Nine sitcom writing plotting points

Horrible Histories. Image shows from L to R: Martha Howe-Douglas, Ben Willbond, Mathew Baynton

Dave Cohen looks at constructing sitcom plots...

Character character character. I know, I keep going on about this. When we're creating our new piece of work, we tend to separate out plot and character as the two big areas to concentrate on. Which makes sense and makes life simpler when you're staring at a blank screen.

However everything is connected, isn't it? That's something I've learned writing for Horrible Histories; a show that sees the world not as I learned history at school - as a neatly compartmentalised sequence of events - but a messy realistic ongoing catalogue of the story of all humanity.

Henry VIII had six wives, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan crossed the globe and vanquished huge swathes of the world, Boudicca almost singlehandedly chased the Romans out of Britain, but all the events around them tell stories that come back to the same recurring themes - the limits of power, the things we do for love, the feeling of never quite being satisfied with what you have achieved. And above all, that these stories happened that way because of those people, and the strengths and flaws at their heart.

Peep Show. Image shows from L to R: Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell), Dobby (Isy Suttie), Jeremy Usbourne (Robert Webb). Copyright: Objective Productions

I find it almost impossible to think of stories for a new show without imagining how the characters will respond to them. To take as an example the kind of banal plot they would never have used, what if a character on Peep Show won the lottery?

No character on Peep Show would ever do the lottery, is your correct answer, but hear me out. If Jez won, he would spunk it all on a party that would go horribly wrong. If Mark won, he'd keep it from Jez but Jez would find out and make him spunk it all on a party that would go horribly wrong. The second is most like a Peep Show story, then again the first would be like Peep Show taking the piss out of the naff plot idea that 'Jez wins the lottery.' He would win, throw all the money away on a crap party, and we'd move on. Plot taken care of in two minutes.

At this stage of developing a script, I find thinking about how the story might develop will help add depth to the character I'm still in the process of forming. If the story starts to feel wrong for that person, there's still a chance that it's something wrong with the character. If not, then it's a plot to put to one side, and maybe test against another character later on.

Once you have a great list of ideas to choose from, and decide to go with a particular story, there are a number of aspects to develop. To show that I don't spend all my spare time thinking up acronyms, I've chosen here only things that begin with 'P'. Starting with the obvious, but then the obvious often gets ignored because it's too obvious.

My Family. Image shows from L to R: Ben Harper (Robert Lindsay), Rosemary (Penelope Wilton)

1. Plan: The more detail you put in now, the more you'll get out of it later. A typical main story in a typical sitcom has anything between six and ten 'beats'. A beat is a moment that advances your story, "I won the lottery!" That's a beat. "I went to work and told the boss to stick my job up his arse!" That's another.

Your character wants something, you're going to keep putting obstacles in their way, they are going to have to overcome each one. Each move will take your character deeper and deeper into their crisis, or opportunity. And eventually you're going to have to bring them back from the brink. This is one of the hardest parts of writing, you're not just testing your character, you're testing your own ability to invent new ways of telling stories that test them, and keep audiences guessing what will happen.

2. Personal: If you can get something from your own life that's great. When he was a jobbing writer, Larry David famously argued with the boss on Saturday Night Live and quit on the Friday... then had second thoughts on the weekend, and turned up for work the next Monday pretending the row hadn't happened. This became the basis of a great Seinfeld episode for George. Your life is the starting point. Sitcom plots are not like real life but if there is a basis in your unique perspective you can bring something fresh and original to a story.

3. Proactive: This was a 'P' I mentioned last week under character: to give your story more energy it will help if your lead character really wants to do this thing - or stop it happening, and they will do whatever they can to achieve their desire. Knowing that this is your flawed comedy character at work, the bigger the investment at this stage of the story, the bigger the problems when it all starts to go wrong. And we like big, big is good, big is where laughs happen. Not the story driving them. It's so easy for a character to become passive. Make your characters make things worse.

Not Going Out. Image shows from L to R: Lee (Lee Mack), Benji (Max Pattison), Charlie (Finley Southby), Lucy (Sally Bretton)

4. Point of no return: Three quarters of the way through - all is lost (or won). I read a lot of scripts and get three quarters of the way through only to find the story meandering gently to a predictable ending. British sitcoms are usually made in blocks of six a year. If you're lucky enough to get six scripts commissioned, is it that difficult to imagine six times a year where you nearly got something and failed, or nearly lost everything and just held on? Maybe your character is about to get together with the partner of their dreams. Or lose £10,000 and about to get beaten up, or arrested, or sent to prison. It literally cannot get any worse - or better. And you have a quarter of the show left (six or seven BBC minutes, four or five anyone else), to arrive back where your character was at the start of the episode. Nothing has changed, nothing has been learned. You have to find a way out of it.

5. Pendulum. We tend to think of plots as a series of escalations that take us deeper into the situation until we reach that point of no return. But wait - the thing your character always wanted has suddenly appeared, and instead of being in a terrible place, they've succeeded. Of course, this success will be fleeting, but it will help make the fall that follows harder and, hopefully, funnier.

The pendulum is especially important if your sitcom is principally about an odd couple. How often in Peep Show does one character's perceived success mean certain failure for the other? Only for the situation to have swapped in the other direction within a few moments. That's classy, extremely well-planned plotting.

Count Arthur Strong. Image shows from L to R: Michael Baker (Rory Kinnear), Count Arthur Strong (Steve Delaney)

6. Peril. You can't have a point of no return if there's no peril. The deeper the character gets into trouble, the more likely they are to get into peril. I'll be honest with you, peril is almost the same as point of no return, I'm just trying to impress you with the number of P's I have.

7. Pathos. Not every sitcom has or needs pathos. "No hugs, no message" Larry David (again) famously said about Seinfeld. Yet for me one of the most enduring features of that sitcom is the relationship between George and Jerry. Jerry has lots of success with work and women and a full head of hair. George, even when he starts to become successful on all but the head-of-hair fronts, cannot enjoy the success. He will always sabotage good things. We know people like this, sometimes we are that person, it can make us sad even as we're laughing.

Pathos happens because characters in sitcom never learn from their mistakes. We don't have to like them to sympathise when they fail to learn.

The IT Crowd. Image shows from L to R: Roy (Chris O'Dowd), Jen (Katherine Parkinson), Moss (Richard Ayoade), Douglas Reynholm (Matt Berry). Copyright: TalkbackThames

8. Punchline: There's nothing more satisfying than a big funny character-driven joke to round off an already hilarious episode. Like when Basil drops the vase when he has been accused of stealing money to bet on a horse, Moss working in the bar at the gay play in The IT Crowd, or George, having pretended to be a marine biologist, describing how he saved a giant whale from sure death. I remembered those episodes probably because it's so rare to see such a satisfactory ending. In all cases you had shows, writers and performers at the top of their game. You may not be at that place yet, but you need to try.

And finally...

9. Persist: Those complicated plots don't write themselves. Providing your characters are right, and your story has developed how it feels it should, not how you were hoping to make it work to suit your needs, then you'll get there in the end. Most of the time, we settle for an ending that isn't quite r.

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