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Help for Frustrated Sitcom Writers: 3) What, Exactly, Do You Want?

Following on from the last blog about inciting incidents and creating a problem for your central characters to solve, the fundamental thing that goes hand-in-hand with that is… what does anyone want?

It’s the first thing that I ask when a scene starts to flounder. We want to see characters with a goal or desire acting under pressure (for example, a writer with a deadline. Just don’t write about a writer with a deadline, far too many people do that.). If a scene isn’t working, it’s often because the goal isn’t clear enough, it’s not being chased or there isn’t enough pressure.

Is This Clear Enough?

Let’s choose a random episode of Friends.

Series 5 Episode 3 The One Hundredth aka The One With The Triplets

Phoebe, Rachel, Joey and Ross enter a hospital waiting room and approach the receptionist.

Phoebe: Hi, I’m Phoebe Buffay and I have babies coming out of me.

Receptionist: Okay. Have you started having contractions?

Phoebe: Not yet. I heard they really hurt. Do they hurt?

Receptionist: Oh, well…

Phoebe: Oh my god!

It appears that Phoebe Wants to give birth in as easy and painless way as possible, but at this late stage is ignorant of the process. The receptionist Wants to do her job as well as she can and without any mishaps. It turns out that Phoebe just Wants to mess with the receptionist.

But she does Want as simple a birth as possible. Cool. What could get in her way? Her doctor has fallen in the shower and hit her head and Phoebe is assigned a replacement doctor who is the head of department and wonderful. And he also loves Fonzie. Ross finds a replacement, who is about 12, so we’re back with the weird Fonzie-loving dude.

This is a scientific way of working. Find a theory and then try to disprove it. Suggest a thesis and then apply plenty of antithesis. Phoebe Wants to have a stress-free birth – come up with plenty of reasons why she can’t or won’t. The weird reason here fits Phoebe’s personality perfectly – a totally random Fonzie-loving doctor wouldn’t have worked for Rachel or Monica.

Phoebe has a goal (have a stress-free birth) and is under pressure (she’s in labour and her regular doctor isn’t here). I’m pretty sure this scenario ticks both boxes.

In this episode…

(A Plot) Phoebe Wants a stress-free birth.

(A Plot) The doctor Wants to watch Happy Days.

(A Plot) Frank Wants all three babies.

(A Plot) Phoebe Wants one baby.

(B Plot) Rachel Wants to go on a double date with Monica and the two handsome male nurses.

(B Plot) Monica Wants to be with Chandler exclusively.

(B Plot) Chandler Wants to be with Monica exclusively.

(B Plot) Monica and Chandler Want to keep their relationship quiet.

(C Plot) Joey Wants to video the birthing process.

(C Plot) Joey Wants to stop the pain from his kidney stones

It’s Not Yes, And… It’s Yes, But…

We can add these Wants together to create conflict:

(A Plot) Phoebe Wants a stress-free birth BUT the doctor Wants to watch Happy Days.

(A Plot) Frank Wants all three babies BUT Phoebe Wants one baby.

(B Plot) Rachel Wants to go on a double date BUT Monica and Chandler Want to be exclusive BUT they Want to keep the relationship quiet.

The C Plot is pretty much a mirror of the A Plot, but with a man giving birth.

Once the Wants and Buts are in place, it’s up to you how long and deep and dirty you go with each one. The clash between Phoebe and the Fonzie-loving doctor could easily have gone on for longer and become more intense and been the whole focus of the episode, and an earlier version of the script apparently had Phoebe more insistent on keeping one of the triplets, but the producers decided it would be more dramatic for her to let them go.

This may seem to be stark-raving obvious, in which case, make sure it’s there in your script, not just in your head. Be prepared to go through it with a fine toothcomb and set it out like the above. Give it to other people to read – as soon as one person flags up that they don’t know what a character wants in a scene, or they think a character isn’t acting based on their desire, that scene needs fixing.

Everybody’s Happy? End of Scene!

Compare all of this conflict with one scene where both characters are in full agreement. Phoebe is thinking of keeping one of the three babies. Rachel thinks it’s a bad idea, but Phoebe asks her to suggest it to Frank, her brother, who she’s having the babies for. We go into a scene where Rachel wants Frank to agree with her:

Rachel: So, Frank, three babies? Whoo! That just seems like a lot, huh?

Frank: Not to me.

Rachel: Yeah, fair enough.

End of scene. Rachel has no motivation whatsoever to convince Frank to give up one of his babies to Phoebe. Had Phoebe said, “Rachel, I want one of my babies. You have to convince Frank or I’ll never speak to you again” the stakes are much higher; Rachel would have a greater reason to talk Frank into it and we would have had a completely different episode altogether.

John Finnemore, author and star of Cabin Pressure and so much more, said that plot was “about [characters] changing each other’s minds.” If both characters are in agreement about everything, then there’s nowhere to go.

Actors and Philosophers Do It All The Time

“What’s my motivation?” “Why am I here?” “What’s my purpose?” – are great questions to ask about your characters in each scene. Each of them has to justify their existence, so try writing it at the top of each scene before you start it and refer back to it if you get stuck.


Published by Declan Hill

I write about sitcoms in advertising.

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