Notes on Writing Sitcoms Using a Formula Plot Template

I’m not a professional sitcom writer. I’m just a guy who sat down with a pencil and paper and watched dozens of sitcoms, pausing them each time there was a plot change and making notes in order to reverse engineer the formula plot template Hollywood writers use. Don’t take these notes as gospel. At any rate, every sitcom has a slightly different formula. There is no single or correct formula. My notes won’t give you that, but they will give you a lot of useful insight into plotting using a formula.

Sitcoms are easy to write and cheap to film. If you want to build a career in the entertainment industry, you can build a portfolio pretty quickly and easily writing sitcoms and filming them yourself. This job will be made even quicker and easier if you work from a formula plot template. Artsy authors who write epic novels may sneer at formula plots, but Hollywood producers love them.

A 30 minute sitcom actually only has about 20 minutes of screen time. The other ten minutes are taken up by commercials and credits. Writing and filming a 20 minute story is far simpler than writing a 30 minute story. That’s not even really enough time to tell a full story. The whole story has to be fast forwarded. You don’t have time for complicated set-ups or repercussions, subplots, sub-characters, red herrings or other complicated literary devices. You can fit any one of those devices into a sitcom, but that’s pretty much all your story will have time to support.

When writing a sitcom you’re almost asked to write the bare minimum. This may sound great to a lazy writer, but with great freedom comes great responsibility. You have to micro manage every minute of your screenplay, and if you try to do that without basing your script on any sort of template you’re shooting at a target with one eye covered.

Using a template for sitcom script writing not only gives you the advantage that you’re basically just filling in the blanks with fun ideas, but if your template conforms to the technical expectations of Hollywood producers then you’ve got a recipe for success.

There’s no one right way to write a sitcom, but I’m about to show you a template that will explain the basics sitcom structure. It focuses entirely on organizing the protagonist’s main plot line leaving out minor characters and subplots. You’re probably never going to write a bare bones sitcom following this exact template, but once you understand the basic concept of the protagonist’s main plot then you can (and should) break the rules to make a sitcom that fits your need.

After I’ve explained the basics of organizing the protagonist’s main plot line then I’ll elaborate on how to add subplots and manipulate the general sitcom template in other ways.

The Protagonist’s Journey

The Introduction

The first 1-3 minutes of your sitcom is the introduction segment. Then the opening credits role. The screen time allotted for this time frame must serve a very specific purpose. It establishes what the protagonist wants (in this episode). The first 1-3 minutes don’t (usually) reveal the antagonist or any obstacles that will stand in the protagonists way. You can squeeze that in, but if you’re new to writing sitcoms, try writing a simple script first.

There was an episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” that began with the gang standing in a parking lot drinking beers shouting, “Reunion! Reunion! Reunion!” In those three words they established that that episode’s plot would revolve around them going to a high school reunion. For the rest of the time until the opening credits rolled each character expressed why they wanted to go to the reunion. No obstacles were introduced. All the audience learned was where they were, who would be in the episode and what they wanted. It was a prime example of good sitcom writing, and it worked. The episode flowed logically and was enjoyable.

This short, 1-3 minute skit needs to have a beginning, middle and end. Or you could think of it as a set up, a delivery and a reaction. It’s basically a joke. It says, “Here’s where I’m at. Here’s where I want to be…but that’s my life!”

When you’re outlining your script, don’t write this whole scene before starting on the next scene. Write one or two sentences saying (not showing) what happens in the scene to establish what the protagonist wants. After you’re finished outlining the whole sitcom then you can go back and “show, don’t tell.”

The Middle- Part 1

The middle of the story lasts 15 minutes, and is divided into 3, 5-minute segments.

The Middle-Part 1 introduces the protagonist and the audience to the main obstacle that will stand between the protagonist and his dream of the week. In a standard movie or novel the protagonist would experience a catastrophic cataclysm that irrevocably cuts him off from the most important goal of his entire life. It’s like the pillars of the earth are ripped out from underneath him destroying the foundation of his existence, which will require him to reassess everything he’s ever taken for granted and reinvent himself to overcome this unprecedented challenge.

In sitcoms that will happen to a small degree in season finales, but in a sitcom the protagonist has to begin every episode in basically the same place he started the last one and the same place he’ll start the next one. So to tear out the foundation of his world is to rip out the foundation of the sitcom, and to reinvent the protagonist is to invent a new sitcom.

For those reasons, the protagonist of a sitcom can’t suffer an apocalyptic cataclysm that turns his whole world upside down. Instead, of having the floor fall out from under him he should just have a wall appear in front of him that prevents him from achieving the most important goal in his short-term life plan.

For example, Seinfeld’s life plan (in the series) was to become a world famous comedian. His character only ever took a few steps towards that goal through the 9 seasons it aired. Instead, each episode focused on him and his friends confronting day-to-day obstacles that stood in the way of their short-term goals such as having a good meal, having casual relationships, renting a car or helping a friend. The protagonist’s goal of the week is should be expressed in the first 1-3 minutes before the credits, and in the Middle-Part 1 it’s established what the main obstacle between him and that goal is.

Since you have to begin a new scene after the opening credits that means you have to begin that scene (as you do every scene) with an introductory segway bit that establishes where the protagonist is now and what he’s doing.

A the writer you already know (in a general sense) where the protagonist should be and what he should be doing. He should be at the next logical place to do the next logical thing to fulfil his want. You can establish where he’s at and what he’s doing with one camera shot and a sentence. It could only take two seconds, but it has to be there. The audience needs it to keep them on track with your fast-forwarded story. Plus, it will set you up for what happens next.

As soon as you’ve established where he’s at and what he’s doing then you establish the main obstacle that will stand in between the protagonist and his goal. It’s important to pick this obstacle carefully, because the rest of the episode is about this obstacle as much as it’s about the protagonist. After all, the protagonist will spend the rest of the episode trying to neutralize this problem in order to get what he wants.

The Middle- Part 1 has to have a beginning, middle and end. You’ve already written the introduction where you establish where the protagonist is and what he’s doing. You wrote the middle where something gets in the way of the protagonist and his goal. Now, you need to cap-off this segment of the story with a logical ending. The logical thing to do after someone has discovered a dire obstacle between them and their goal is to freak out and then recollect themself. The characters in Seinfeld and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are usually screaming at this point. Then they have a huddle and figure out what they’re going to do address the problem.

The plan they come up with has to reflect the characters who came up with the plan. The characters from “Workaholics” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” would approach the same problem from very different angles. If you’ve already mapped out your characters right down to what their personality type is then the scenes where they formulate a plan should write themselves. You shouldn’t ever ask yourself, “What should I have my characters do next?” You should always ask yourself, “What would my characters do next?”

Once your characters have stated what they’re going to do to solve the problem you can throw in a punch line and end the scene.

The Middle- Part 2

You begin a new scene here. It will establish where you’re protagonist is at now and what he’s doing. He should be at the next logical place to do the next logical thing to enact his plan.That’s the introductory scene to The Middle-Part 2.

Once you’ve set that up the protagonist will actively put his plan in motion. However, that plan can’t work. If it did then the episode would be over. So the protagonist must encounter another obstacle. This obstacle isn’t apocalyptic and life changing, and it’s not standing between him and his dream. It’s a minor, amusing problem that stands between him and his ability to solve the bigger problem that’s preventing him from achieving his goal of the week. So it’s a little problem within a bigger problem…like a Russian stacking doll.

It doesn’t matter if the protagonist overcomes this (or any other) obstacle throughout the story. The protagonist can lose every single battle and the war. He can just bounce around like a pin ball getting hit in the face by life until he falls into a hole in the ground and dies. What’s important is that there are progressively bigger obstacles between him and that which he’s motivated to attain, and he confronts those obstacles according to his own personal style. That’s what builds tension and puts the audience on the edge of their seats.

Another logical reason why protagonists often fail to overcome minor obstacles is because it would be extremely hard to maintain a sitcom about a protagonist who waltzes through every problem for  9 seasons. “Highlander” had this problem. You knew that the protagonist had to win in every episode, because to lose would mean getting his head cut off. This was exciting for a while, but after a few seasons there was just no point to watch the show anymore…and it was cancelled.

If your protagonist is going to fail then there needs to be a logical reason why. There are really only two reasons why a protagonist ever fails to achieve their goals. Either the obstacles in front of them are simply insurmountable or the protagonist has a major character flaw. If the only reason the protagonist ever fails at anything is because life is just that unfair then you’re going to have a very depressing sitcom. However, if the protagonist has a major character flaw that often gets in his way then his successes and failures will make more sense.  From that point of view, Archer and House from “Archer’ and “House” almost had to be drug-addicted, obstinate jerks. If the protagonist’s character flaw helps him sometimes and hinders him sometimes then you’ll keep the audience on the edge of their seats guessing what will happen next.

If you simply can’t bear to soil your protagonist with a major character flaw you can give him a problematic sidekick that screws things up for him, but this can get annoying if every episode is based on that premise. A classic example is “Inspector Gadget.” Despite the misleading title, the protagonist was Inspector Gadget’s niece, Penny. She was a nearly flawless super hero whose brilliant schemes were always complicated by her retarded alter ego, Inspector Gadget. The show had a novel premise, but it got boring watching Inspector Gadget complicate Penny’s life every single episode, and the show was cancelled.

A more interesting reinvention of “Inspector Gadget” is “Wilfred.” In “Wilfred” the protagonist (Ryan) has a goal he wants to accomplish, but his bungling sidekick, a talking man-dog named Wilfred, serves as his sidekick and a minor antagonist who places minor obstacles in Ryan’s path as he tries to overcome the primary obstacle in each episode. This works better than “Inspector Gadget” because both Ryan and Wilfred are both tragically flawed characters with their own redeeming qualities as well. Plus the jokes are funnier. It all adds up to a multi-faceted, entertaining sitcom.  However, since it does stick to the same formula every episode it does get a little tedious after a couple of episodes.

It’s worth noting that protagonists in sitcoms fail more frequently than protagonists in blockbuster movies. People watch blockbuster movies to see the protagonist win so they can feel good about themselves. People don’t watch sitcom to see if the protagonist wins or loses. They watch sitcoms to see what kind of zany situations will stand between the protagonist and his goal of the week, what kind of zany methods he’ll use to attempt to solve those problems and whether or not the writer can deliver these rote, tension building devices in a way that actually makes the audience laugh, cry or feel any emotion other than the dull, cold comfort they’ve settled into in their drab, suburban lives.

If you’re having trouble figuring out what obstacles to put in front of your protagonist, just ask yourself what a bored, suburban TV zombie would wish they could see happen in real life. Or just copy and paste the real problems that normal people face every day like Seinfeld did with its idiosyncratic insights into the little trials of life like “double dipping” and trying to spend as much time in the shower as possible. Those little problems resonate with people, and if you spice them up then they’ll really get a reaction from the audience. Or you could write a sitcom like “Heroes” that is geared towards letting suburbanites live out their fantasy of having super powers and saving the world from super villains. If you can’t think of a better obstacle to put in front of your character than say a literal road block preventing your character from getting across town to watch “Thunder Gun Express” then you can make that boring road block interesting by having the road block be there because the president’s motorcade is coming through town and the secret service has the entire area on lockdown. If you can’t make mundane problems interesting then you probably shouldn’t be writing sitcoms.

If the protagonist manages to get past the first sub-obstacle in 30 seconds then just keep putting progressively more difficult sub-obstacles between him and the main obstacle of the episode. Each new sub-obstacle will have to constitute a new scene with its own introductory shot. Then the protagonist will have to figure out a way to address the new sub-obstacle and then attempt to enact his plan. The plan will then succeed or fail as is characteristic for the protagonist. Do this until you’ve filled 5 minutes. If you’re having a hard time filling space or it doesn’t make sense to add a new sub-obstacle then just add a fluffy joke segment. A sub-character may go on a rant or the protagonist may force you to watch a Johnny Cash video for three minutes. Or you could spend that extra time pumping up how important it is to the protagonist that he accomplishes his goal or how difficult it’s going to be for him to accomplish that goal.

The sub-obstacles that present themselves to the protagonist in The Middle- Part 2 don’t have to be logically connected together. The only connection they need to have is that they block the protagonist’s path to his dream. These obstacles can be completely random and be delivered by a deus ex machina with no foreshadowing or relevance to the story afterwards. Normally this would be a lazy way to structure a story at best or cheating at worst. However, this form of storytelling is often easier for zoned-out television viewers to follow. They don’t want to have to track the plot with a pencil and paper every week. They don’t want to watch “Primer” over and over again. They just want to see something amusing happen. So don’t get hung up on trying to tie your plot line into an elegant Celtic knot.

For example, if your protagonist wanted to get across town to watch the movie “Thunder Gun Express” at a movie theatre you could literally throw a road block in his way. After that, have him miss a train and then have him hijack a boat. None of those events technically have anything to do with each other except they’re all obstacles that stand between the protagonist and his goal, and they get progressively more intense.

Once you’ve had your protagonist jumping over and smacking into hurdles for 5 minutes throw in a punch line and end the scene.

The Middle- Part 3

The protagonist has been working towards his goal for 13 minutes now. What started as a straightforward goal has devolved into a gauntlet of progressively more outlandish obstacles that he’s had to endure just to get to the main obstacle that knocked his day off course in the first place.

Now the stakes are as high as they’re going to get, and the antagonist has the upper hand. Time is running out, and the protagonist is getting desperate. So he pulls out his last resort and throws a Hail-Mary. Likewise, the antagonist could be getting desperate to stop the protagonist’s surprising success at passing all the minor obstacles. So the antagonist throws one more major punch. It doesn’t matter who throws the final punch, but somebody has to.

The last resort either succeeds or fails completely to neutralize the primary obstacle (regardless of whether or not any of the minor obstacles were ever successfully neutralized). By the end of this scene it is absolutely clear whether or not the protagonist was able to attain the prize he’s been chasing the entire episode. If the protagonist has to enter a boxing match to save the orphanage then the referee should be holding up one of the boxer’s hands and declaring the winner as the bell rings. This should happen between 17-18 minutes into the sitcom.

The Sunset-

There are only 1-3 minutes of screen time left after the knockout punch has been delivered. This final scene shows how the outcome of the episode’s conflict will affect the protagonist’s future, which won’t be much. This final scene doesn’t have to have an ingenious turn-about or give the audience closure to the protagonist’s life. It just shows where the protagonist and what he’s doing now that the storm has passed. The protagonist can be in jail, the hospital or in another country, and you don’t have to explain how he gets back to his normal life by the next episode. You can just start the next episode like nothing ever happened if you want to.

The final 3 minutes of your sitcom should be the easiest scene to write. It should be logical how the outcome of the episode will affect the protagonist. If he won then he won. If he lost then he lost. Just show that in an amusing way. And since this scene doesn’t have to set up a following scene then it doesn’t matter how it ends. It just matters that it ends with a really amusing punch line.

 CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST OF MY NOTES ON SITCOM WRITING…

 There’s 15 pages total, and it includes a few cheat sheets and goes more into depth on subplots and variations. I didn’t want to post all 15 pages on the front page of my blog because very few people who read this site will want to scroll through all that. I’ll be updating and expanding these notes over time, and eventually I’ll compile them all into a free, handy E-book.


4 responses to “Notes on Writing Sitcoms Using a Formula Plot Template

  • Existence Precedes Essence: A Look Into BoJack Horseman | Make It Count: The Language Of Television

    […] It’s genre would be considered animated comedy. It has all the specific features of a comedy, the standard 5 segmented parts, broken down over the half hour episode. Yet, it contains this underlying element of drama, not […]

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  • Arthur

    I love your take on writing. I’ve become a big fan of narrative engineers such as yourself and honestly believe every writer needs to spend the time getting their hands dirty learning how to become a bit more methodical and a little less delusional! Story is a science, an engine if you like that without the correct parts simply doesn’t work…

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  • Mindy Willens

    I tried to click on reading more about including subplots and such but it’s not in a format my computer accepts… Is there a way I can get this and read it? Your information is SO helpful to me. Thanks.

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    • wise sloth

      Try this link.

      You also might want to download and/or update your Adobe Reader software.

      Like

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