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Writers' Tips

(OR: a sketchy guide to sketches)

There’s no one right way to write a sketch. 

The basic premise of comedy is surprise. In a sketch, something should happen that is different from our ordinary, humdrum, miserable lives. For instance, you go to the bank, and the bank manager is a slinky! (NB: Please never write that) There will be a tension between what we expect to happen (a bank manager) and what happens in the sketch. (a slinky)


Ways to approach the tension

One (or more) person(s) is doing something that people wouldn’t normally do, and the other person(s) calls them on it. (See: That Mitchell and Webb Look)

Two (or more) people are doing things that people wouldn’t normally do. (See: Green Wing

Different World, Different Rules
Something out of the ordinary happens, but the characters behave as if it’s normal. (See: Big Train

Here, two or more seemingly normal characters are in a comedically unfortunate situation, and do their best to get out of it. A sort of 'Situation Comedy'. (Or 'SitCom' for short, if you will) These usually take a long time to set up and resolve, and aren't really the domain of sketch comedy.


What separates good sketches from okay sketches?

Raising the Stakes
It’s not enough to just have the premise of your sketch. The audience gets used to the out of the ordinary thing, (or TOOTOT for short) and it stops being out of the ordinary. As the sketch goes on, the tension needs to increase for the audience to maintain interest. What is happening becomes increasingly important. If something goes wrong, the characters have more to lose than before. The characters become more invested in what they’re doing. (See: The Four Yorkshiremen)

The most important aspect of any short work be it a story or a sketch is building up – if you can’t build and develop your sketch to bring it to a climax of some kind (usually a punchline) – the audience aren’t likely to stay interested.

Managing Conflict
Two people arguing is conflict, and conflict equals tension, so arguing is tension, right? Well, yes. But they’re not congruous. Conflict and tension can also be internal (one person against themselves) or external. (two people against the world) If two characters in a scene have a disagreement, they can’t just have a back-and-forth “Yes!” “No!’ argument. These arguments usually go nowhere, and aren’t particularly interesting to watch. This violates our ‘Raising the Stakes’ principle above.

An Ending
When a sketch ends, the tension established in the premise of the sketch is relieved. We come back to some kind of balance. In the Mitchell and Webb sketch, the grammar guy got grammar-guy-ed and the status of the characters was reversed. Make sure you don’t undo the premise of your sketch. If the grammar guy had just said “Actually, you’re right. Grammar isn’t that important after all”, the audience would wonder what the point of it all was.

Another way to end a sketch is a ‘pull-back-and-reveal’. Here, all the action that has happened in the sketch so far is revealed to have been taking place in a different context to how we thought it had. (See: Victoria Wood) Incidentally, don’t you hate it when the punchline of the sketch is given away in the title of a youtube video? Comedy is about surprise, bitchez.

A sketch doesn’t necessarily have to end at the end of the sketch. If it’s strong enough, one idea can extend over several sketches. When characters, jokes, or ideas return over the course of a show, they become callbacks.


What separates great sketches from good sketches?

Humans aren’t robots. (I hope. Oh god. ARGHGHGH!) This means they have feelings and stuff. More than anything, emotions help your audience empathise with characters in the sketch. They draw people into your world and make it more believable. Sure, they can exist in a ridiculous world, with crazy characters, but find the emotional truth to the scene and you’ve got some fried gold. Emotions allow the actors to really get into their role, allowing the hilarity and intimacy of live theatre to enrich the minds and nourish the souls of our audience.

Repetition in a scene creates a framework for the audience to grab hold of. (“Oh, they keep going in and out of the bathroom”) But simply repeating something becomes boring. It needs to change as it goes on. “Blue Blue Blue Blue Blue” isn’t a pattern. “Blue Red Green Orange Purple” is a pattern.

Usually two instances of something is enough for an audience to be able to predict a pattern. But three instances proves what the pattern is. This is called the Rule of Threes: Things are funnier in groups of three than in other numbers. (See: Notches)

A pattern doesn’t have to be the same throughout the whole sketch. Once you’ve completed a pattern of action, change it.


Other Writing Tips

  • Show, don’t tell
    Demonstrate what the situation is, rather than explaining it. Characters should act with their emotions, rather than naming them.
  • Your audience is ahead of you
    You don’t need to explain the joke to the audience. Trust that they’re as intelligent as you are. Assume your audience watches Community or Arrested Development, not Two and a Half Men.
  • But they’re not mind-readers.
    Just because you know the name of the guy who wrote the original script for Dagger of the Mind (Star trek season 1 eposide 11) that doesn’t mean everyone else does too. We want intelligent and different, but accessible.
  • Try writing different things
    If your sketches are too similar to each other, challenge yourself. Do most of your sketches involve two characters? Try a monologue. Or nine characters. Or none! Are all your sketches set in present day Australia? Try the Elizabethan era. Or the future. Or a parallel universe. Do all of your sketches end with people shooting each other? Try not doing that.
  • Generally avoid Swearing and Shock
    These will get a reaction from your audience, but they generally won’t lead to anything constructive. Only use if you have strong artistic reasons to do so.
  • Write lots and lots and lots
    Not everything you write is going to be excellent. But in the chaff, there will be some wheat. In the hay stack, there will be a needle. In the terrible farming metaphors, there will be a reason for making farming metaphors. KEEP WRITING!

  • It's not about you
    "You have one goal: to connect with your audience. Therefore, you must track what your audience is feeling at all times... Think in terms of what audiences think. They go to the theatre, and they either notice that their butts are numb, or they don’t. If you’re doing your job right, they don’t." - Joss Whedon
  • Not everything has to be funny
    We are primarily a sketch show, but variety is good. We need at least two of these three: Amusing, Impressive, Interesting

  • Check out Pixar's Rules of Storytelling
    Especially points 2, 5, 11, 12, 13, 17
  • Ignore everything we say
    Anything you can say about comedy, the opposite is also true. These tips are tools, not rules. Know what the different components of a sketch are so you can deploy them successfully. You don’t have to rigidly follow them each time. If you write comedy according to a formula, you definitionally end up with formulaic comedy.

 And finally, remember to bring snacks when coming to a writers meeting. We’re particularly fond of strawberry tarts.

Written by Erin Cunio and Jim Fishwick (2013)