A more structured plan for getting better at narrative comedy?
I’m still working through the second draft of my sitcom pilot, Karthik. Progress is steady, but I’m now at that wonderful stage that can only be described as: “Oh man this is a pile of crap why did I think this would be any good maybe I should cut my losses and move onto a shiny new project and hope that it’ll be magically better somehow even though that strategy has never worked before!”1
I know that’s par for the course, and I’ve promised myself that I’ll keep going.
But as someone who loves a good plan, I wonder if there’s a more structured way to approach rewrites — and improving as a sitcom writer in general — instead of just… hoping for the best.
A lot of tech companies solve this problem using progression frameworks — a tool which helps people “understand their expectations of their role, and how to progress and grow at work”. They’re basically the same as how RPGs / martial arts / cults work, in that there are a series of levels, and a list of skills you need to demonstrate before you can move to the next level.
For example, Artsy have a relatively simple one: a level one engineer can do things like “complete well-defined and subdivided tasks”, while a level five engineer must “consistently deliver large systems involving one or more teams’ contributions”. More complex frameworks — such as the original Monzo one — often split up the levels into categories such as ‘impact’ and ‘leadership’.
So as a thought experiment: what might such a thing look like for sitcom writing? What level am I at? And hence: what can I do to improve, and make Karthik better?2
I think I’m at level two. As I wrote previously, I’m not sure my current premise is inherently fresh or strong enough to reach the higher levels. (That said, all the main characters are Sri Lankan — which technically provides some base-level freshness even if I’m not doing anything special…)
This is by far my weakest skill: I’m still at level one. I tried focusing on this last summer, working through books like Creating Unforgettable Characters (which is great, by the way) and even diving into things like Myers-Briggs personality types. But without an actual project to work on, it was all too theoretical. I should probably spend a few drafts focusing on just this.
In contrast, this is probably my strongest skill: I think I’ve moved up to level three since last year. (Side note: I’ve spent most of my second-draft efforts fixing story problems, but I’m literally just realising that I probably should’ve started with the weaker elements first…)
I thought I might be at level four here, but on closer inspection, my current draft still has lots of scenes with characters talking to each other in purely expositional or ‘dramatic’ ways. And the subplots don’t escalate as much as they should. So I’m probably only at level two.
Another one of my weaknesses, as my characters often deliver jokes in an unnatural way.
LOL, not even close.
So where are you? And do you think there’s anything I’ve missed?
That turned out to be an even more useful exercise than I expected, because it made me realise just how far I have to go to reach the level of comedy writing that I aspire to. So I probably should ride this wave of motivation and self doubt and crack on with that second draft…