November 13, 2019

Learn How to Write a Sitcom That Sells

How to Write a Sitcom that Sells
Learning how to write a sitcom can open your career to more opportunities and get your ideas on the small screen. But first, you have to master the sitcom structure and format. 

Sitcoms are watched by billions of people across the globe. 

They're frequently the highest-rated shows on television and the hits can last over a decade with hundreds of episodes. Having a sitcom sample can open you to the world of television too. Jobs writing on hit sitcoms are long and stable. They usually have big rooms with employ teams of writers to work on jokes and story on multiple episodes at a time. 

But you can't even sniff one without a solid sitcom sample that's mastered the structure and format of the half-hour television show. Let's learn how to write a sitcom pilot. We will go over the structure of a pilot, how to format a TV script, and offer some general story notes and examples. 

So let's fade in on this topic and hopefully get to syndication. 

How to Write a Sitcom (Format & Structure)

So you want to write a sitcom? Welcome to our all-inclusive, free, sitcom writing experience. We will go through the steps I've experienced and have been shown by TV writers. 

There are no secrets here, just cold hard facts about the business and what people expect. 

What Are Your TV Show Ideas? 

Unlike the noisy loglines that we learned about for film, TV loglines have to have legs.  As we mentioned in our Four Steps to Writing A Pilot article, your idea needs to be able to go the distance and sustain several seasons worth of episodes. You need a network or streaming service to be able to see your show's potential to go the long haul.

Does your logline showcase how your sitcom idea will generate a four or five season run of episodes? 

Location, Location, Location 

Think about shows like The Office and Parks & Rec. They are sitcoms whose locations help inform the idea of an ongoing series. The same goes with the perfect sitcom pilot for Cheers

How can your idea's location tell you that the story will have legs? How can you use your location to your advantage? 

Sitcom Characters 

When we talk about character arcs and development, we usually focus on film. In television, we don't want there to be solid arcs, you want to gradually move characters along, so we see who they can become over the course of many years. 

But character development is the same. You need to come up with characters whose interactions will cause drama and laughs. The word "Sitcom" is short for situation comedy. What kinds of situations will your characters face? And are these situations a result of who they are and how they are developed?

In Friends and Seinfeld, each of those characters comes with a personality that not only can cause trouble in their own circle but can outside of it, too. 

So how can your characters and their traits help solidify the story and the possibility for more stories? 

What Is a Sitcom? 

A sitcom is a thirty-minute television show. As mentioned earlier, sitcom stands for situational or situation comedy. It's a genre of comedy centered on a fixed cast of characters who carry over from episode to episode within an ongoing series. 

What are some of the best sitcoms of all time? 

Friends, The Office, MASH, Cheers, 30 Rock, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Last Man on Earth, I Love Lucy, The Simpsons, How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Seinfeld, and Veep.

Page Count for Sitcoms 

 For half-hour comedies, the page count should be between 22 and 45 pages. It really depends on the show's network and platform. 

Single Camera Vs. Multi-Camera Sitcoms 

That brings us into the differences in format for sitcoms. They are either shot in single-cam, like The Office and Barry

Or multi-cam, like Big Bang Theory and Everybody Loves Raymond

The "cam" refers to the camera. Meaning that single-camera shows are shot with one camera's point of view. Where multi-camera sitcoms are shot with three cameras, usually on prefabricated sets. They also differ when it comes to TV script format. 

Sitcom Format 

Television screenplays have the same basic elements are a feature film script, but each format of sitcom has different ways of dealing with the elements. 

Single Camera Script Format 

Guess what? If you know how to write a movie, then you know how to write single-cam scripts. 

They have the same basic sluglines, action, dialogue, and transitions. 

The only added feature is that you clearly mark the act breaks. This only applies to shows with commercial breaks. So, if you are writing for streamers, then you don't need them -- but they can be useful when you're writing. 

You basic act structure (in order) is: 

  • Cold Open
  • Act One
  • Act Two
  • Act Three
  • Tag

We'll go deeper into each of those later. Check out this page from 30 Rock that shows single-cam format.

Whenever an act ends or begins, you must mark it at the center of the page. 

30 Rock - Flu Shot

Multi-Camera Script Format 

The formatting for multi-cam is usually different as well. Let's go over a list of things that have changed. 

  • Slugs/scene headings are underlined. The names of each character featured in the scene are listed in parentheses directly below the scene heading.

  • All action lines are usually in caps.

  • Character names are underlined the first time they are introduced.

  • Character entrances and exits are underlined.

  • Transitions are underlined ie “DEBORAH CROSSES THE KITCHEN.”

  • Sounds are called out with a colon, ie “SOUND: DOOR SLAMS.”

  • Dialogue can be double spaced for some shows. Check for the show you may spec! 

  • The header includes the scene and act numbers below the page number.

  • All acts have page breaks between them.

Below, see an example of this in action from a Friends script:

Friends - The One with the Butt

Sitcom Structure 

We've talked about the format, now let's focus on the sitcom's structure. 

Much like the structure we've learned in features, sitcoms follow three acts. but there is a twist. There's also a cold open and a tag.

Cold Open (same as a Teaser)

Act 1

Act 2

Act 3

Tag

How to Write a Sitcom

Breaking Down Sitcom Structure 

Let's go through each part of a sitcom's structure and dissect what should happen and look at a few examples to help you write your sitcom pilots.

Cold Open (same as a Teaser)

The strict definition is the first few pages of a sitcom script. It’s a scene that teases what is to come or is emblematic of the tone of the show to follow.

Why is it "cold"? Because there is nothing setting you up. You come into this first scene 'cold'. No credits. No title screen. Just the story starting to happen. 

Sometimes a cold open is also called a “teaser.” It can set up a problem, or theme for the episode.

These TV leadoff hitters occur in both drama and comedy pilots. You're probably most familiar with the idea as you've experienced it in Saturday Night Live. In many instances, the SNL opening sketch is the one people talk about the most. It always ends with the line "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" Just when the joke has reached its pinnacle, they break that fourth wall, and let you know you're watching the classic live sketch show. 

In sitcoms, the cold open gets people laughing right away. It can set up the problem in the episode or just be a quick story with no resonance to what happens after. 

The cold open is usually one to three pages. 

Cold Open Examples 

Check out this cold open from the pilot of 30 Rock. It uses the opening pages to set up the world and tell us what to expect from the show. It also delivers a ton of laughs and clues the viewer into the tone and story they can expect from the series. 

Act One

In the first act, we need to meet the characters, discover the world, and get the main problem of the episode. In a pilot, you want to set goals that can be achieved within the thirty minutes of the show but also begin to open threads that will take more episodes to unravel. 

This goes with having legs. 

Act One Example

In How I Met Your Mother, its when we see the bar, meet Ted and his crew, and get the introduction to Robin. 

Act Two

The second act is about the complications. We get deeper into the story and see the characters fail at getting what they want. Make things hard on them. The struggle here will prove why we want to keep watching. 

Act Two Example

In Barry, it sees our titular assassin-turned-aspiring actor join an acting class to help deal with a guy he wants to kill -- and liking the acting class. A lot.

Act Three

In the final act, you begin to resolve the narrative. Remember: You don't want to tie it up cleanly. Get the main problem solved, but leave things like romantic dynamics/complications and overarching problems open-ended -- so that we know where the show is going after the pilot. 

Act Three Example 

In Cheers, this is when Diane gets hired to be a waitress. We know there is flirtation among Sam and Diane, but the crux of the show is her staying on to work inside the bar. where the majority of the entire series takes place. 

Tag

The tag, much like the cold open, is a brief moment at the end of an episode to add one final joke. This joke can be a continuation of the story we have seen, or a just a blip to remind you how great of a show it is you're watching. It could be a pay off to something set up sooner. 

Example of an End Tag

Community was famous for its tags. Sometimes they had raps, cartoons, puppets, and alternate realities. But they were always fun parts of the show that gave us one final laugh. 

What's next? Learn how to write a drama pilot

Hundreds of pilots sell to networks and streaming services every year. What's stopping you from selling your idea? 

Want to learn how to write a TV drama pilot? You've come to the right place.      

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