How to Write a Comedy Script for Television
If you have ever wanted to write a comedy script but have no idea where to start, then look no further – apart from the rest of the article below.. definitely look further than this opening sentence!
From the idiosyncrasies of your characters to the laborious re-writes, writing a comedy script can seem like a daunting task. But with the advice below, you will at least have a fighting chance to get your ideas onto screen.
It might sound obvious but the characters are the most important part of your comedy script. The characters are what bring people back each week, so your characters need to be interesting, flawed and most importantly, funny!
All comedy characters need to have the below:
- Exaggeration – What are your characters exaggerations? Are they loud? Arrogant? Stupid? Gluttonous?
- Flaws – What are their flaws? Are they lazy? A drunk? The characters should not be aware of their flaws. Comedy characters are never self aware.
- Humanity – What makes the audience connect with them?
- How do they see themselves – How do your character see themselves? Do they think they are a leader? The ‘funny’ one? The smartest?
- How do others see them – Now, how does everyone else see them? Including the audience.
- What they want and what they need – These two might sound similar but want and need and two very different things. For example, David Brent wants to be liked and adored but what he needs is to accept he isn’t who he thinks he is.
The thing that makes the characters interesting is the thing that causes them problems. They should be the cause of their own downfall, they make decisions that make total sense to them, but no sense to us. Another thing to remember is that comedy characters never learn from their mistakes, they make them again and again. So, make sure they never get wise.
Make sure you know your characters inside and out before you start writing anything. Get in the mindset of you characters, what would they say in a tense situation? What would they order in a restaurant? Ask yourself as many questions as you can about each character until you feel you know them completely.
A good rule to remember when writing a comedy script is: Confinement = Conflict. All good comedies revolve around characters who are stuck in their environments and more importantly, stuck together. This is why family-based sitcoms do so well – you are stuck with your family, whether you like it or not. So, you need to think of a situation the characters can’t get out of which will lead to conflict, where the majority of your comedy will come from.
If you think you have a good idea then try to expand on it, never just go with it. Think about where it can go, all the elements that make up that idea and the trouble the characters can get into. It’s quite easy to start working on an idea without giving it enough thought and finding yourself trapped down the line.
Plotting and structure of a Comedy Script
These are really important points to get right. You could have the greatest characters and situation known to mankind but if the narrative doesn’t work, then it’ll fall flat, like some kind of comedy pancake.
Characters should have their own plots for each episode (or series) and these should be set out into acts, as below:
This is the establishing act, which shows us what the characters are going to be dealing with this episode.
This is the act which holds the most meat. This is when the characters deal with whatever is thrown against them and when they ultimately fail. You should make the characters suffer and ramp up the tension and jeopardy throughout this act reaching it’s peak at the end.
The characters are at their weakest and at a loss, they keep trying and failing but what’s that on the horizon? Hope! An answer! A solution! Act three is the resolution and all is well… until next week anyway.
This does all depend on what you are writing and your writing style. Is it conversational? Is it jab after jab of snappy comebacks? Whatever style, one rule you should follow is that everything the characters say should have a purpose. Especially for a pitching pilot, you don’t have time for any wasted dialogue, so ensure that everything that is said, is said for a reason.
Your comedy script dialogue should avoid being too explanatory, make sure the characters are not explaining the plot to each other. If you are writing large sections of dialogue just to help explain the plot, then you might need to rethink your approach.
Again, it depends on your writing style and what you are writing but you need jokes. And lots of them. Most American comedies have 5-7 jokes per minute but they do have a team of writers at the helm. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t try and aim for that too. Just look at all the fresh jokes I’ve put in this article so far… I count two, at a push.
Get to the point
Each episode should hit the ground running on the first page, don’t start with any back story or exposition unless it can be seamlessly woven into the narrative. You need to make sure the story is in full swing by the end of the first couple of pages and has enough jokes to keep the reader interested.
Re-write, re-write and re-write
You would have heard that writing is re-writing and never has a truer word (phrase) been said. Never settle on the 1st draft, or even the 2nd or 3rd! You start to come up with your best stuff on the 3rd, 4th, 5th re-write, trust me. And the phrase ‘Kill your darlings’ is as harsh as it sounds. You may have a gag or a scene that you love so much, but if it doesn’t work as a whole, kill it. Right in the face.
Take a step back from your script for a few days or weeks, you will notice parts which are jarring and need work and if some jokes don’t land as well as they did, get rid. If you have a joke you are happy with it should keep on making you smile no matter how often you read it.
Getting feedback is a vital part to the writing process. Never just blindly send out your work when you think it’s done to agents or competitions. Send your work to friends and/or enemies to get feedback. Be ready to get an onslaught of critique but it will make you and your writing stronger… once you get past the crying.
Another good idea is to do a table read. Gather up some actors, or anyone who can deliver a line, around a table and read through your comedy script – hence the term ‘table read’. Hearing your scripts read out by others will highlight any strengths and weaknesses and you can get direct feedback. It’s also a great confidence booster to hear a room full of people laughing at your work (hopefully, in a good way).
Still struggling with your comedy script?
If you can’t seem to work out your characters or your plots then a good tip would be to write some spec scripts – these are your own scripts for existing shows. The characters are already established so you have free reign to write anything you like. Doing these scripts can help you with gag writing and work out your writing style.
But above all, you just need to get writing. Sitting on an idea and just talking about it won’t get you anywhere. Get those fingers to keyboard and start shaping your characters, sculpting your plots and refining your gags.
So, get cracking! I believe in you!