Film School: The Secrets of Sitcom Writing

A guide to the elements that comedy series, from the average to the groundbreaking, have in common.

What do I Love Lucy, Seinfeld, Arrested Development and Rick & Morty have in common? Amazingly, a lot: Slate looks at the storytelling structures these, and many other sitcoms, rely on to deliver the laughs.

Obstacles are deployed to allow the protagonist to “display their signature character trait – the thing that’s funny to watch them do over and over, and makes them who they are”:

  1.  Introduce the main goal
  2. Introduce the main obstacle
  3. Plan to overcome the obstacle
  4. Hit main roadblock, attempt plan b
  5. The final shot (or attempt to overcome the snowballing obstacles)
  6. Success or failure?
  7. Long-term effects (or everything returning to normal)

Dan Harmon’s Story Circle

Of the four case studies, Rick & Morty co-creator Dan Harmon (who was also responsible for three-and-a-bit brilliant seasons of Community) breaks down the storytelling formula he devised for himself, which has been adopted as a template by many writers since. He explains how it works:

Dan Harmon’s Story Circle (source: Wikipedia)
  1. A character is in a zone of comfort or familiarity.
  2. They desire something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation.
  4. They adapt to that situation.
  5. They get that which they wanted.
  6. They pay a heavy price for it.
  7. They return to their familiar situation.
  8. They have changed as a result of the journey.

Unfortunately, the video of Dan Harmon talking us through his Story Circle template himself seems to have been taken down. Instead, here’s an example of how the story circle might be used to plot The Dark Knight (via StudioBinder):