Laurence Marks on TV comedy
Last weekend, 20 IdeasTap members came to our HQ for The Class – the ultimate TV comedy masterclass with the legendary writer Laurence Marks, the man behind Goodnight Sweetheart, The New Statesman and Birds of a Feather. Here are some of Laurence’s top tips…
- Watch television. Make sure you understand what different channels programme. Who is their audience? Where will your writing fit in?
- Write in partnership. It helps to talk through ideas with someone else. Two heads are better than one.
- Write what you want to write. You only learn by doing. Laurence “gave up a life to write. You need to have something to show when someone finally agrees to read your work”.
- Make sure you’re able to describe your script in three lines that would go in The Radio Times. “If it’s too complicated to explain, it’s too complicated to write”.
- Think about whether your script is for a studio audience or not. Is it pre-watershed?
- Research and preparation are key. Most scripts take eight days to write and a year and a half to prepare.
- Think about where your ad break goes, so that you can balance your script. You don’t want all the drama in just the first act.
- Focus on two to four characters. Get to know your characters as if you live with them, then they will give you the answers because they are real to you
- A good way to test if you have fully formed characters with a distinct voice is to cover the left hand side of your script – can you tell who is saying what to who?
- Find a way to make your script different from anything that’s been before. What makes it interesting? Why will the viewers come back every week to watch your characters and their story? You must have a sellable, compelling storyline.
- Everything that you write must be for a reason. Tie up every storyline you start, make sure everything and everyone you introduce is always relevant to your story.
- In each scene, you should be entering it as late as possible and exiting as early as possible. Your next scene should always be polar opposite to the previous (location/tone/emotion).
- In your plan, try titling your scenes it helps to structure the episode.
- In good comedy there are tears too – the fun comes with how you break the tension.
- Within each episode you should have an A and a B story – your B story will interweave around the A story and they must come together somehow.
- There must be friction/jeopardy in your story. There needs to be an “oh shit” moment.
- Your story must be succinct – you have only 18 minutes once you take the ad break out to have a beginning middle and end.
- Make sure an inciting incident has happened by three to six minutes in.
- “Think funny all the time”. How will you make everything and every scenario funny? You can write body language direction into your script.
- You need lots of lateral thinking when planning the plot of your story. Ask yourself, what do you want to see next as the audience?
- Your script must have breathing space, not just be gag after gag
- Don’t be afraid of programmers/producers; they want you to be successful, they want you to write hit shows for them over and over. Remember they are just people, and they are only as good as the last hit they found.
- A BBC script should be around 50 to 56 pages, whereas an ITV or Channel 4 Script should be around 40 pages. Make sure you submit to them in the template format they like.
- Get others to read your script and give you feedback, and make sure you hear your script aloud.
- Premise Pilots set up the story and your characters – these can help sell your series to programmers.
- From page to screen can take up to three years, even once your script has been accepted.
- Get an agent and send scripts in via them or have a referee covering letter.
- Rejections are good – learn from the feedback.
IdeasTap member Sarah Page shares her thoughts on the masterclass:
“I learned how to generate sitcom ideas, create engaging characters, structure a pilot, terrify Members of Parliament and the best way to take a nap in an Estonian lap dancing club. Laurence is a legend in the television comedy writing industry and I really appreciated the opportunity to pick his brains and get some insider professional advice… We spent two days sharing ideas on what we found funny, which will hopefully inspire our own comedy writing.”
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