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:

  • The theme is the point you’re trying to make, in the form of a central dramatic argument.
    • He gives an example from Finding Nemo: no matter how much you want to hold onto the person you love, sometimes you have to set them free.
  • At the start of the story, your character believes the opposite of the theme, so they’re in a state of ‘acceptable imperfection’. Things are in balance, but they could be way better.
    • “Marlin can live with a resentful son, as long as he knows his son is safe.”
  • Towards the end, the character has the option to go back to that flawed status quo — but instead chooses some surprising action that shows that they’ve fully internalised the theme.
    • Marlin finally gets Nemo back. They could just go home — but instead, he chooses to let Nemo help the fish caught in the fishing net, even though he might get hurt.
    • This one is probably more apt for a sitcom pilot; in a regular episode, things do tend to reset back to the status quo by the end. That said, I really enjoyed how the characters grew in Ted Lasso. Andrew Ellard has a good tweet thread about this here.

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.

  • Your character starts with a lie they’re telling themselves, which stops them from being happy.
    • This is related to the ‘acceptable imperfection’ described above.
  • It’s useful to introduce your character with a ‘characteristic moment’, to show them being awesome in some way before we see all the ways in which they’re flawed.
    • This is a similar idea to Save the Cat.
    • The cold open seems to be an especially handy way of doing this in sitcoms, as they’re a standalone sketch. The one from the Brooklyn Nine-Nine pilot is probably my favourite example — it tells us everything we need to know about Jake’s character.

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.

  • A sitcom plot can often be described as:
    • a character wants something, but their attempts to get it put it further out of reach;
    • a character has a problem, but their attempts to solve it make it worse.
  • A useful framework for sitcoms is the SREP structure: set-up, reveal, escalation, pay-off. This could be applied to a joke or a scene, or even a whole storyline.
    • I’ve found this especially useful for subplots, because I tend to over-complicate them. Now, I try to simplify them down into four scenes (at least to start with): what’s the situation; what’s the problem; how does it get worse; how does it get resolved?

Special Mentions

  • Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. A classic. I find this useful for sanity-checking the bare bones of a plot when it feels like it’s grown into a tangled mess.
  • Into the Woods by John Yorke. I still don’t understand everything in this book, but the thoughts on midpoints are useful — the bit of a story I tend to neglect the most.
    • Basically: at the midpoint, the character gets some new knowledge or insight — and then spends the rest of the story trying to fully internalise that knowledge.
    • This is also my favourite / most frustrating example of structures not quite agreeing with each other. How to Write a Movie describes the midpoint as the character experiencing a moment of harmony with the theme, while Dan Harmon describes it as the character getting what they want (but then paying a heavy for it). Which one is right??
  • The But & Therefore Rule from Matt Parker and Trey Stone. The simplest rule, and probably the closest to a universal one: you should be able to connect all your story beats with but or therefore — as opposed to and then — so that your story has forward momentum.

Are there any structures you’ve found particularly useful?

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