Last year I ran a writing competition in which I asked you to send me a scene of 500 words or less, plus an idea of what happened before and what came after, in no more than 150 words.
Ahead of the competition I ran three weeks of emails offering advice and received more than 50 entries. The standard of writing was uniformly high. I got lots of funny jokes, plenty of great characters, and some weird and wonderful stories.
What were the main things I learned from the competition.
1 I was asking for the moon on the stick, and then some more
All I was looking for was an interesting set up for a scene, then a scene in which characters pushed forward from that set up, doing character-based things that forced them to escalate problems for themselves as a direct consequence. If I was lucky I’d get a big funny punchline at the end of the scene that would both resolve the action in this one and propel us into the next one. Followed by a description of funny consequences to come. Plus jokes, lovely funny jokes all the way through.
Was that too much to ask? Possibly. But if you had every element in your submission I guarantee you’d be picking up lots of meetings with producers.
No one had everything, but let’s break this down and look at each element from start to finish.
2 Introduction to the scene
I hadn’t thought about this when I set up the competition but was inevitably drawn to big bold stories.
You may think that’s unfair. Especially when some of our greatest sitcoms have been based on the premise of “two blokes living together”. Or “a bunch of people working in an office.” But when I read about a retired MI5 agent who impulsively decided when she learned that she had a year to live that she would systematically dispose of everyone who’d wronged her over the course of her life, from Redress by Ralph Jones, I couldn’t help but be intrigued.
Even boring sounding introductions can be made more gripping. Take the opening scene of Friends: “A bunch of five 20something friends are chatting about their lives in a New York cafe…” That doesn’t sound promising until “when an old friend of one of them turns up in a beautiful magnificent wedding dress.” Bang.
Too many of the introductions were more like a set-up for the whole show and nothing else. I was looking for an incident that had just happened, with consequences which were about to be played out. We learn that in the previous scene in Redress, our heroine “invited Patrice to her house and drowned him in her bath tub.” Don’t tell me you’re not interested in what’s going to happen next.
3. The characters
When you’re writing a new show you can’t expect everyone to find it at the start of episode one. Although streaming is starting to have an impact on that.
But if a character’s flaw is that they are super-controlling, or think they’re much better than they are, you need to see evidence of that in most or maybe all of the scenes they’re in. A great character like David Brent shows his comedy flaw in every word spoken, tie-flick or wink to camera.
Even if you only have 500 words you still need some of them to establish what’s funny about your character. Remember this isn’t a book or a finished work, it’s a manual for professional comedy makers – script editors, producers, directors, actors, prop makers, costume designers and the rest – to bring the words on the page to life. A good actor will take the funny clue you’ve given them and turn it into something special.
In the introduction to Gains by Joel Frosh and Joel Brooks, we’re told two brothers working out in a gym broke a machine. Younger one Jamie insists honesty is the best policy so they will tell the manager what has happened. Perfectly good set up. In the scene we see the brothers backtracking and failing to admit what happened. Indeed one exclaims “we came to tell you that a machine breaker walks among us and we will not rest until we find out who it is.”
In this scene the stakes have been raised as a direct result of the character flaws of the brothers.
4. The story
I talked a lot in the emails about how to develop your story: activate scene, escalate problems, resolve. Ideally, with something that takes us to the next scene.
This message seemed to resonate. I received lashings of interesting plot. I’m pleased about that because on Sitcom Geeks we often talk about how we don’t see enough happening in scripts.
The vast majority of scripts I read had stuff happening – a lot of stuff. There was one scene in a betting shop that had about three scenes running concurrently. Which was great except all were completely unrelated to the introduction before or the outro that followed.
Coconut Republic by Rebecca Bain and Alex Garrick Wright was about three British engineers working in a Caribbean dictatorship. In the previous scene they have been kidnapped by rebels. In the scene they sent, the engineers are chained to radiators, threatened with being shot, desperately try to hatch a plan to escape, rescued by soldiers and freed. All in a day’s work for one of them. And under 500 words. Plus loads of great jokes.
5. The outro
This may well have been the hardest section to get right. I was looking for something that would have demonstrated a third step in the escalation introduced in the opening and developed in the scene.
It’s possibly this aspect of storytelling we struggle with the most – knowing which incident are going to escalate the story in the most dramatic way, and getting them in the right order. You probably have to have done at least two drafts of the script in order to see this – so maybe I was asking for too much in this instance. But it illustrates how important it is for you to know where your story is heading.
Next week I’ll be announcing the winner and discussing more about the entries that didn’t quite make that final cut.