On Comedy Writing - Posts From the LCW Newsletterby Alan Devey on 10/16/23
In September 2023 I took over writing the fortnightly London Comedy Writers newsletter which you can sign up for via the LCW website or read on Substack. However, a number of the pieces I have guest written for the newsletter over recent years have now been lost due to our deceased ChimpMail account, so I thought I’d preserve a few of my favourites on here, for posterity.
On Giving (and Receiving) Feedback
Understanding how to effectively utilise feedback is vital for writers, especially when it comes to comedy which is an incredibly collaborative form. My first rule when critiquing work is to try and be constructive rather than destructive. If I understand what the writer is trying to do with their script then maybe I can suggest ways of making it work better, whether it’s to my taste or not. Because, as Jeanette Winterson says: Like or dislike is a personal thing and tells me something about you, but nothing about the text.
What we all have in common at LCW is that we want to improve. Giving entirely negative criticism might mean someone just starting out stops writing altogether, which obviously isn’t going to help them get better. Encouragement is key although, whether back in person or gathered virtually, the reaction of everyone attending an LCW meet is equally valid. If the majority of those listening can’t figure out what’s going on in your sitcom, you probably have an issue with coherence or conveying your ideas effectively.
Some find it daunting to have a group giving their opinion, especially when it comes to what can be quite personal work. It helps to know we all go through it, and to be aware that it’s impossible to take on board every piece of feedback, and it wouldn’t be wise to try. With a wide enough sample, people contradict each other and individuals will always bring their unique outlook to bear. Everyone has a different way of thinking – that’s the beauty of it. Other than listening for a consensus with the laughter (a reaction unfiltered by personal taste) when it comes to revising your work, I think the best approach is to go with those suggestions that, on reflection, you agree with. In my experience, you’ll feel this in your gut.
In Joe Queenan’s comic memoir about making an absurd feature film (‘The Unkindest Cut’) there’s a chapter called ‘Don’t Get It Right, Just Get It Done’. This often comes to mind when I hear of budding writers struggling to get their ideas down on the page. One aspect any writing guru is likely to touch upon, whether they call your initial pass the ‘vomit draft’, ‘crappy first draft’ or something less disparaging, is a version of that famous Ernest Hemingway quote: “The first draft of anything is shit”.
In my experience this applies to everyone, no matter how established, talented or famous they may be. Writers who are starting out might not realise the effort that goes into revising, because good work doesn’t just come out like that. The realisation a first draft isn’t going well can put us off finishing or worse, paralyse us from putting pen to paper altogether. It can be horrifying to see your flawed attempts land on the page with a dull thud, especially when everything you imagined was so much more accomplished.
This disparity between intent and what is achieved at first can be narrowed by learning about structure, character and plot, then developing your ideas in advance before attempting a draft. But whether you improvise as you go or have every beat planned beforehand, what you set down will inevitably amount to maybe 50-70% of what you feel the script could have been (at least in your head). But real writing is in the rewriting as they say, and with each additional version you’ll hopefully push a few points closer to the result you seek. That’s why successful sitcom pilots often go through ten to thirty rewrites before being filmed.
Comedy remains the most collaborative of mediums, so even with a draft that makes you happy, chances are it could be better. This is where critiques from your peers prove vital and, if you get the industry to take notice, notes from production companies and others will inevitably follow. It’s wise to respect these, along with any future input from actors, all of which will illustrate that your draft was simply the first step on a very long road. This is why it’s important not to be frozen by perfectionism or self-doubt early on. Get something (anything!) down, make it to the end then revise, revise, revise. Try not to be precious about your work, stay open to suggestions and get other peoples’ eyes involved. This is where London Comedy Writers can help, of course.
A recent tweet from our friends at BCG highlighted a comment by those behind the Sitcom Mission competition stating that far too many entries made the basic mistake of “having no plot, or a thin or predictable plot”. This got me thinking about structure - the one element every writer has to work at to become accomplished. You can be naturally funny, have a knack for one-liners or an instinct for creating hilarious characters, but no one constructs a really effective narrative or manipulates A and B plots in a satisfying way without learning the ropes first.
This isn’t limited to the scripts we read at LCW – I see it all the time when doing script analysis. Some stand-ups with industry clout might get meandering TV shows made without appearing to have much interest in structure (mentioning no names), but everyone else has to put the effort in. What often happens is that budding writers are so in love with their characters they keep thinking up funny things for them to say without moving the narrative along. Then you end up with six scenes of inconsequential chat or directionless bickering supposedly comprising a half-hour script. Without some kind of memorable plot point getting resolved by the end, an audience will inevitably feel like the show is lacking something.
That’s why it is usually advisable to map your plot and story beats out in advance, so you know where you’re going in a first draft without losing direction. That way you can be disciplined about ending scenes and sequences when you need to (there is further advice about this on our website. Half hour scripts differ from features and, for UK sitcoms, there isn’t much guidance out there. In the US pilots will often employ what is known as a ‘Cold Open’ or ‘Teaser’ (a key opening scene to get us in the mood), followed by three ‘Acts’ then a ‘Tag’; a kind of epilogue scene that may round things off or set us up for the next episode.
This could be a useful way of thinking about your script’s structure, especially if you’re trying to write for the American market. Indeed, most scriptwriting software offers US-centric templates to help you. But a British producer reading your script is likely to be nonplussed by such Americanisms. That’s why it is better for British comedy writers to understand key storytelling concepts more broadly; aspects like rising action, reversals, stakes / jeopardy, the inciting incident for each of your plotlines along with ‘crisis, climax and resolution’. These points are all elucidated in Robert McKee’s book ‘Story’, a guide that doesn’t specifically deal with sitcoms as they are a unique genre; somewhere characters rarely learn from their mistakes and usually end up back where they started. But whatever your view on the somewhat inflexible McKee, his explanation of storytelling fundamentals is second to none, and a vital handbook for up and coming writers.
To read my fortnightly thoughts on comedy writing, sign up for the LCW newsletter here.