying to prove. Ask that of each of your characters and you’ll discover something fundamental about who they are and how they fight.
When we first meet characters we want to know two things right away:
How will they act?
How will they be funny?
A package that will not only make someone laugh, but also make them say “Okay, I get this. I see why this will be fun.”
As you introduce your characters, introduce each one with a good, solid slice of comic synecdoche. Give one of their signature moves.
A ditzy blonde getting stuck in a door that says pull on one side and push on the other, going back and forth until someone stops them.
A bartender that is grumpy and up in someone’s face right away, when bartenders are supposed to be empathetic listeners.
This is called proving it on page one.
Ask some questions:
How does a dumb person use a smart phone?
How does a coward cross a busy street?
Five Ways to be Funny on the Page
Defeat expectation: When your audience or your character expects something to happen, and something else happens instead, that’s a surprise. A character walks into a bar, ouch!
Exaggeration: Push something to its limits and beyond. A shy person literally not being able to speak to women.
Clash of Context: Take something out of the place it belongs and put it where it doesn’t.
Inappropriate Response: Emotional clash of context. The response or behavior is expected, just substitute one that comes out of left field. Someone eagerly looking forward to going to the dentist because his reality filter says pain is good.
Taboo: Comedy begins where tolerance ends. Make people nervous by raising taboo subjects, they will naturally store tension. The tension craves release and finds it in the form of a laugh.
Discovering Character Through Story
You do not have to write character descriptions. Discovering character through story is more efficient and revealing.
Ask things like, “How does your character cross a busy street?”, or “How does your character paint a house?”. Set your character down on a busy street corner, now suddenly they have a goal and obstacles (get to the other side and avoid traffic). How your character meets challenge tells us worlds more about then than their political leanings, where they went to school, or how they feel about cats.
There are a couple pitfalls. One is that you can get so caught up in making the story work, making it perfect, that you get bogged down in detail and become unhappy. The other is that you might fall in love with these discovery tales, so that when it comes time to write real stories for your episodes, you won’t be able to let go of these exercise ideas.
Up to this point, this is all exploration. Every level of development is just a platform upon which we stand to reach the next level of development.
Make them Make Choices. Choices define characters. Don’t just put your characters into action, put them in a bind. Choices are key to everything.
An office work could rat out a coworker and gain an assignment. Will he hold his tongue or let it wag?
A mother reads her daughter’s diary and finds scary news. Does she confront or conceal?
A surly bartender is challenged to be nice to all customers for a week. Will he accept the challenge or not?
Story is choice. It’s not plot mechanics. It’s not blowing things up. It’s not even about great jokes. It’s about sending a character on a journey, driving them through choices, seeing where they arrive.
Will turner going to a life of piracy or stay a law abiding citizen.
15 Steps to a Sitcom Story
- The character feels okay about something.
Kevin phones his mother every day and sees no problem with that
- Something happens that makes him feel not okay.
Kevin’s friends mock his lack of independence.
- He decides to do something about it.
Kevin resolves to stop calling his mother every day. (CHOICE)
- He makes an attempt
Kevin resists phoning his mom.
- The attempt fails.
Kevin breaks down and calls mom. (CHOICE)
- The character tries a different approach.
Kevin disables his cell phone. (CHOICE)
- But this attempt also fails.
Kevin borrows a stranger’s phone and calls home. (CHOICE)
- The character makes a big, wrong choice.
Kevin resolves to go cold turkey and cut off all contact with his mom. (CHOICE)
- The character enjoys temporary benefits from the bad decision.
Kevin revels in his new-found independence.
- The bad decision breaks down.
Kevin’s mother shows up at his flat.
- A confrontation begins.
Kevin’s friends defend Kevin’s independence against his mother.
- The character appears to be losing.
Kevin fears that he has just traded one dependence for another.
- The character makes the right choice.
Kevin rejects the influence of both his mother and his friends.
- The character learns something new.
Kevin understands that he can think for himself.
- And back we go to square one.
Kevin calls his mother the very next day – not because he has to, but because he wants to. (CHOICE)
The number of choices in a story is up to you, but there need to be three specific choices present in the tale.
- The first choice. This is the initial bad decision that gets the ball rolling.
- The big, bad one. Wrongheaded, but sometimes innocent of the facts, points to big trouble ahead. The audience knows that the story won’t be resolved until this choice is undone.
- The moment of truth. Usually a sitcom character reaches a point where things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Now the only way to resolve the problem is with a desperate declamation, “I was wrong!” Usually, fortunately, that works.
The point of a show or story. The spine of the story. A journey of denial to acceptance of a theme.
Theme = The Main Instruction of the Story.
Some theme examples: Mock politicians, help people think for themselves, to watch a dysfunctional family self destruct, demonstrate the awesome power of love.
Thesis and antithesis. If the point of the story is “Stand up for yourself” it will need to pass through “let others boss you around.” Find the thesis at the end of your story and the antithesis somewhere around the middle.
Find someone to love
surf strange waves
if it’s your trip, take it
Theme life sucks is really accept that life sucks. Because life sucks is just an opinion. It doesn’t tell the audience what to do.
After a theme is created, you can use that to write stories for the sitcom. You must ask, does this story connect to the theme? Episodes can have sub-themes to fir the A, B, and C stories.
Theme is “grow up”, episode sub-theme is “take responsibility for your actions”
A-plot takes your character to a very funny place, rich in emotion and discovery. This plot should resonate the theme of the series.
B-plot can be just a light-weight problem for a secondary character.
C-plot can be just a running gag.
The want of a scene
What is the want of a scene? What does it seek to accomplish? How things stand from the scene’s point of view.
If yoh have a character whose husband is cheating on her, and her friend has come over to reveal this starling tidbit. The want of the scene is to to get that information out. What people do once it is out is another matter. The central question of this scene is “Whill the information get out?” The information does not have to get out, but you do have to have someone try.
What is the scene about? What is it trying to communicate, display, convey, or reveal?
Scene: Melanie has broken curfew. Now she’s sneaking in late. But Dad is there waiting for her.
Want: To force a confrontation between this pair on the subject of house rules.
Scene: Melanie’s brother is alone with a girl in a parked car, and they might go all the way.
Want: To find out if they do.
Now let’s look at how things stand from the characters point of view.
Who want’s what? (Who constitutes a win?)
Who gets what they want? (Who wins?)
In a scene there is a limited range of possible outcomes.
- Somebody wins.
- Somebody loses.
- Everybody wins.
- Everybody loses.
- it’s a draw.
- The outcome is deferred.
Melanie is busted! Her father has caught her sneaking in after curfew.
Her want of the scene: To get in without getting caught.
Doug is gay! He really doesn’t want to have sex with this girl at all. Can she force him? Not in this physiology. Doug Wins.
Melanie and her father are doing homework together. Melanie wants George to do the work for her.
- Melanie Wins : Dad does her homework.
- Melanie loses : She has to do her own homework.
- Both win : Father and daughter bond over homework
- Both lose : Father and daughter have a horrible fight.
- It’s a draw : They both do equal amounts of homework.
- The outcome is deferred : They’ll do the homework later.
A happy ending does not mean “everybody always wins”. Happy ending means that the viewer walks away with a sense of satisfaction.
The Pivot aka Plot Point
The new piece of information that triggers a change of emotional state. Also called a plot point.
Melanie is invited to a party and she is thrilled. But then she learns for some reason she can’t go. Now she is sad.
That is a whole scene. Prior condition: elation. New information: can’t go. Resulting mental state: despair. She travels from happy to sad across the pivot of new information. Everything else is just Handles : jokes that get you into a scene and out, the other jokes along the way, and b-story stuff.
The Parts of a Scene
The Want: What the scene is trying to accomplish.
Preserve a secret, reveal a secret, etc.
Who Wins: You will know who wins based on where the story goes following this scene.
The In-Handle: This is the comic beat (where beat equals peice of action) that gets us into the scene.
Pre-Pivot Beat: This part of the scene correlates to the characters emotional state before the pivot is reached.
Pivot: This is the new peice of information that triggers a change in emotional state.
Post-Pivot Beat: This part of the scene correlates to the character’s emotional state after the pivot.
The Out-Handle: This is the comic business upon which we exit the scene.
The Attitude Map
The relationship between the events of the story and the changing of emotional states.
This thing happens, and it makes them feel like that.
- What happens: Kevin phones his mother every day
How he feels: Tranquil
- What happens: Kevin’s friends mock his lack of independence.
How he feels: Self-Concious
- What happens: Kevin resolves to stop calling his mother every day.
How he feels: Independent
- What happens: Kevin resists phoning his mom.
How he feels: Apprehensive
- What happens: Kevin breaks down and calls mom.
How he feels: Weak
- What happens: Kevin disables his cell phone.
How he feels: Guardedly optimistic
- What happens: Kevin borrows a stranger’s phone and calls home.
How he feels: Full of self loathing
- What happens: Kevin resolves to go cold turkey and cut off all contact with his mom.
How he feels: Scared
- What happens: Kevin revels in his new-found independence.
How he feels: Euphoric
- What happens: Kevin’s mother shows up at his flat.
How he feels: Busted
- What happens: Kevin’s friends defend Kevin’s independence against his mother.
How he feels: Uneasy
- What happens: Kevin fears that he has just traded one dependence for another.
How he feels: Like a loser
- What happens: Kevin rejects the influence of both his mother and his friends.
How he feels: Proud
- What happens: Kevin understands that he can think for himself.
How he feels: Satisfied
- What happens: Kevin calls his mother the very next day – not because he has to, but because he wants to.
How he feels: Tranquil
Some new information comes from outside the character, but some from inside (I’m weak) A character might be frightened in one scene and apprehensive in another. These are very similar and it’s okay that they are. You do not have to flip flop between positive and negative states. This is gonna be good, follow by this is gonna be great.
Types of Sitcoms
The simplest comic formula. Two character with strongly opposing views, last them together with set glue – the urgent need to change each other’s mind – surround them with fun secondary characters.
Center and Eccentrics
A normal character is surrounded by comic characters. A character isn’t normal because they are not funny; they’re normal because they are our surrogate, our window on the world. They are also the one that others turn to for answers. Who has the most emotional intelligence in the cast? That’s the center. Everyone else is less self-aware and more broadly comic.
A group is united against a common enemy. No definable center to the show. All the main characters have similar levels of emotional intelligence. They get roughly equivalent amounts of story time and are equally driven by the theme.
Fish Out of Water
A character or group of characters from the place they feel comfortable, put into someplace new and challenging.
Mostly kid’s stuff. Give your character powers and watch hilarity ensue.
Rules of the World
The rules of the world cover everything from dirty words to voice-overs. Does the show have adult themes? Does it break the fourth wall? Real reality or fantasy?
Rules don’t constrain your behavior, they guide to a higher purpose. Theme, setting , voice-over, levels of conflict, presence or absence of emotional truth – that it’s worth laying them out at the outset. It will clarify what your show is not about.
There are two kinds of pilot episodes. The premise pilot, and the context pilot. A premise pilot is a story that establishes the new reality of the sitcom world we’re visiting. The context pilot joins the story in progress. Though we will be given clues into the relationships and lines of conflict, we will be the only stranger here; everyone else will already know each other.
A few other jobs of the pilot are:
Introduce characters using character keys to convey what each other thinks, how they act, and how they will be funny.
Establish lines of conflict. Tell us who fights whom; demonstrate that there are solid, enduring lines of conflict that will yield solid stories forever.
Display the Funny. Will we have demonstration comedy? Sight gags? Verbal wit? Warm smiles or belly laughs? Intellectual humor or slapstick?
Establish Tone. What’s the pace and tempo of the show, its level of sophistication, its depth of emotional truth?
Make Rules. Will you have voice-overs, flashbacks, fantasy? Do the characters acknowledge the audience? Does the sitcom acknowledge the real world?
Announce the theme. What is the show about? Why is it important? What is it trying to teach?
Create the promise. Everything we see in the pilot we will expect to see again in subsequent episodes, so make sure you’re happy with what you propose.
Others could be running gags, signature styles of dialog, or non-linear narratives.
Places of Being, Places of Doing
Places of being are far more useful to you than places of doing. A health club or gym requires machines and machines to be used. There is no reason for them to be in that setting if they are not doing. The juice bar adjacent to the gym would be the right place. There is no excuse needed to come there an hang out and no excuse to stay.
The step between concept to story-line.
A two- or three page, single spaced, present tense document that tells as much as you know about what’s going on in your episode. It concerns itself with two and only two classes of information.
Action and Emotion. What happens. How people feel. That’s it. No style, metaphor, asides, scene description, dialogue, jokes.
The Tools in a Nutshell
A one paragraph translation of the idea.
The Attitude Map
is a beat-outline translation of the pitch
Is a two-three page translation of the attitude map.
The Outline (see Creativity Rules)
Is a filly developed scene-by-scene translation of the skeleton.
Is a translation of the outline into scene description and dialogue.
The Produced Episode
Is an audio/visual translation of the script.