Learning how to write a sitcom starts with understanding story structure. But as a professional television writer and showrunner, I can tell you with certainty that few aspiring sitcom writers understand that. They think that as long as the jokes are funny, they’ll be able to find a job. The truth is, the jokes are the least important part of any script. It’s all about story structure. Fortunately, this is a skill that can be learned.
The process of deciding where the crucial plot moments belong is called “breaking the story.” Whenever my writing partner and I break a story, we identify 8 Essential Beats. These beats fall at different points throughout a traditional three act structure. (Most screenplays and teleplays can be broken into three acts. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 90 minute feature script, 30 minute sitcom script, a comedy or a drama. There’s just something about the three act structure that when executed properly, inherently feels good to the audience.)
One of these 8 Essential Beats is the first act break moment. If you’re new to sitcom writing, the purpose of Act One is to establish the main characters as well as the central conflict. The end of Act One is called the first act break moment. This is when the premise of the story is asserted. It’s what the story is about. My partner and I often refer to the first act break as “The Movie Poster” moment because this is how the studio would market the movie.
For example, take the movie Bruce Almighty. In this story, Jim Carrey’s character declares that if given the opportunity, he could do a better job than God. So the premise of the movie is Jim Carrey getting God’s powers. That’s what the movie poster depicts, and this is your first act break moment.
Bruce Almighty is a high concept movie, but this applies to lower concept sitcom ideas as well. Years ago, my partner and I wrote an episode of King of the Hill where Peggy laments that the neighbors only compliment the exterior decorating decisions that Hank’s responsible for. (The beautiful lawn, the handsome door knocker, the copper rain gutters, etc.) Peggy wants to make her mark on the house, too. During Act One, Peggy embarks on a journey to find a contribution that she can be proud of. At the first act break, Hank discovers that Peggy has found just the thing: a tacky garden gnome. You can easily picture the movie poster for that: Hank looking horrified at the gnome while Peggy proudly stands next to it.
So the first act break of any sitcom is the premise of that episode: Peggy gets into garden gnomes. And Act Two sets the character into new emotional territory. (But that’s another lesson.)
The examples I’ve listed are very broad because they’re easy to visualize, but this concept can be applied to all good scripts. If you don’t believe me, watch any movie or television show tonight and see for yourself. You’re going to laugh when you see how common this “Movie Poster” notion is. Now revisit the scripts you’ve written and ask yourself if the first act break is worthy of the movie poster. If it isn’t, and if doesn’t launch your main character into new emotional territory, you’ve got a problem.
So what about the other seven essential moments that every good sitcom script must have? I have simple ways for you to understand them as well and incorporating them will take your scripts to the next level. Click here for more script writing online lessons
3 Free Screenwriting Lessons
Sign up for 3 Free Screenwriting Lessons. It’ll change the way you approach writing.