How do you like to learn?
I struggled at school, where most subjects were taught to us through the dissemination of facts that appeared to come out of nowhere and required absorption by my brain. Measuring volume, the Battle of Bosworth Field, the absorption of facts into my brain by osmosis – teachers spouted the facts and left us to fill the gaps.
I’ve been working with a group of new writers developing sitcom scripts. When helping people with their scripts I sometimes mention things that I assume writers already know. We say things like “write an outline” without explaining what we mean. In that moment I’m the teacher spewing the facts, expecting you to be following everything including what I haven’t even said.
What is an outline?
It’s hard to separate out each part of the process before you write your script, but very roughly you start by working on the idea, or the premise. You move on to the characters and the world they live in, start to think of lots of episode stories, then concentrate on developing a shorter selection of these. You then narrow down your choice to one story – the one you will turn into the script.
As you develop this, you try and make sure it still ties in with the idea, the world and the characters you have come up with. You’re going to state what happens in every scene, and how what takes place in that scene will lead you into the next scene.
Will Storr’s excellent book The Science Of Storytelling describes this process well: “Every scene in a compelling story is a cause that triggers a childlike curiosity about its potential effects – a relentless adhering to forward motion, one thing leading to another.”
As the action escalates you will reach a point, about three quarters of the way through, where all is lost (or won) for your main character.
As you’re writing it, you’re staying true to the overall premise of your show, illustrating the “what’s it really about” aspect of it. And the flawed characters you have created are going to take actions that will get them deeper and deeper into trouble.
But you’re not going to add any flourishes. You’re going to write what may look like a boring synopsis.
The outline, in very simple terms, is an instruction manual you are writing, mostly for you, entitled How To Write My Sitcom Episode. It’s the second most important document you’ll write, the last thing before you finally sit down to write the script, so it’s important to get it right.
We often talk about a script having to adhere to the instruction “show don’t tell.” In other words, in a script it is the actions of the character that move the story forward. We need to see the results of the character’s errors.
With an outline the reverse is true. In an outline, the instruction is “tell don’t show.”
Del Boy falling through the opening of a bar is one of the funniest moments in sitcom history. (And if you disagree, that’s only because you’ve seen it too many times.)
Imagine writing that scene. When you think of it you know it’s going to be funny. But before you get to that stage you have to write it down in a way that will convey why.
Remember this is not a document for the audience, it’s your guide to make sure you keep track of where your story is heading.
Here’s what that scene might look like in an outline:
Del Boy and Trigger have gone to a club to pick up women. Del is near the bar, explaining to Trigger what he needs to do to attract their attention. While he’s talking a member of staff leaves the bar and leaves the bar hatch open as they go to collect some glasses. Del boy sees a woman across the room giving him a look and he tells Trigger to act cool. He leans back casually but there is nothing to lean back on as the bar is open, and he falls into the bar.
Don’t worry that this reads like an IKEA instruction manual for putting together your Billy bookcase. At this stage you don’t want anything more elaborate. Save that for the script. Watch the scene again and you’ll see the embellishments. The writer John Sullivan has built Del Boy’s smug confidence in the dialogue with Trigger. David Jason has added the kind of physical humour that made him a comedy superstar.
It took me 95 words to describe that minute and a half of action. You can see why the document is going to be long.
Initially you want to write out each plot separately. Your main plot will probably be around two thirds of the whole, your B and C if you have a C will take up the rest. When you have all the plots written you then need to meld them together to create a whole. B plots usually start a bit later. And they help to build tension between the plot points of the main story, so there’s an extra skill in working out where to place them.
Because you’re probably writing the first script for a new show, you’ll be tempted to open the show with backstory. I would try to avoid this as much as possible. You can tell a lot about a character by giving them something to do very early on. Or put them with another character and we’ll quickly learn a lot about status, which character is trying harder to please the other, whether that character is calm or tense, stuffy or cool, cautious or impulsive.
Be conscious of everything you’re putting in there. Make sure everything happens for a reason. Why is every scene there?
Imagine your script as the equivalent of creating a new house.
You spent a huge amount of time getting the foundations ready. Premise, story, world creation, characters. I’m looking at the space where the house will go and there’s still nothing to see yet. But you have built the foundations.
Now it’s time to look at the architect’s blueprint. What are you trying to do with this house? That’s all part of the process. These rooms go here, that window goes there, and I want the brickwork to be a different colour here and here. I can see it in my head, but I have to convey all that to the architect, who then has to pass that knowledge on to the builder.
When the house is built, and the brickwork is the same colour everywhere, that’s because I wasn’t clear enough at the outline stage about what I wanted to happen.
It’s always easier to fix in the outline stage. Be clear about what needs to happen in every moment of every scene. For the only time when you’re creating a sitcom, tell don’t show.