Plotting – the final journey

Welcome back to Part Two of the Holy Grail of Plottery.

Yesterday I left you in suspense – all was lost for our main character, everything that could possibly go wrong had gone wrong, the only possible outcomes were humiliation, destitution, isolation, pain, death. Given that this is supposed to be a comedy, we’ll stick with the humiliation.

One reason many of our scripts don’t work is because we don’t always follow the formula I outlined yesterday. But even if you have made it to this all-is-lost moment, here are a number of reasons why the way you resolve this final twist isn’t quite working:

You used a crowbar

I saw this a few times in our competition. Writing that script fuelled by inspiration and instinct, you powered your way through 20 minutes of fun and jokes but knew there had to be some kind of twist near the end. At which point, a big problem suddenly occurred for the protagonist. All was lost! Ah, I’ll just gently prise the script open and insert a funny solution here. Sorry, we can see the join.

You introduced a new character late on

You might argue that this is a character who will be featuring more over the course of the rest of the series. No disrespect, but if you’re reading this my guess is you are not yet in a position to write the next five episodes. This is a one-off script whose aim is to sell you as a potential professional writer, and there are 3000 of you, possibly more this time around. For your script to stand out we need to see everything you can do, and now.

You failed to escalate

Something bad happened to your character, better still they made it happen as a result of their character flaw. Another bad thing happened, and they dealt with that. And another. You kept my interest but you weren’t leading that character deeper into the big black hole they’re meant to be digging themselves into.

You left those loose ends untied

This is something I see a lot of when watching even the best TV writers. Because our comedy characters are often loveable losers who never learn from their mistakes, it’s possible to reach that point of no return, where everything has gone disastrously wrong, and for our lead character to shrug their shoulders, stand in the midst of destruction and humiliation around them and say “what a fool I’ve been.” The credits roll, it’s okay, we’ll be back next week and there’ll be another episode where the same can happen. True, but the audience might not join you again. If you’re not interested in getting your characters out of the hole you spent 20 minutes digging for them, why should we be? If you’re wondering why some TV shows last many series more than others – Only Fools and Horses, Brooklyn 99, Modern Family – one of the reasons is the writers have worked that little bit harder to tie up the loose ends.

You ran out of steam

We read some great scripts that began well, and were sustained by a great instinct for comedy, but which ran out of steam as they continued. There is something to be said for the Splurge School of Writing, especially when you’re writing something as relatively short as a half hour sitcom (usually around 5000 words). Get it all down, now. But at some point, you’re going to have to fix those holes, better to have considered them before you start writing.

How are you to make it from “all is lost/won” to “all is back to normal”?

The specific answer is different for every episode of every show, but the general answer is, always, your main character. 

For this to be the case, you need to have put in those dull boring hours of staring into space, thinking you’ve found a new twist to an old type. You’ve tested the character, found your solutions wanting, and tried again. You might still not have found the perfect solution, but along the way you may have found the key to something in that character that will provide a number of possible outcomes for you to choose how they may extricate themselves from disaster, or victory.

They learn the wrong thing

Sitcom characters never learn, as we never tire of saying. But sometimes they learn the wrong thing. Next time, Basil decides, Sybil won’t find out. I will lie better.

They learn but will forget

In every episode of Not Going Out there is a scene at the end with Lee and Lucy together on the sofa, alone. When I was writing on the show these were the hardest scenes to work on, because they were the same every week. The point was for Lucy to say to Lee “what have you learned from your stupidity this week?” and Lee to answer “I have learned that I behaved very stupidly”. And there will be a moment in the scene where he will act stupidly again. Occasionally this would be as a joke to prove he had learned his lesson (for now) but on other occasions he will have forgotten from the point where he learned from his mistake to the end of the scene, barely a minute of real time.

They act out of character

You may get away with doing this very occasionally, once a series at the most. But if you do it too often you will lose the clarity of characterisation and confuse your audience. And, as James Cary always says, “confusion is the enemy of comedy.”

They are saved by events

This is sometimes called deus ex machina which literally means a god from a machine. Or as we might also say “a cop-out”. I remember a beautifully brilliant one used by Guy Jenkin in an episode of Life On Mars. Sam Tyler is chained to a lathe and in the classic style of 60s and 70s movies a giant saw is working its way up the middle and will cut him in half. With the rotating blades millimetres away from Sam’s genitalia, the machine stops, and the lights go out. A power cut. For those of us old enough to remember the electricity strike of 1973, it was a brilliant reminder of how the regulated power cuts occasionally caught us out in mid-use of electric device. Guy’s brilliantly funny use of real events was the exception that proves the rule.

The wrong thing turns out to be the right thing

Phil Dunphy’s attempts to be superdad in Modern Family always go wrong, but they send him to a dark place where for a moment, he lashes out against the people he loves. It’s a jolt to them (and us) because the jolly mask has dropped and it’s an ugly sight, but it shows us he’s human. He does bad things for good reasons, and we always forgive him for showing that vulnerability. He’ll be back next week though, annoyingly cheery as ever.

I get knocked down but I get up again

Every week Father Ted comes up with a scheme to escape Craggy Island, every week he fails, due to his own character flaws. But he will not be broken.

I’m sure there are more, but I ran out of time. Or maybe I haven’t put in enough work to come up with them. But if you can think of other examples of how characters get back to where they were at the start of the episode I’d love to hear from you.

Meantime fix that plot. Even if it means fixing your character.