Something advertisers do brilliantly is get to the problem and show how to fix it. It’s a thing that sitcom writers often struggle with, spending far too long on back story and set-up.
It’s some skill to tell a story in 30 seconds, and new sitcom writers could learn a lot from advertisers in creating an effective narrative quickly and clearly. I had a look at a few sitcom episodes to see how quickly they set up the inciting incident – AKA the thing that needs to be fixed. Cartoons, written for kids with their terrible attention spans, multi-screening and low boredom thresholds, are the perfect place to start.
The Amazing World of Gumball
Episode: The Puppy
Set Up: Gumball, Darwin and Anais are doing a presentation to their dad on the value of getting a puppy.
Time their Want is declared: 1 minute 15 seconds.
Episode: The Name
Set Up: Gumball and Darwin are playing an amusement arcade game. Gumball wins and has to enter his real name, which he doesn’t know. He vows to find out his real name.
Time his quest is declared: 1 minute 3 seconds.
Teen Titans Go
Episode: Staring at the Future
Set Up: Robin is developing a moustache-growing serum, but is disturbed when Cyborg and Beast Boy smash into the living room on a bull, playing Indoor Rodeo. Robin tells them they need to accept Responsibility and think about their future.
Time the problem is declared: 1 minute 45 seconds.
Episode: Genie President
Set Up: The gang are in the living room, looking into a cardboard box. Robin shows them the contents – a penny. Starfire tells them the story of Abraham Lincoln and Robin has the idea to melt down unwanted pennies for their metal value.
Time of opportunity: 2 minutes 7 seconds.
These episodes are 10 minutes long, so we’re seeing the Problem That Needs To Be Solved on page 2 at the latest. This counters with so many scripts that will be sent to Sitcom Mission, BAFTA Rocliffe and BBC Writersroom this year, many of which won’t have a story at all. I once had a comment from a new writer, “Why do you only want 15-minute episodes? My story doesn’t get going until page 10.” There’s an easy answer to that – cut the first nine pages.
But What About Longer Sitcoms?
The animated examples above usually have a single plotline and are pretty wild and wacky, but what about domestic sitcoms that run to 23 minutes? Ok, let’s look at Friends:
Episode: The One with Phoebe’s Husband
Set Up: Rachel is in her apartment telling her mother not to worry about a recent mugging when she is shocked by a pigeon flying in through the window. She manages to put the pigeon in a saucepan, but unwittingly releases it when a stranger enters the apartment and declares himself to be Phoebe’s long-lost husband.
Time to inciting incident: 1 minute 27 seconds.
Other Things That Happen in This Episode:
Chandler has a third nipple: 3 minutes 38 seconds.
Joey was in a porno movie: 4 minutes 22 seconds.
Rachel is jealous of Julie: 5 minutes 31 seconds.
Episode: The One with the Yeti
Set Up: Joey comes back from an audition and walks in on Monica and Chandler kissing. He tells them that, if he is supposed to be ignorant of their relationship (ie live and tell a lie), he doesn’t want to witness their private displays of affection. They apologise and head off to Monica’s apartment because Rachel is at work. Monica and Chandler’s quest in the cold open (the bit before the opening credits) is to find somewhere private to make out.
Time to reveal of quest in cold open: 59 seconds
Other Things That Happen in This Episode:
Phoebe’s mother sends her a mink coat: 2 minutes 11 seconds.
Ross has to sell his furniture to keep Emily happy: 2 minutes 41 seconds.
Rachel and Monica meet a new resident in the storage room: 5 minutes 2 seconds.
What Can We Learn From This?
Don’t spend pages, time and energy setting things up in the present and lots of printer ink in explaining the past, especially early on. Save it for later.
Get those inciting incidents in early. They don’t have to be huge, life-changing events – they can be domestic, observational comedy subjects that the characters act on.
Try listing ten things (eg, a bird flies in a room, a vegan is sent a fur coat, someone parks their car in front of your drive, someone finds an old doll’s house), then apply one of them to one of your characters. You may find something out about their past that you didn’t know (Phoebe has a secret husband, Chandler has a secret third nipple, Joey was in a porno movie).