If you want to write comedy for the UK market – you’ll want to hear this podcast: Sitcom Geeks. In a recent episode, (No. 126) there is great specific advice on making the first 10 pages of your script outstandingly good.
Sitcom Geeks is a fortnightly podcast by James Cary (Miranda) and Dave Cohen (Horrible Histories) about the art of sitcom-writing for TV and Radio. Great inside-the-trade advice – and advice on getting into same Trade.
In 2019 alone, this podcast has given us episodes on: Rules of Sitcom, Improv, Building a Writing Career, Polishing your Script, Book Writing, Dick Clements, Paul Mayhew-Archer, and Rules of Sitcom.
Making the first 10 pages better
According to Sitcom Geeks, it should feel like the characters have always existed and been in this place – this is part of the challenge.
#1 Failure with amateur scripts? The story does not start until page 10. You may have characters talking BUT it’s not clear what they’re doing and why or what the clear quest is for the main character. (e.g “If I don’t get X done by Y then dire consequence Z will happen”)
The podcast gives lots of insights and tips on how to strengthen your script – worth listening to it in total – here are just a few of the insights:
Better way to begin in first 10 pages:
- announce what your main character is going to do
- have them try their quest, fail and in doing so, make matters worse
- have the main character and relationship introduced straightaway – don’t waste an opening scene with a minor background character
- the main character should be vaguely familiar yet do something unfamiliar very early on
- the first time the main character is seen, they need to say something KEY – not just something like “hello” – and what is said should indicate their character e.g. a person walks in with a saw with blood on it and says “Can’t stay long, I’m double parked”
- describe the main character in max 5 words on the scene description
- introduce premise by showing events/comments which will influence what goes on in the longer arc of the story (don’t need to be explicit – later, it will be meaningful)
- there should be a good story which starts say page 3 or 4 and is developing by page 5 (a reason to keep watching)
Negative things to check when looking at the pages:
(because the professionals reading your script will look for these)
Too much description – Ruthlessly crop back the words of scene descriptions in the script. (Detailed props get sorted later in production.)
One character talks at length: One person should not say much more than two sentences, to keep a flow of setup lines and joke. Interrupt with funny asides, back chat or action.
Getting feedback from non-industry friends
Show them the first 10 pages and ask them to tell you who the characters are and what is happening. (Don’t expect insights on whether the comedy is funny or not).
It’s hard to get feedback from other people so help yourself cut the unnecessary bits:
- put the script away for a day or two, then summarise what happens in each scene – and make sure the story advances strongly in EVERY scene
Example of a poor, slow-starting script
The podcast hosts cook up an example based on many energyless scripts they have unfortunately had to read and critique:
pages 1-4: Main character has a boss and an underling and two colleagues. This is set up, but we never see them again, because main character is made redundant.
page 5-10: Main character gets home, their partner is packing up and leaving them. Oh dear.
In comedy terms, there’s nothing much happening – the main character has just had two things happen TO him/her, they are being passive. In America, that back story would be told with a song over the title sequence. (e.g. Tv series “The Beverley Hill Billies” and a more modern equivalent “Fresh Prince of Bel Air”)
Recommended Comedy Homework
The hosts recommend a homework: watch the first 3 minutes of the pilot episode of Friends.
For 3 minutes, the characters talk, revealing much about themselves – then comes the inciting incident: Jennifer Anniston walks into the cafe in a wedding dress.