To All The Structures I’ve Loved Before

Figuring out story structure for sitcom pilots.

Whenever I’m reading about story structure, I’m reminded of this old xkcd comic:

xkcd #927

As an aspiring sitcom writer, it’s frustrating that almost every screenwriting book claims that they’ve found the one universal structure that all stories conform to.

But it’s more frustrating that I believe them.

As an ex-physicist, I’m naturally drawn to claims of unifying theories. So whenever I come across a new structure, I’ll work hard to understand it and make sure that my current project sticks to it — in the hope of finally writing the perfect script that helps me break through.

But then the feedback I get is invariably the same: the characters are a bit flat, or they feel like chess pieces, or they aren’t behaving in believable ways given the insane things that are happening.

Sculpting, not constructing

I recently had two lightbulb moments that helped me break free of this cycle.

The first was courtesy of Phoebe Waller-Bridge:

I write quite freely before I think about structure. The first scene I wrote for series two is the scene in the bathroom where Fleabag has a bloody nose, turns to camera and says ‘this is a love story’. The producers loved it and said ‘what happens next?’ and I said ‘I have no idea!’ I was just excited by it, and then worked back from there to figure out who she’d hate enough to punch.

In other words, maybe structure is more useful for sculpting a story that’s written from a place of fun and curiosity, rather than for constructing it from the ground up.

The second was the realisation that there probably isn’t a single unifying structure. Maybe they’re all different because they’re just describing different things.

So instead of trying to make my stories fit all of them, I should treat them as competing tools — and pick the ones that seem most appropriate for what I’m trying to do.

My current toolbox

With that in mind, here are the tools I’ve found most useful while redrafting the sitcom pilot I’m working on at the moment. They might be useful for you, or they might not be!

How to Write a Movie

The Scriptnotes podcast is usually great, but this solo episode with Craig Mazin especially blew my mind when I first heard it. (You can read the transcript here.) Currently useful tools:

Creating Character Arcs

Although this book by K.M. Weiland is aimed at novelists, all the examples are from films. It might use the standard Hero’s Journey, but I like the questions at the end of each chapter — they’re useful for generating ideas, even if all of them don’t end up in the finished script.

Writing Narrative Comedy

This was a series of courses I did last year, run by Chris Head. I found it particularly useful because it focused on sitcom writing rather than films, and went into depth on plotting.

Special Mentions

Are there any structures you’ve found particularly useful?

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