Film School: The Secrets of Sitcom Writing

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 (via Adult Swim):

Film School: The Secrets of Sitcom Writing
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle
  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.

In case the video of Dan Harmon talking us through his Story Circle template himself has been removed (as seems to happen occasionally), here’s an example of how the story circle might be used to plot The Dark Knight (via StudioBinder):

Writing The Show About Nothing

While many other stories have used the story circle since Dan Harmon popularised it, argues Nerdstalgic, “In a way, at the most superficial level, so too does an episode of Seinfeld – just 25 years earlier.”

Further Viewing

With your structure defined, it’s time to write – and, crucially, to format correctly:

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