Script writing

The only other thing of note that happened before New Years was that I saw a Sitcom writing competition advertised. This was on 21st Dec, and the specification was that it needed to be a 15 minute long episode of a new sitcom, and it couldn’t be the first episode. Sounds easy enough. Oh, and it needed to be submitted by midnight on New Years Eve.

Given that I had the kids on Christmas Eve and part of Christmas Day, I was out all day with mum and Marina on Boxing Day watching West Ham, and was out New Years Eve night, it didn’t give me much time to really focus on writing something, but I decided I’d give it a go anyway.

I texted Alan to tell him, and he replied back that he was “on it”, which from subsequent conversations meant that he had already known about it, rather than it being news to him. (Thanks for letting me know about it Al!). The competition had been open for some time, which I could tell by the offer of feedback if the script was submitted before 30th November. Alan was writing with his friend, James, and so the challenge was on.

I started writing that same day, though I felt that I lacked any kind of real impetus. Thankfully I had a couple of ideas that would open a scene well, and once I started writing that then it came a lot easier. Unfortunately when I’d finished writing those parts, I was again stuck. This was a pattern that would go on to repeat itself a fair bit.

Eventually, through four or five long sessions of sitting, writing, and moving the script on I had something. It was pages and pages of stuff, and I hadn’t read it through, so I didn’t know how long it was. I also didn’t know if it flowed well, having written it in several different sessions. It didn’t help that it was the morning of New Years Eve, so if there was anything majorly wrong, it wouldn’t get fixed.

I checked through the guidelines that were given on the webpage again.

It needs to be set on a stage so that it’s not too expensive to put together. Mine was set in an office. two desks and a cupboard behind them, so that was easy enough.

Don’t send the first episode - Mine was a second episode, and though there was some references that could have been perceived as introductory, it didn’t feel like a first episode while I was writing it, which was good.

Make it 15 minutes long - Not over, not under - Ahhh. I had about 17 pages worth of writing here. Having spoken to Alan, he said that James had read through what they had written and they felt that there was about 30 seconds per page. Mind you, in the same sentence he said that they’d done 8 pages and were halfway there. I’d time it when I read it, and would rather have been several pages over than several pages under.

Make sure your sitcom has series potential - I have a problem with this one, mostly that everything has potential. My argument is that you can’t really see where a series is going from 15 minutes, especially with just three characters, which is what an earlier recommendation on the site had said. In other words, there’s a good chance that my sitcom didn’t have series potential. Bugger.

Don’t have extraneous characters in your sitcom - I had no idea what this meant, but the example they gave was that it was better to have a small amount of characters with a large amount of personality than the other way around. They also made a point that actors wouldn’t want to appear in a play where they largely do nothing.

No children and no pets - Easy. Mine had neither.

No awkward props either - This example gave a scenario of a coffin, saying that it’d be hard to move, store and you’d then have to find an actor to lay there for 15 minutes, which they wouldn’t want to do - Two desks and a cupboard, as I’ve already said. Nothing wrong there.

Find a catalyst - Something that will set the ball rolling for the episode - This was something I’d struggled with. I didn’t have a clue what to have as a catalyst and couldn’t think of anything. Even when I thought of existing sitcoms, most catalysts weren’t immediately obvious, or were things that built up over several episodes, such as relationships. I Googled it for more inspiration, but many of the results were tenuous at best. “Their relationship was the catalyst…”, “the sexual tension between the two is the catalyst…” and “the catalyst isn’t immediately obvious…”. In the end I decided that one of the characters would get a phone call about a lump that had been found, and I slotted it in towards the end of the episode. Reading back through the guidelines, it says quite clearly that it should be at the start of the episode, and set that episode up. Mine was clearly setting the next episode up, and to change it would mean re-writing most of what I had. It couldn’t change, so I left it as it was.

Make it funny - Apparently, according to this, Will and Grace had 124 laughs in 22 minutes. When I worked this out it was around 3 laughs per minute. Now I’m writing this, it’s actually closer to 6 laughs per minute, meaning my script needed around 90 laughs instead of 45 in the whole script. As I hadn’t read it through and counted, I guessed that I probably had a laugh or two per minute - well below what I thought my target of 3 per minute was.

After going through these, I sat down and read the script at a speaking pace, rather than a faster reading pace. When I finished I looked up. 15 minutes. Almost dead on. I couldn’t believe it, and was over the moon. As it turned out it was about 1 page per minute which meant that I didn’t have to lose anything and I could tweak the script where needed.

I read through it again, counting the number of laughs that were there. I can’t begin to describe how difficult this was. When you watch a sitcom on tv it’s invariably got a laugh track behind it. How many times have you watched something and not laughed, even though there is canned laughter in the background? Similarly, how many times have you laughed at something like The Office, which doesn’t use canned laughter? I bet it’s not three times (or six times as it turned out!) per minute.

I decided to myself that I would include anything “funny” as a laugh. That could be actions, jokes, comebacks to jokes and anything similar. Where there was a comedy pause I would not count it.

These rules should have been easy to follow, but even as I read through it, I struggled. Was this section considered funny? Or not? And if it was, was it one laugh? Or three laughs in that section? It was very objective, but by the time I had finished I had counted 50 laughs in the script, just over three per minute which at the time was great, but now I realise is still well below where it needed to be. That said, there was no way I could have doubled the jokes I had, so it wouldn’t have been changed anyway.

The script read through quite well, and finishes with a reference to something at the start of the show, which I was pleased with. For some reason I always enjoy written columns or episodes that pick up on something previously mentioned. In some ways it feels like a reward for paying attention earlier on.

It also didn’t feel like a first episode, though in my untrained eye I guess it could pass for a first episode or a 100th episode.

I got Marina to read through it, and she enjoyed it, saying it was “better than the car one.” and that she could identify with the characters more. Alan read through it and didn’t really offer any feedback, which is more or less what I expected, and mum read through it, saying it was good. In fact, all three gave the feedback I was more or less expecting, and in some case, needing.

I sent the email off, receiving an automated reply thanking me for my entry. The decision as to which scripts get looked at further is made on 21st Jan, and there’s either 16 or 32 that get put forward. Alan told me a few days after it had closed that they’d received 500 entries. I have also just seen that for £10 I could have got some feedback on the script, but didn’t see that at the time, sod it.

So, all in all I had 9 days to write something, including the days over Christmas that I was busy, and still managed it from scratch. 4,000 words, over 15 pages and 50 jokes. All good. And I take pride in the fact that I managed to get it done and sent in that time. Whether it goes through or not remains to be seen, but I shall obviously keep my fingers crossed

Wish me luck!

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