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Comedy Do’s and Don’ts

Scriptwriting is a completely different ball game when it comes to comedy, one that is often mistaken as easy, particularly if the gags are simple. But writing funny is different from speaking funny. Just because you’re good at cracking jokes or sprouting wisecrack comments, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have that same knack when it comes to transferring these onto paper. At least, not without practice.

The comedy genre is one of the hardest to crack, without even taking into account the fact that within the school itself, lie a whole network of subcategories. There’s black comedy, cringe comedy (an example which springs to mind is Borat), situational comedy, mockumentaries, spoofs, rom-coms, sketches… well, you get the point. Listed below, you’ll find a few rules, a list of do’s and don’ts if you will, to consider if you’re focusing your script in one of these areas.

Black Comedy

Defined as a sub-genre of comedy and satire, black comedy gravitates towards the taboo head on, covering subjects that are considered too dark for normal conversation in a fearless, humorous way. Needless to say, it’s not for everyone, as it can often make light of serious topics which, in turn, can be a lightning rod for criticism. Get it right, however, and you’ve got some high-quality entertainment.

Don’t be dark for the sake of it. Don’t try to shock your audience with your edgy appeal just to gauge a reaction. A great storyline is above all, the most important aspect of any script, comedy or not. The comedic appeal or risqué aspects can always be inserted later, but don’t revolve your entire script around dark jokes.

Do collaborate. It takes a long time to get the punchline of any joke right, and it helps to have someone else scratching their head besides you to bounce good ideas off one another. Classic examples of black comedy include the Coen brothers’ Fargo or Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Then you’ve got modern versions, like Edgar Wright’s Hotfuzz. Speaking of collaborations, Hotfuzz was a product of combined genius between Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, who wrote the script together.

You can really tell that their combined senses of humour, the insertion of red herrings, the Agatha Christie mystery style and dark comedy really come into full excellence as a result of their collaboration.

Romantic Comedy

One of the most popular comedy genres ever, romantic films focus on the development of a relationship between two main characters in a light and humorous way, with plenty of humorous situations thrown in to disrupt the hero’s ultimate goal of finding love. There are a lot of rules to take into account when writing rom-coms, as these comedies are very structured.

Do your research beforehand. Look at plenty of rom-com aspects like the meet-cute, the embarrassing gesture or other narrative patterns that define the romantic comedy genre, as inserting these naturally will increase the quality of your film.

Do repeat yourself. Comedy elements are usually repeated three times to get the most laughs – it’s the rule of three- You set up an expectation, you reinforce it, then you break it down to get the most out of a punchline.

Don’t lose your audience (execs, producers, agents etc) by taking too long to start incorporating jokes into your script. It generally takes only one page – that’s one minute, folks – of screen time, so by the time they reach the end of the page they need to know whether or not they’re going to turn to page two.

Do consider misdirection as a feature in your storyline. Subterfuge and deceit might not get you far in real life, but they’re the backbone of rom coms. Deception, usually caused by the characters themselves, plays a big part in these types of films. The hero usually hides his or her secret from the other main character, either to protect themselves and this leads the climax. In the Silver Linings Playbook, Pat deceives Tiffany into thinking that by the very end, he still wants to get back with his ex-wife, when in reality he’s fallen for her too. Vice versa, she deceives him by forging a letter from his ex-wife.

Sitcoms

Sitcoms, otherwise known as situational comedy, aren’t written as films, but for TV. They are the defining and most enduring forms of entertainment, and now, what with the rise in popularity of Netflix, they’re all the rage with everyone. And also extremely hard to get right, as sitcoms are built on a number of unbreakable rules.

Do be familiar. Familiarity is your friend.  The running gag definitely belongs to the sitcom comedy. Take Barney’s actual job position never being defined in How I met your Mother, or Rachel and Ross’s “we were on a break” gag in Friends, to Leslie Knope’s inexplicable lifelong hatred of libraries in Parks & Recreation, running gags are hilarious ways to make your script stand out.

Don’t think comedy scripts are the same as stand-up comedy. Your script won’t get very far if it’s a long line up of running gags and joke after joke without any plot line. Every successful comedy has at its core a deep and meaningful story, a high concept, one that is interesting and intricately thought out. Take Gavin and Stacey, or Red Dwarf even, they’re both hilarious and the jokes are what seem to make the shows stand out, but really, both the plots are extremely detailed. One is profound and family-focused, the other is a high-concept sci-fi, a unique idea.

Don’t be scared. Writing sitcoms is no time to be shy.  Programmes nowadays are edgy, a lot of risqué topics are covered: narcissism, murder, alcoholism, sex. The 21st century is definitely not a time to hold back.

 

Five Writing Habits to Finish your Screenplay

As the end of December rolls around, most writers vow to write more in the year ahead, even when juggling busy schedules. They’ll work less, go out less and make more time for script-writing. It’s a resolution that’s made in firm belief (and perhaps champagne-induced) it’s unbreakable. But if you’re already feeling stuck, overwhelmed and bogged down with post-Christmas gloom, there’s a way to beat the January blues and keep your New Year’s resolution to boot.

As well all know, writing is a solitary act and unless there’s a specific deadline strapped to the brief, it’s very much a “I’ll get to it when I get to it” scenario. It’s time to readjust that mindset, and there’s no better month than January (grey and cold outside, anyone?) to get to it.  There are a series of writing habits you can incorporate into your weekly schedules, habits that are easily achievable and useful even to those who are juggling full-time jobs and don’t have time to spare.

Call it a wake-up call or a writer’s Godsend, here are several tips and tricks award-winning script-writers recommend:

1. Read a Screenplay a Week

Any writer, be it a novelist, fiction-writer, non-fiction writer, blogger, scriptwriter or even content writer, knows that in order to write you must read. You simply cannot achieve one without doing a lot of the other. You need to read to write. It’s as simple as that. There’s a reason that Scott Myers (writer of Trojan War and Alaska) recommends this on his own blog, Go Into the Story. Reading scripts is useful for all sorts of reasons: you get to see how pacing is timed, how many pages are needed per scene, how dialogue works, how characters unfold, how tension is built through dialogue or action. Format is displayed correctly—and there’s no simpler way to learn format than by seeing it—plus, you’ll really get a feel for your favourite films on paper (well, in this case on PDF). By reading one screenplay a week and critically analysing it for all the above factors, you’ll notice a vast improvement in your own writing. Good writing really does rub off.

You can find a whole bunch of links to scripts here:

https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/script-download-links-9313356d361c

2. Watch a film a week

This doesn’t mean watching a film at home a week. This you should do as much as possible anyway (yes, watching films really IS a justifiable means of research). What I mean by this is actually going to the cinema once a week and watching a film in the same genre you’re writing your script it. It’s an opportunity to put out your antennae to your audience and gauge their reaction to the dialogue, the plotting and the action scenes. Does the audience laugh at all the right beats? Do they yawn through the slower parts? This all helps you understand what it is people respond to in a film and whether or not it’s working for them. After all, films are all about the entertainment, so it’s good practice knowing if your own target audience is entertained or not—what makes them tick.

Then at home carry out an actual analysis of the film you just saw. Better yet, do a scene by scene breakdown and figure out how the script’s structure works. This is sure to shed some light on your own script, and may even give you ideas how to lay out your story according to good story building.

Going to the cinema once a week might not be within your budgetary means, but at least try and catch two films a month—chalk it up to research funds, even if you don’t need a penny to write a script, it does help if you have an assigned budget for research, material, courses and even events. Treat your project as a business, and your business will eventually become lucrative.

3. Write 15 pages of Story Prepping/World-Building a week

One of the most enjoyable processes in screenwriting, world-building is something that should never be left at the wayside.  Try writing fifteen pages of world-building a week. Just pick an afternoon/evening after work on a day during the week and you’ll see it’s easy enough. For better results, choose ONE subject to focus on every week. This could look something like this:

Week 1: Your Protagonist: Motivations, Background, Friends, Family, Physical Appearance.

Week 2: Secondary Characters. Relation to your protagonist. Backgrounds. Roles in script. Physical Appearances.

Week 3: Your Antagonist’s role.

Week 4: Plot A. Your main story line. What happens?

Week 5: Plot B. What else is happening?

Week 6: World Building. Where is your story set? If contemporary or historical setting, what research do you need to carry out for realistic portrayals? If fantasy, what are the rules of your made-up society?

4. Write a Scene a Week

Writing a scene a week is again, perfectly achievable. If you think that one scene roughly amounts to five pages of writing on Celtx, this is about an hour or two of writing, depending on how much research you need to incorporate into the actual writing process. But if you’ve done your world-building homework a day or so before you begin your scene, you can coordinate the themes so that the scene you’re working on will incorporate your world-building research.

John August for example, writer of Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie’s Angels to name a few, aims to write five pages a day and by barricading himself away, can come up with forty decent pages from one session. That’s serious dedication to his art. You can read about his habits here:

https://johnaugust.com/2011/my-daily-writing-routine

5. Home Time is Work Time

Finally, there is no successful journey without some degree of personal sacrifice. In order to achieve the above rules, you’re going to have to set aside a few evenings a week and at least one day out of your weekend, if not both.

But because you love writing, none of this will feel like work and it will be worth it in the end. Steven Pressfield, writer of Above the Law and Separate Lives, writes six days a week and is at his most productive on the weekend. You can read the interview on writing routines here: https://www.writingroutines.com/steven-pressfield/

Careful scheduling is the only way to achieve maximum results. We probably have all fantasized of the bohemian scriptwriter who, after knocking back a few shots of absinthe, sits down and completes an award-winning, revolutionary screenplay in a night. But usually, it’s down to a scriptwriter’s sheer force of will and strict personal culture.

It also helps to turn off the internet and silence your phone whilst you do all this. Living in the age of instant-messaging and online distractions is (unfortunately) not script-writer friendly.

 

While there’s no secret formula of success for screenwriting, there are ways to tighten your schedule and become more productive over time, increasing the odds of finishing a high-quality screenplay and breaking free from your full-time restrictions. As John August himself says, for the most part writing is just a slog, one you’ve got to traipse through on a daily basis. But oh, so worth it in the end.

Plus, look at it this way: if you write five pages of solid screenplay a week (which isn’t that much considering) and a feature is usually 120 pages long, then in approximately five months you’ll have your first draft. That’s the hardest part, the rest is editing.

Events

Finding a Theme: A Workshop on Bringing Your Narrative Together

Join us as screenwriter and story design consultant, Rick Harvey walks you through the steps of writing a theme whilst exploring its importance and often-overlooked powers in this interactive workshop.

He will address the ins and outs of what themes are about and where they belong in the writing process. In particular, he will look at:

  • Theme as a unifying element of a narrative
  • Theme as a means of establishing an emotional engagement with a reader /
    audience
  • Theme as a means of establishing/connecting to a writer’s voice

Since this is a workshop, we advise you to bring along your own project to get the most out of this session.

Come along to this gem of an event, meet new people and get some insight into the ins and outs of successful theme writing.

About Rick Harvey:

Rick is a Cambridge-based screenwriter, story design consultant, lecturer and mentor.

Since attaining an MA Screenwriting & Research qualification from the London College of Communication in 2001, he has storylined for ‘Family Affairs’ (Talkback Thames/Channel 5), developed projects for Hewland International and Frenzy Films, written a slate of short films and spec features, mentored on First Light, Media Box and BFI projects and written and developed feature screenplays for EON Productions.

He was trained by the UK Film Council to devise, develop and deliver industry-standard courses on screenwriting and cross-platform story design, and he lectures regularly on various aspects of the writing process.

Rick is currently developing, ‘Beautiful Bodies’, an eight-part serial for TV, writing a Folk Horror feature narrative, Inheritance, and overseeing the MA in Filmmaking at Raindance.

Tickets Available:

  1. General Admission: This ticket is open to any non-member of IMIS.
  2. IMIS Member Ticket: Once logged in to the website, this allows the user the ability to attend the event for free. Limit one per person. No need to register for livestream.
  3. Livestream Ticket: This ticket allows you to watch the recording live and indefinitely afterwards. A link will be sent to you before the event.