I’ve been working on a few different scripts recently and had some people contact me to ask how I would write a sitcom script. Some of the free self-help items I found online seem overly vague – things like 1. Think of an idea for a sitcom episode. 2. Write your sitcom episode. 3. Edit your sitcom episode so it is a better episode… This kind of stuff made me think writing something up might help a lot of people who want to write a sitcom script.*
I’ll organize this in sections from general advice to structural rules when writing a sitcom episode. You can apply the general advice to any tv show, but the structural advice is about sitcoms.
1. The show should be currently on-air.
2. A really long running show is harder to write for. It is more likely the plot you thought of has already been done in some form.
3. Watch every episode of the show you want to write for back to back if possible. This helps you absorb the show’s natural rhythms.
4. Take super anal retentive notes about settings while watching the most current season of the show. Where does everyone usually sit or stand on screen? Do they use one set more often than the others for scenes? How are rooms set up and how do they relate to one another? Does it matter? Where do the writers take liberties / what is likely to stay consistent across episodes?
5. Get hard copies of scripts for the show. Sometimes this is difficult. Get at least one script, recent is better.
6. Learn proper general script formatting and then the specifics for the show you’re interested in. I recommend Syd Field’s Screenplay. It’s very straightforward and well organized.
7. Write your script in Final Draft, or if you want to use something cheaper, make sure it has the correct template for writing a script in there. Approximations of templates are not ok most of the time from what I’ve seen. The format for scripts helps you avoid writing lines that are too long for the characters and it helps you write a script that is an appropriate length.
8. Keep episodes of the show handy when you start to write. If you’re not sure about a room set up, or if a character would say something, watch the show again to figure it out. Lots of times you can take liberties, but check on the show to see if they change around set ups a lot or not.
9. Count the number of scenes in 2-3 episodes and average them. That’s about how many scenes you want in your script.
10. Time scenes in 2-3 episodes. The average scene length is something you’ll want to match in your script.
11. Watch the story structure of the show carefully. A + B plot is common, but sometimes the B plot is very insignificant, or it wraps into the A plot in a certain way. For example on some shows, the B plot is separate from the A plot but manages to tie in by the end. On other shows, the B plot is a subtle element of the A plot that is really more of a theme that pops up repeatedly while the A plot drives the story. Etc.
12. When you write dialogue, shorter lines are better. This is where the correct script format comes in handy. If your characters have lines that run over three rows regularly, they are saying too much at once. Break it down into shorter lines with more interaction between the characters.
This is generic structural info you will need to tweak based on the show you’re watching. Very generally, the following applies to a sitcom –
1. Standard sitcom length = 22 minutes
2. Standard number of scenes = 28
3. Standard number of pages = 35-40
4. Scenes are generally 1-3 minutes long each (not too many 3 minute ones!)
5. If the sitcom has a teaser, it likely runs about 2-3 minutes and then there’s a commercial break.
5a. If there is no teaser, the other acts will be slightly longer.
6. Act One = 7-8 minutes and you should have set up your A & B plot. There’s a commercial break, and the break should fall right after something the viewer wants to find out about (so they sit through the commercials waiting).
7. Act Two = 7-8 minutes, A & B plots move forward trying to resolve the conflict created in Act One. By the end of the 7-8 minutes, the solution should be discovered and partially resolved, or ready to resolve in a way that meets with success. Again, you should have something interesting happen at the end of this act as there is another commercial break. You again want the viewer interested enough to sit through commercials and watch the conclusion of the story.
8. Conclusion = 3-4 minutes
GENERAL THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND – This structural information is incredibly generic. Each show has its own way of doing things. It is typical for a sitcom to have a few more or less scenes than 28 depending on the show. If you time and count scenes and look at page count in a script and match to all of that, you should be on the right track.
Everyone has a different way of writing and developing material. However, no matter what your style, if you are writing for TV, structure is very important. The acts of your sitcom need to line up correctly with commercial breaks. This is much harder to do if you don’t think about it carefully before writing your script. I recommend cards (read more about this in Syd Field’s book), or a list. Write out steps for everything that you want to happen and everything that needs to happen. Write one step/event per card. (You may lose some cards shaping the story.) Then shuffle the cards to best tell your story AND fit the structure for the half-hour episode.
If you have time, putting your draft down and walking away for a couple of days or more can help you see it with fresh eyes when you return. Otherwise, a great way to improve your script is to ask some close friends to review it. Choose people who are good at analyzing writing and giving constructive feedback.
*NOTE: If you’re not sure what A-plot/B-plot, teaser, acts, story arcs, etc. mean exactly you should read up on each of these. If you understand them intuitively great! It’s just vocabulary then. If you don’t understand them intuitively, then it’s a fantastic way to get the hang of structure in writing.