Everyone has a funny element to their life--whether it's the workplace, family, or high school. And plenty of people think that their funny ideas or situations would make great sitcoms. How do you write a sitcom? How do you go from that "situation" to an actual script?
Like any kind of writing, sitcom writing is a craft that needs to be practiced and honed, but you have to start somewhere.
Here's how to write a sitcom.
- Learn the basics of dramatic writing. You may wonder why a sitcom writer needs to know about "dramatic writing." Well, I don't mean dramatic in the sense of sad or serious, I mean, dramatic in the sense of you're writing something that's going to be acted out. You're writing something that involves a goal being pursued by a character who must overcome obstacles. In these ways, writing a sitcom is like writing a drama, a film, or even a play. So, to begin with, learn a little about dramatic writing: how to craft scenes, how to develop character, how to write dialogue, how to have action rise to a climactic moment and resolution. Learn, in other words, the basics of how a story is constructed for the screen. You can do this reading a book like Syd Field's Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, or taking a short course. If you're really serious about sitcom writing, you need to know these basics about how to write a script.
- Study the genre. If you're going to write a sitcom, chances are, you're a sitcom fan. Now you have to be more than a fan--you have to be a student of the sitcom. While you're learning about the basics of dramatic writing, (and comedy writing) you should also be giving some real thought to the kind of sitcom you'd like to write. To do this, think of what sitcoms you like to watch and the ones you hate. What do you want to emulate? What do you want to avoid at all costs? What seems to work? What doesn't? Study sitcoms--the good ones and the bad ones--as you prepare to join their ranks.
Also read TV sitcom scripts. You can buy these from a variety of places. See how these scripts are put together in terms of what happens when, how the jokes are timed, even how the page compares to what's actually on the screen. Produced scripts to your favorite sitcoms can be a great learning tool as you sit down to write the next great TV comedy.
Produced scripts can also give you a crash course on sitcom format. It's pretty basic, but you do want to get it right. You can also try scriptwriting software such as Final Draft which will take care of formatting for you. While these programs can be pricey for a beginner (around $250), if you're committed to writing sitcoms, they can also save you a lot of formatting headaches.
- Find your characters and build your situation, or vice versa and develop. If you've begun to study sitcom writing, it's probably because you have an idea in mind: a funny character or set of characters or maybe a funny situation not yet peopled with "the gang." Whether you're beginning with a character or a situation, sit down and write out everything you already know, or think you know, about it. Write out the details of the characters, the situation, and whatever else you have. Go on a major brainstorming tear. This is how great shows come about: people smacking around ideas. At the end of your brainstorming session, see if you now have characters and a situation. See if you can put your sitcom idea in one sentence: Story of a group of friends living and working in New York City. Okay, avoid that one, it's been used about eighty billion times, but try to put it together in one sentence. This brainstorming will continue at every stage of the project, but, this first session is often key.
- Write a treatment. A treatment is a guide to your show's main components. At the early stages of sitcom writing, it's useful for seeing what you have and what you need. A treatment requires a few things: a logline (your sitcom idea in one sentence), a list of characters with brief descriptions, a list of set/settings with brief descriptions, and a list of potential episodes, starting with the pilot. If you can put all this together, you have a lot of the basics and, though they may change a hundred times between now and your final draft, you can begin to write.
- Write a pilot (first episode). Yeah, like it's that easy! Writing anything takes the usual steps for optimal success: brainstorming, outlining, writing, rewriting, rewriting. Did I mention rewriting? A pilot or first episode of your sitcom is no exception. I recommend more than anything that you don't skip any of the "boring" steps like brainstorming and, particularly, outlining. People do this all the time and end up with a huge messy half-written draft because they wanted to write scenes and didn't worry about the story's direction or little things like how it actually ends. Spend a lot of time using what you've learned about dramatic writing, what you want to emulate and avoid, what you know about how sitcom scripts are set up, and, mainly, what you know about your story, and outline the heck out of this first episode. Remember: No one's ever seen or heard of these characters before, so it will be the job of the pilot to introduce us to the whole world of your sitcom.
- Register your script with the WGA or copyright it. There are thousands of would-be sitcom writers out there, and chances are, none of them are going to want to steal your ideas. But, just the same, it's always a good idea to protect your finished product by registering it with the WGA (Writers Guild of America) or copyrighting it. The WGA registry charges around $20 for non-members to register a script. This is basically proof that your teleplay existed at a certain time, in case anyone tries to say otherwise. U.S. Copyright is more expensive but provides the same basic protections. Many contests won't read your work unless you've done some kind of registration, which is another good reason to take this step.
Writing a sitcom is very tough--as they say "comedy is hard." These steps to writing comedy skits are very basic and not too in-depth. But give it a whirl, see what you come up with in that first draft. And, then, well...did I mention the rewriting?