15 tips for new comedy writers
Last year, my writing partner Matthew Barry, and I won the BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Forum Award. Our script, Grey, was my first foray in to scriptwriting proper, so it’s fair to say that the whole experience has been a bit of a baptism of fire.
Within days of winning, we were attending meetings with some of the most influential people in the industry, we were flown to New York for the NYTVF where we were mentored by Jenni Konner, co-writer and exec-producer of Girls; on our return I signed with a top literary agent and Grey was optioned by Company Pictures and put in to development by the BBC for a BBC One primetime slot.
Now eight months on, we have a total of three shows in development and lots more ideas brewing in our little think tanks. I’m still wet behind the ears and very much learning on the job, but here I impart some of the advice that I have either garnered myself, or had generously passed down to me by those much wiser and more experienced than I. (Ben Elton).
1) Story structure
Even though we all have a pretty much inherent understanding of storytelling and the frame within which most tales should unfold, it really helps to consciously learn this craft. Into the Woods by John Yorke is probably the best book on the market to assist you with this. ‘First learn to be a craftsman. It won’t keep you from being a genius.’
2) Character. Attention to detail. Specificity.
This is probably the most important aspect of any script. Especially comedy. Matt and I spend hours upon hours ironing out the minutiae of our characters. Their background, likes, dislikes, flaws and strengths, it breathes life in to them. And nothing is funnier than real life. Focus in on the specifics of a situation, the details of their activity: ‘It smells like someone jizzed in to a bag of Fritos and then threw it at the Christmas tree’ is funny. ‘This house smells’ is a bland observation. The devil’s in the details.
3) Know when to take notes… and when to throw them away
Generally, most of the notes that you receive will be constructive and useful, but every now and then there will be one that threatens to strip your show of its charm. The trick is learning how to decipher the two. Being open and flexible enough to take advice, but determined enough to know when you need to fight to protect your vision. It can be tough, especially in the early stages, but much like with gastroenteritis - you should just follow your gut instincts.
4) Listen to your work read out loud
So much of comedy is not what you say, but how you say it. It’s all about delivery and rhythm and a certain turn of phrase. Hearing something in your head is no substitute for hearing it out loud. It’s vital, even if you just sit and read it for your mum, or get some mates around and divvy up the parts etc. Often there will be silences after lines that you thought were your killer jokes, and sniggers at phrases you assumed were throw away - but you won’t know until you hear it. It’ll also help you develop your ability to write natural, conversational dialogue that doesn’t sound forced.
5) Grab a writing partner
It can be difficult to find someone who you gel well enough with to write together, and it’s by no means a necessity, but by ‘eck, is it so much more fun. Comedy is such a communal and social beast. It’s the difference between peeing your pants laughing when you watch Bridesmaids with your friends, and merely smirking when you watch it alone. Jokes are heightened when you have someone to share them with and bounce off. It also comes with the huge added bonus of knowing if what you're writing can actually make somebody laugh. If Matt or I spout off a line that makes the other one clutch their crotch from laughing so hard, we know straight away that we’re on to a winner. You can also crack the whip with each other when one of you loses focus, and you have someone to drink champagne with when you receive good news.
6) Be aware of other shows on the market
Presumably if you want to be a comedy writer, it’s because it’s a genre that you love. Start to become aware of why you like it, the things that make you laugh, and similarly the things that you think don’t work. Absorb as many shows as you can, be inspired by them, but remember it’s pointless trying to imitate them.
Some cheeky little chancer once said to me, ‘OMG! I'm so gonna write a sitcom, I’ve got the BEST idea, it’s like the Inbetweeners, except mine is multi-camera...’ To this fella, and to you, I say: save yourself the computer memory. While it’s true that no story is entirely original, the Inbetweeners already exists RIGHT NOW, and is a huge success RIGHT NOW – ask yourself honestly; who wants to watch your cheap knock off?
Alongside this, use your knowledge of these programmes to help you consider what broadcaster and time slot your show fits in to. If you want your script to be picked up, you have a much better shot if you’re aware of this, and work with that channel's precedent in mind.
7) The importance of planning
Don’t just start writing willy-nilly like some hotheaded maverick. It’ll end up being waffley and double the intended length (perhaps a little like this article?) and you’ll frequently stop and think: ‘Hang on… Who am I?’ Construct your episode beats, and then redraft them. Construct your scene-by-scene, and then redraft it.
Draw up a strict schedule of work, perhaps aiming to complete an act per day. Then you can begin writing the actual episode. It might seem tedious, but it’ll save you so much time in the long run and after all, he who plans most, laughs longest… or something. Also, To-Do lists are your new best friends. Actually finishing a task every day, even if it's just writing an episode outline, and being able to tick it off your list will make you feel so much more productive and in control. It’s the little things.
I read once that if you want to know what it feels like to be a writer, just hire a devil to sit on either shoulder, one whispering, ‘This is incredible’, the other ‘This is terrible.’ And it's true. Your self-esteem will swing from heady heights to crashing lows often, some times twice hourly.
You need to learn to not take either emotion too seriously. No one wants to work with a big head, and nobody likes a Sally-Sad-Sack, neither. It's difficult to expose yourself and lay your work bare for critique, but that's the essence of the job, so grow a thick skin. Quickly. Take successes and failures with the same steady determination to carry on improving. It's noble work to make people laugh, but you're not modern day saint, Jamie Oliver.
9) Take breaks
Other jobs might view breaks as slacking off, but that isn’t the case with writing. You need to relax. Interact with other humans. Go outdoors. Inhale some air that hasn’t been tainted by the smell of your rotting old food plates and stale breath. Your brain can do wonderful things when it’s given some down time to process information, suddenly it’ll throw up the key to unlock the scene that you’ve spent days trying to crack.
10) The attention-seeking writer
Don’t spend your day tweeting things like: ‘Writing the most high-lar-ious jokes and drinking like a ZILLION cups of tea, soooo happy with the script!’ or ‘Working in some pretty amazing plot twists right now, but my lips are sealed! #DontAskCosIWontTell! Lolol!’
Firstly, if you’re tweeting, you’re obviously NOT writing. You’ve been lured in to the black hole that is the World Wide Web, and that is a slippery slope. Secondly, whoop-di-doo. That’s your job. If firefighters tweeted crap like ‘Turning on the hose’, we’d all think, ‘Wow, that guy's a douche, just get on with it...’ Writing is the same thing.
11) Blank screen fear
Ever spent an hour staring at your computer with your mind devoid of all thought other than: ‘I should have done a PGCE’? It’s the pits, and the enemy of all writers. I do one of two things to overcome it:
- Just start typing out a load of old codswallop. You’ll end up redrafting it anyway; just use it to get in to your stride.
- Write by hand. I don’t know why, but sometimes a good old biro and notebook just seems so much less daunting than a big, blank, computer screen, judging your every move. Simple, but effective.
12) Enter competitions
If you're a new writer with no agent or industry connections, it's the perfect way to get feedback on your work and potentially open doors. You don't have to ‘X Factor it’ and assume it's your only way to forge a career, but it's cheap and accessible and you have nothing to lose. It also gives you a goal to work towards, and encourages you to unveil your work, which can often feel like stripping naked in the freezer aisle at Tesco and slowly rubbing fish paste in to your nipples, so a little friendly encouragement never goes amiss. For us, that break came through the BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Forum.
13) Mind your manners
If someone in the industry gives you a helping hand/offers you advice/puts you in touch with relevant contacts, take the time to thank them. Send an email, write them a card, buy them a gift, it’ll go a long way.
14) Format and grammar
Make your script legible and make sure it’s formatted correctly. Final Draft is well worth the investment, but if your budget won’t stretch right now then you can research some of the free software available that does a similar job. Sloppy spelling mistakes and a messy layout just makes it look like you don’t care, and that’s the last message you want to give out.
15) .. and if all else fails, bargain with the Devil
‘If I can run to the top of this hill without stopping, my show will get the greenlight’– ad infinitum.
- This year’s BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Forum is accepting submissions until May 22. Full application details and terms and conditions can be found here.
Published: 13 May 2013