Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Storytelling tips for sitcom writers (Modern Family).

I guess pretty much everyone knows that storytelling isn't easy at all - because it's really difficult. Yet, at the same time I don't see why anyone should make it seem any harder than it really is.

One of the things that makes sitcom writing seem so hard is that there are concepts out there that are not that clear or easy to understand. For example if you take a look at the standard list of plot elements, it consists of terms like:

1. Introduction.
2. Conflict.
3. Complication.
4. Climax.
5. Resolution.

In theory that's how it's supposed to be done. You come up with an introduction, then there's a conflict or conflicts, then you complicate the whole thing, then there's the climax and finally you try to find a resolution to your storyline.
Yet, I think this is not necessarily the right way to do it when it comes to sitcoms. The list above is ideal for plotting an episode for a show like Macgyver or House where you can bet your... house ..that you're going to have complications.

But it doesn't necessarily work that well in sitcoms. Words like conflict, complication and climax are pretty big, abstract and confusing. They are also pretty cold and negative terms too in my opinion.

For some reason most sitcom books that I have read include this five point list. What is worse is that this list is almost the only thing these books have to say about storytelling. (would you feel confident about writing scripts after reading that list?)

From my own experience I can say that these lists never gave me the courage or the confidence to write. I was never able to come up with anything that made sense or anything that was 'organic'.

In my opinion, it's much easier and much more character-based to come up first with stuff based on the following structure:

1. Something (like an event) is about to happen.
2. Something happens.
3. Reaction to something that happened.

This approach helps you to create storylines without making the process seem too difficult. It's relatively simple and for a reason. No need to immediately think about conflict which usually would mean 'mindless arguing' or complication which too many times turns out to be just a contrived cliche.

If you pay attention to the episodes of Modern Family, a lot of the storylines follow this formula. That is that something is about to happen, then something happens - it might be unexpected - and then there's a reaction to what happened.

If you analyze the show and think about its storylines, it becomes pretty clear that there aren't necessarily always big conflicts, complications or climaxes - even though you might think there would be - based on the standard formula.

Truth is that the more conflicts and complications you have in your script, the more negative and forced the episode is probably going to be.

Another thing is that the episodes only last 21 minutes, which means that you have to keep the storylines pretty straight. The simpler your structure is, the better your script probably is too.

So simple works and simple is good. If you worry too much about the big words like 'conflict' and 'complication', you'll never get started and you'll never finish your script.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Writing another Modern Family script: writing the script.

I did some actual writing this and last week and managed to write my third Modern Family spec script. Like I did with my second script for this show, my writing routine consisted of writing two pages a day, and that was basically it.

So, when I last time wrote here about writing this script, I thought about the storylines. However, I didn't really come up with any beats then. I had some ideas for the first two storylines but I was pretty much clueless about the third one. This meant that I had to do some serious thinking.

Not surprisingly, I feel that my third storyline is probably the weakest. The idea is about Cameron having a bathroom accident which leads to Jay and Phil coming to the rescue - kinda. This storyline wasn't easy to write but perhaps it taught me the most. I had to try to make the implausible somehow plausible.

Nevertheless, the first storyline was about Claire and Mitchell going to Sun Valley with Lily to figure skate. There they introduce Lily to the wonderful world of skating. They also manage to meet Brian Boitano - the olympic gold medalist (and an Emmy winner).

For some reason Boitano recognizes Claire and Mitch from their 'fire & nice' days and they decide to go for a lunch together. What happens is that this storyline culminates in Brian being disappointed with his life - or at least he's having a sad emotional day. This was for the sake of the story of course.

This storyline wouldn't really have been relevant without referencing the song 'What Would Brian Boitano Do?'. I just had to do it and Cameron gets the honor to sing the song over the phone, which hopefully helps to make this episode funny.

The third storyline was about Luke having a date. This was a good idea but I didn't initially have enough material to make it meaningful or emotional. That is before I came up with the idea that Alex is seemingly the only one who doesn't know.

So the way it goes is that Luke has a date, Alex is trying to figure out what's going on, then she's told she's pretty much the only one who doesn't know, then she confronts Luke about it and finally gets to know the reason why he didn't tell her - which makes her like him even more than she used to.

Those are basically the three storylines and I have to say that I was pretty afraid of writing this script. It's not easy to write when you have set the bar too high for yourself. Thankfully, I managed to write it and now I can finally do something else.