I created this sitcom template by analyzing popular TV shows and breaking them down into their fundamental parts and identifying the most common denominators. I found sitcom episodes tend to follow a predictable 5-Act structure. This formula helps you create stories with multiple protagonists and sublplots. For a more basic version with one protagonist on one main quest, read “Basic Sitcom Episode Plot Template For TV Screenwriters”
INTRODUCTION TO USING MULTIPLE PROTAGONISTS
Since it’s so hard to have a single protagonist fill an entire episode, sometimes sitcoms will use what I call “a protagonist with multiple heads.” “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is a good example of this. It uses a protagonist with 4 heads. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael are all the protagonists of the show. They each have their own personalities, strengths and weaknesses, but they act as a team to solve a single problem, which is almost always to defeat their nemesis, Shredder.
Shows like “Seinfeld,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Workaholics” use a slightly more complicated formula. Often times the gang will have a major problem that affects all of them and that they all need to work together as a multi-headed protagonist to solve the big problem, just like the Ninja Turtles.
However, each of the characters in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Workaholics” will have their own reasons for wanting to address the problem, whereas in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” the writers never dwelt much on each of the protagonists’ motives. It was just taken for granted that they all wanted to stop Shredder to save the world, which made the show a little stale.
Other times, the characters will split up into teams. Two characters will have their own reasons to accomplish a common goal, two more will share another quest, and one character may be one their own hero’s journey. Each episode cycles different combinations.
SUMMARY OF THE 5-ACT STRUCTURE
WITH MULTIPLE PROTAGONISTS
1: THE INTRODUCTION (1-3 MIN)
In the first 1-3 minutes of the sitcom the protagonists state their respective goals for the episode. You can just have all the protagonists sitting in a diner or standing in a bar having a conversation. In that conversation they each say what they want, one after another.
2: THE CATALYST (3-8 MIN)
One thing happens that prevents all of the protagonists from achieving their goal. Then they huddle together and figure out how to overcome the obstacle. They each come up with a solution based on their motives, strengths and weaknesses that may or may not result in them working together. They state their plan and their reason for choosing that plan one after another.
3: COMPLICATIONS AND ESCALATIONS (8-13 MIN)
Each protagonist attacks the problem for a different angle depending on their personality, strengths and weaknesses.
4: THE SHOWDOWN (13-18 MIN)
Each protagonist’s successes or failures affect the team’s overall ability to solve their common problem.
5: THE SUNSET (18-21 MIN)
Show all the characters together back at their regular haunt. Show whether each character got what they wanted or not.
INTRODUCTION TO SUBPLOTS
If you only have one protagonist then you may find it hard to flesh out a complete 20 minute story. You may find that your scenes are dragging on too long or the plot is getting ridiculously complicated because you have too much time to fill. You don’t have to make your protagonist’s mission more complicated to fill air time and create the entertainment factor. Instead, you can weave in a subplot that follows a minor character.
Minor characters’ subplots should be able to stand alone as their own story. They should have a beginning, where the minor character (who is the star of the subplot) reveals what they want and how they plan to get it. They have a middle, where the minor character does something to try to get what they want, and they have an end where the minor character either achieves their goal or they don’t.
Most of your sitcom’s total screen time is going to be taken up with the protagonist’s quest, and every minute you take away from the protagonist’s main story line is less time the protagonist has to accomplish his goal. Thus the fewer complications the protagonist can confront and the less time he can spend deciding what to do much less actually doing anything proactive. This can work to your advantage if the protagonist’s quest is pretty straight forward and would be ruined by cramming in unnecessary complications, but subplots can work to your disadvantage if they drag on too long and don’t leave enough time to wrap up the protagonist’s quest. You’ll likely have that problem if you try to cram too many subplots revolving around too many minor characters into a 20 minute sitcom. Don’t try to include more than one or two (at the most) subplots.
Don’t be intimidated by subplots. If you’re basing your sitcom on a formula plot then weaving subplots into the main plot is easy because you know where you can logically fit them in as well as what will have to be shrunk as a result.
It’s great if the minor character’s subplot ties into the protagonist’s plot, but it isn’t necessary. For example, you could have the protagonist stay at home and try to write a book while the minor character goes on holiday with old friends from high school. That would keep the two story lines almost completely separate other than the protagonist and the minor character telling each other what they’re going to do in the very beginning and then talking about what happened afterwards at the very end.
On the other hand, if your protagonist is going to a high school reunion then it might make sense for a minor character to tag along and have their own subplot about confronting an ex-lover or bully at the reunion. The minor character’s subplot doesn’t necessarily have to have any effect on whether or not the protagonist succeeds or fails. However, it looks pretty clever when the minor character finishes their story line at the 16-17 minute marks, and the results of their actions have a direct effect on what the protagonist is able to do between the 17-18 minute marks to neutralize (or be neutralized by) his main obstacle.
There was an episode of “How I Met Your Mother” entitled “The Drunk Train.” It followed 3 plot lines, and although none of them really directly affected the outcome of the others, they all analysed the topic of love from different perspectives. So they felt like they tied together, and in fact, since they tied together on a meta level the result was just as satisfying as if the events affected each other.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF SUBPLOTS
Instead of cutting to new scenes where the minor character walks through their own subplot you could have the protagonist walk through their own subplot. For example, if the protagonist’s primary goal is to go to a job interview, but his main obstacle is that he doesn’t have a car then he could spend the whole episode running around town. To make this more interesting you could have a minor character struggle with getting a date. Or you could have the protagonist running around town trying to get to a job interview while also juggling the unrelated sub-quest of trying to get a date.
You can combine these strategies by giving the protagonist a main quest and a sub quest…and also have a minor character engaged in their own subplot quest. In this case you would plot your story as if the protagonist’s subplot is a second minor character’s subplot. The protagonist’s main quest will be shorter, but it should still take up the bulk of the episode’s screen time.
Another variation on these plots is to combine a multi-headed protagonist and minor character’s subplot in the same story. In this case there will be no single character who is clearly distinguishable as the protagonist. This would be a mortal sin in a blockbuster movie or a novel, but sitcom audiences are fine with it.
The easiest way to explain how to do this is to use a two-headed protagonist and one minor character. This is a popular formula because it’s clean, and it ends up filling the right amount of time. “Black Books” is a good example. The protagonists are Bernard Black and Manny. They’ll collaborate on a single quest while the recurring minor character, Fran, works on her own quest.
“Black Books” often uses another variation on this formula. It will use one of its protagonists as the antagonist for an episode. Manny will be trying to run a successful book shop while Bernard thwarts his best attempts until Manny neutralizes Bernard…or Bernard neutralizes Manny…or fate neutralizes both of them. Meanwhile, Fran is doing her own thing.
In the “Tales From the Crypt” episode, “Collection Complete” there are two protagonists who are each other’s antagonists, and there are no other subplots. This was a straightforward episode, but its simplicity required the characters to fill most of the episode by constantly restating how the two protagonists were preventing each other from fulfilling their goal (and thus becoming each other’s antagonists), which got kind of boring.
If you’re writing a sitcom with four or five recurring protagonists like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and you want to give screen time to all the characters then you’ll have a hard time fitting in four quests even without trying to squeeze in a minor character’s subquest. In that case you can split your four protagonists into two protagonists with two heads. In “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” Mac and Dennis will often team up with each other to solve a common goal/obstacle while Charlie and Frank collaborate on a separate goal/obstacle leaving Dee to play a minor character with her own subplot. In another episode Frank, Dee and Mac might solve a common problem (though they each have their own reasons for doing so) while Charlie and Dee team up to collaborate on a separate problem. You can cut the cake anyway you want.
SUMMARY OF THE 5-ACT SITCOM STRUCTURE
WITH MULTIPLE SUBPLOTS
1: THE INTRODUCTION (1-3 MIN)
Establish what the protagonists want, one at a time or together.
2: THE CATALYST (3-8 MIN)
An obstacle appears between the protagonist and his goal.
The protagonist reacts to the antagonist/obstacle in his own signature fashion.
Cut to a new scene that establishes what the minor character wants and how he plans to get it.
Cut to a new scene where the protagonist comes up with a plan to neutralize his primary obstacle.
3: COMPLICATIONS AND ESCALATIONS (8-13 MIN)
The protagonist enacts his plan, but he’s blocked by a minor obstacle.
The protagonist comes up with a plan to neutralize the minor obstacle in his way.
Cut to a new scene that shows the minor character enacting his plan and running into his own resistance.
Cut to a new scene where the protagonist enacts his plan and succeeds or fails at overcoming the minor obstacle.
4: THE SHOWDOWN (13-18 MIN)
If the protagonist failed to overcome his sub-obstacle then he comes up with a new plan to neutralize his main obstacle given this new limitation. If he succeed at neutralizing his minor obstacle then he confronts the main obstacle directly with the new strength/resource he gained from his success.
Cut to a new scene where the minor character confronts their primary obstacle and either succeeds or fails at neutralizing it.
Cut to a new scene where the protagonist pulls out his last resort and throws a hail-Mary to beat the antagonist.
The protagonist either wins or loses.
5: THE SUNSET (18-21 MIN)
Show where this chain of events leaves the protagonist and the minor character.
DETAILED BREAK DOWN OF THE 5-ACT SITCOM STRUCTURE
Typically, the first 1-3 minutes of a sitcom are reserved for setting up the protagonist’s main quest. If you put the introduction to the minor character’s subplot here it hogs the spotlight from the protagonist and the audience isn’t sure which story line is the main one. If you’re going to set up or hint at the minor character’s subplot here then do it very quickly and unobtrusively. And there better be a good reason why it was illogical to wait to introduce the subplot until after the opening credits. If you’re new to sitcom writing I would suggest leaving the subplot out of the first 1-3 minutes.
THE MIDDLE: PART 1
The minor character’s subplot is typically introduced between the 6-8 minute marks. At that point the story stops following the protagonist and switches focus to the minor character. This means a new scene begins which the minor character plays the main role. You introduce where he is, what he’s doing, what he wants and how he plans to get it. This whole scene must only take 1-2 minutes. Then the scene ends. Then the story switches back to the protagonist and his quest. When that happens you have to re-establish where the protagonist is and what he’s doing.
This doesn’t leave a lot of time to introduce the subplot. That’s fine. If the subplot takes too long it’ll distract and confuse the audience. The time limitation on the subplot will make it easier to write if you let it. The subplot doesn’t have time to be serious or complicated. It’s a quick scene with a quick joke. It gives the audience a chance to breathe more than it gives the audience another puzzle to figure out. Don’t make it harder than it is.
The logical time to insert the minor character’s introductory subquest scene is right after the protagonist is finished establishing what his problem is and what he’s going to do about it. Since the audience has just seen the protagonist do it they’re not thrown for a loop when they see another character go through the same thing. But if you wait until after the protagonist has been working on his problem for 10-15 minutes it’s going to feel clunky to see a minor character just begin their quest, and you’re not going to have any time to flesh out that subplot because the episode will almost be over and that time is already reserved for the final showdown between the protagonist and the main obstacle standing between him and his prize.
THE MIDDLE: PART 2
COMPLICATIONS AND ESCALATIONS
During the 8-13 minute marks the protagonist is dancing through a minefield trying to navigate his way to the other side where the grass is greener. The 8-9 minute mark is reserved for the protagonist’s first attempt to overcome the main obstacle. The 12-13 minute mark is reserved to show how the protagonist’s plan is working out for him. Somewhere between the 9-12 minute marks is the logical place to cut away from the protagonist’s story line for a moment and splice in the continuation of the minor character’s subplot for 1-2 minutes.
In those 1-2 minutes the minor character will have one minor obstacle between them and their primary goal. The minor character will only have enough time to take one stab at doing what they do in order to neutralize this obstacle. The situation has to be simple because there isn’t time for any more complications.
It doesn’t particularly matter if the minor character succeeds at neutralizing this minor problem. It’s usually more dramatic if they fail, and that gives them motivation to come back desperate and with a vengeance later. However, they don’t have to succeed or fail at anything in this segment. You could just spend this 1-2 minutes re-establishing how important this quest is to the minor character and what their chances of success are based on their current behaviour. That will raise the tension for the final showdown and give the audience an enjoyable break from the fast-forwarded main plot. Also, this will allow you to focus on getting to know the minor character. If the protagonist is on a practical mission then the minor character’s mission could be emotional or visa/versa, but don’t worry too much about balancing opposites or creating yin-yang situations. The audience’s primary concern is that the subplot lines are entertaining, and they’ll even forgive an uninteresting plot line if it’s delivered in an entertaining way. Keep that mind when you’re asking yourself, “What should happen next?” Something entertaining should happen next, that’s what. Everything else, rules included, are only important to the extent that they makes the final product entertaining.
At any rate, life isn’t organized. All the strings don’t tie together at the end of the day for real people like they do in well-structured novels or blockbuster movies. Just watch an episode of Family Guy if you need proof that you don’t have to write air-tight coherent stories to be a successful sitcom writer. I’m not giving you permission to be sloppy. I’m just saying, don’t give yourself writer’s block trying to write your magnum opus every single episode. Successful sitcom writers don’t.
THE MIDDLE: PART 3
THE FINAL SHOWDOWN
The first minute of Part 3 (the 14-15 minute mark) is reserved to re-establish where the protagonist is and what he’s doing. The 17-18 minute mark is also reserved for the final blow between the protagonist and antagonist to decide the main victor of the episode. This leaves you a three minute window between the 15-17 minute marks to stop the protagonist’s main quest and splice in a 1-2 minute scene that shows the minor character deliver their final blow to the antagonist (or visa/versa), which will decide if the minor character is successful at achieving their goal.
The final 1-3 minutes of a sitcom reveals how the repercussions of the protagonist’s victory or loss. This information isn’t vital to the plot. The real story ended as soon as the victor was decided. This segment is just icing on the cake, and you can take broad liberties with it. At any point you can splice in a few seconds or a few minutes showing the repercussions of the minor character’s victory or loss. Or you could just leave out any mention of the minor character and their fate. It really depends on the situation. But since the protagonist and the minor character see each other day in and day out at the same place, it often makes sense to end a sitcom episode with the protagonist doing something with the minor character that reveals how both their quests have affected them at the same time. Often this means they’re just sitting at their favorite diner or bar talking about what happened to them and how happy or mad they are about how it’s going to affect their short-term future.
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