When I wrote my book, ELEPHANT BUCKS, back in 2006, I was trying to do for aspiring sitcom writers what I felt Blake Snyder had done for aspiring screenwriters with his book, SAVE THE CAT. I wanted to show a simple, logical, basic structure for telling a story using the half-hour format. I introduced The Seven Plot Elements – my version of The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet. I hoped these guidelines might help aspiring writers to understand traditional sitcom structure.
If you read the book and then watch half-hour comedies on TV today, you might be confused. Where are The Seven Plot Elements in sitcoms that are on right now? The plot elements are still found in some episodes of some series. I was able to give lectures in Toronto just a few years ago on The Seven Plot Elements in episodes of The Big Bang Theory and New Girl.
As I’ve worked on MOM, I haven’t even tried to look for The Seven Plot Elements in our stories. The Seven Plot Elements aren’t used on MOM. And I didn’t see them on Silicon Valley. I’m not as up to date as I could be on the other half-hour comedies on the air, but since I no longer recommend that you write a spec episode of an existing series as a sample of your talent, and instead advise you to focus on writing spec pilots, it’s time to offer some additional guidance on how to structure a half-hour story.
When Chuck is in the room with us on MOM and we’re beating out a story, a question that he asks frequently is, “What happens next?” If we’ve outlined a scene where Christy just found out that her daughter is pregnant, what happens next? What would Christy do? Where would she go? Who would she talk to? What action would she take in response? What would happen in real life based on who Christy is as a character?
It is easier to ask “What happens next?” if you are familiar with traditional sitcom structure already. Experienced half-hour writers, like the ones I work with every day, know that a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The main character is going to be striving for a goal or reacting to a problem.
How the main character proceeds in pursuing a goal or solving to a problem is based on who that character is. I said this in ELEPHANT BUCKS. Stories for half-hour comedy series spring from the premise of the series and the personality of the main character. On MOM, I’ve seen that hold true. Our stories spring from the premise: A newly sober single woman tries to raise her two children while attempting to repair a difficult relationship with her newly sober mother. Christy is good-hearted, strong, and resourceful, but she is also impulsive, insecure, poorly educated, and prone to lying and looking for the easy way out. Bonnie is tough, street smart, and brassy, but also selfish, self-absorbed, and morally flexible. Stories on MOM spring from these two complex and highly flawed characters and the simple but compelling premise about recovery from addiction.
One of my favorite stories from Season One of MOM was the story in which Christy meets her father. The back story is that Bonnie had always told Christy that she had no idea who Christy’s father was. This back story had been established in previous episodes. Also established in previous episodes, Bonnie had lost her apartment and her job and was sleeping on Christy’s couch. When Bonnie’s cell phone slips between the sofa cushions, Bonnie discovers that the couch is a fold-out bed. Bonnie had been sleeping for weeks on the uncomfortable sofa when she could have slept on a comfortable bed. Christy confesses that she kept the fold-out bed a secret in the hope that Bonnie would move. An argument ensues.
We had this much story, and it felt like a rich area, but we didn’t know what happened next? We tried a number of plots. Finally, with Chuck’s help, we outlined a scene in which Christy and Bonnie admit they have been lying to each other all of their lives. They agree they need to change their relationship. They start revealing secrets. Bonnie confesses that she knows the identity of Christy’s real father.
What happens next? Christy drives to Chico to meet her real father. In a coffee shop across the street from her father’s business, Christy learns the real story of her birth from Bonnie. It was one of the most powerful scenes of the first season. Christy goes across the street to her father’s body shop on the pretense of getting her car repaired. She learns that he has a wife and two grown children. She decides not to tell him who she is. The episode ends with Christy and Bonnie feeling closer to each other than they ever have.
This episode turned out to be one of our best, but the story was a challenge to break. We spent days on it. Looking back on it, what we really did to break this story was to keep asking “What happens next?” We followed a logical course of action based on the personalities of our two main characters. We started with the notion that Christy hadn’t told Bonnie about the fold-out couch. We had no idea the story would end up with Christy meeting her real father. We just kept asking, “What happens next?”