Screenwriting : Writing Sitcoms: Things I've Learned by Bruce King

Bruce King

Writing Sitcoms: Things I've Learned

I have read a lot of screenwriting books, production books, directed/produced (short film) etc. So, my education and experience in screenwriting is in the typical feature or short film style. After writing two and producing one short screenplay I tried to move on to a feature length script. I found I was done in about 55 pages (hour long drama length). This led me to believe I should write TV drama (I am still working on it). Then I noticed that Amazon Studios would accept unsolicited online submissions. Aha, this gave me some hope that I could get lucky. Unfortunately, at the time, Amazon was only looking for children's shows and sitcoms -- neither one of which I particularly gravitated to. I decided to write a half-hour comedy (sitcom) and submit it to Amazon. I submitted it in my old familiar format of a screenplay including the act breaks found in TV scripts. Wrote another sitcom and submitted it in the same format. Then I read somewhere that TV shows are formatted differently. So, I reformatted my script (easy, a couple of clicks) and resubmitted it. Then I actually read the submission guidelines for Amazon Studios and realized that my comedies were one camera comedies and the format is screenplay with act breaks -- my original format. Change it back and resubmit. Reading sitcom scripts has also helped me. However, I noticed that the format can vary, especially with some of the action and also character introductions. For example: I have seen character introductions that were written in bold lower case letters, all letters capitalized, or caps underlined (multi-camera format). I guess I get to choose between bold lower case or all caps (one camera). Also, I have learned some sitcom structure: First problem, first solution, act break, second problem, second solution, second act break, resolve (obviously, not set in stone). Page count: It looks like the average page count for sitcoms is 32-40 pages. My first sitcom's first draft was 22 pages (a minute a page right?) oops! More like 30-40 seconds a page. Damn time constraints. I did some word counts on a few sitcom scripts and it seems to be around 5,500-6,500. On the bright side, I think I have good ideas for sitcoms and I think that I write good dialogue, include a B story, etc. But, learning this stuff can be a humbling experience. Any thoughts on sitcom writing?

David Levy

Good post! I am in the middle of writing my first sitcom. I have written several one hour TV pilots but had some sitcom ideas that were talking to me. Yes, you will find many differences in writing a sitcom than anything else. I was taught writing in both one hour dramas and sitcoms by a former showrunner and comedian. For a multi camera sitcom a good page count is about 46 pages. Teaser 2-3 pages. Act One 20 pages. Act Two 20 pages. Tag 1-2 pages. This is just a guideline I use and it seems to fall into place with many multi camera sitcoms. Character intros are all caps and underlined. Try to find non shooting pilot scripts to read. Try to find writers drafts. Another great resource is "The TV Writers Workbook" by Ellen Sandler. I've found tthese to be helpful. As far as the jokes, well, that's all on you! This Google search page lists pilot scripts galore. Great for reading education! https://sites.google.com/site/tvwriting/home

Bruce King

Yes, reading scripts of TV sitcom pilots and regular episodes has been tremendously helpful for me. Not necessarily a paint by numbers, but it basically showed me the "size and shape of the picture frame" and the "paints" that are in the tray. Obviously, some "paintings" work better than others in this format. That seems to be the struggle between creating something fresh and original and something that is known to work. I guess combining something that works with a fresh and original take is the brass ring.

David Levy

Keep in mind they're just guidelines to go by. In the end, it's your script. Treat it like a page in a coloring book. They give you lines to stay inside but it doesn't mean you can't color outside the lines and still make something great. It's like finding your voice all over again. Just takes time and practice. You'll get it.

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