Writing a sitcom a sitcom is very involved process. Even bad sitcoms require a ton of work. Many outsiders think it’s as simple as creating a few fun characters then stringing jokes together. Some people assume that because televisions shows have a staff, every writer must be assigned a character and we just sit around a table, saying whatever we think our character would say. This isn’t how the process works at all.
Writing a sitcom works like this: a staff consists of writers, some brand new, others with years of experience. The head writer, or showrunner, is the person who leads the discussion. He or she sets the tone of the sitcom, ultimately deciding which stories get told and which lines make it to air. He or she is responsible for other creative decisions as well, including casting, set design, music, and wardrobe.
At the beginning of every season, the writers will discuss the overall trajectory of the show. Sometimes this means giving a character a story arc that will span multiple episodes. Maybe she’ll start a new job, or he’ll get married. That plot line will generally be something of significance that will drastically change the character dynamics on a show. Instead of dealing with the ups and downs of dating, the writers will now explore the ideas around getting engaged: choosing a wedding venue, narrowing down the guest list, deciding where to live, etc.
In the past, sitcom writers didn’t usually plot story arcs until three or four seasons into a show, and they did this to mix things up and generate fresh new ideas. If they did it earlier in the run of the sitcom, it’s probably because they received a note from the network to make drastic creative changes in order to improve ratings.
With the advent of streaming, things have changed a bit. As more viewers binge watch shows, sitcom writers have had to adapt. One way we’ve done this is by serializing the show, which means the episodes must be watched in order for the audience to follow the storyline.
So how do sitcom writers come up with storylines to pitch to the showrunner? It starts with understanding what gives an idea the potential to be a full episode. For those who wish to learn how to write a sitcom, I’ve developed an entire curriculum based on the knowledge I’ve acquired over my 25 years in the business. Click here to learn script writing online.