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6 Steps to Writing Your First Sitcom Spec Script

January 25, 2012

Page from Malcom in the Middle spec script

Writing a sitcom looks pretty easy, doesn’t it?  Twenty-five minutes of families or hipster friends sharing witty banter amidst getting themselves into sticky situations that faintly mirror real life.  How can that be hard?  In fact it is very hard, and may be arguably the hardest writing around.  Why?  Because not only do you have to write a good story, but you have to be funny, work within specific constraints of commercial breaks, and do it in a limited number of pages.

On top of that, if you want to break-in as a sitcom writer, you need to be able to write episodes for existing shows.  It only makes sense considering most sitcom writers work for shows they did not create.  So put away your pilot sitcom script and follow these six steps to writing a sitcom spec.

1. Watch the show. if you want to write a spec script for a current show, you need to watch it over and over. DVR all the episodes so you can go back and note all the catch phrases, how often they’re used, and who says them. You’ll also want to know where all the doors lead and what set pieces are where.

2. Get a list of all the episodes. You don’t want to write a story that has already been done.  Do this early on because it is that much harder to start from scratch when you’re halfway done with your script.

3. Brainstorm. I like to go to the library and pull a stack of magazines off the shelves. Avoid the entertainment related mags and pick some that maybe the characters from your show would read. What I do is look through the pages at the articles and advertisements and see what ideas come to mind. Many of the images tell stories that are perfect launching pads for your sitcom plot. The goal as with any brainstorming is to come up with a ton of ideas so that you have enough options. With every script there are at least two and often more story lines so you want a lot to choose from.

4. Pitch your story ideas to a friend. A trustworthy second opinion will greatly benefit your writing and hopefully help you avoid writing a script with no appealing “A” story.

5. Create an outline. Before you start scripting, you need to know your ending and your act breaks. If you are writing a two act sitcom, you need to have a big turn, preferably with a big joke at the end of your first act. This is called “the blow”. If you outline your story before scripting, you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches later in the scripting process. You won’t have everything mapped out in your outline, but you’ll at least know where you’re going.

6. Write. Creativity in general and writing specifically are like muscles. You have to work them out. Put all your effort into writing your first script and be ready to rewrite once you’ve passed it by some of your honest friends for feedback. (When we write, we ask our friends to read our work and give us feedback.  Of course what our hearts want is praise, but what we really need is true constructive criticism.  Ditch any attitude and really be willing to listen to and contemplate the advice.)  But once you’ve done that, it will probably be time to move on to your next script. The more you write, the better you will get, which is obvious, but the more you write on different projects the better critic you will become of your own work. One of the best things you can do with your work is set it down for a while and then come back to it. You’ll see the flaws more clearly and be ready to make the script better.

All writing is about rewriting.  A good script is not completed in one pass.  It’s intense work.  It takes serious brainstorming and research and then the discipline to actually sit down and write.  Make yourself a schedule and then follow it because if your a true writer, you’ll probably find a hundred other things to do to instead of write.  That’s just the way it is.

Thomas Mann once said, “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.” Keep this in mind as you write your sitcom spec or any other work.  If you’re in the middle of your piece and you say, “this is easy,” then you’re probably writing crap.  A true writer will struggle with the material and labor over it.  The same can be said for writing sitcoms.  What ends up as laughter inducing fun on the page and maybe screen must first start with severe labor pains.

As you go forward in this pursuit, pour your heart into it because comedy writing is a serious craft.

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