Siân Rowland

Siân Rowland

The Who, What, Where & When of Writing Comedy

This year we had a great panel of readers for the 2020 Funny Women Comedy Writing Award. Playwright Siân Rowland was one of our readers and has offered up her expertise for aspiring writers, which as we head back into Lockdown, we thought you’d find useful…

It’s hard writing comedy. It’s even harder when you only have ten pages and a brief treatment to get across your genius idea. It’s been a real treat reading your scripts for the 2020 Funny Women writing award and there’s so much potential, but what sets apart the longlisted scripts from the rest? Here are five questions you need to ask:  

Where? The best scripts have a really strong sense of place. It’s your chance to place us right at the heart of the story and help us see how your characters interact with their setting. Think This Country (Cotswolds village) or Chewing Gum (inner-city housing estate).

Who? Your main character has to have depth and complexity. We don’t necessarily have to like them (David Brent, The Office) but we need to understand why they are telling their story and the same goes for secondary characters. Workplace comedies, in particular, need a strong want versus need at the heart of the story (Think Stath Lets Flats). Be careful the story isn’t just about zany characters doing zany things at work while the main character observes, exasperated from the sidelines.  A quick word about character descriptions: characters were often described by their age and occasionally their physical appearance but it helps to give us a bit of a flavour of their character in the description so be bold and ambitious with them and if you need to mention a character’s ethnicity, mention it for all of them. 

When? Most entries submitted the first ten pages and some submitted an extract from later in the script. Either is absolutely fine but the action has to start immediately and we need to meet the key character. Several scripts had exciting treatments with a strong main character who only appeared the last page of the extract! Start in the middle of the action and trust the reader or audience to fill in the blanks. If your character leaves their partner (a popular theme in the extracts we read) do we actually need to see the break up or can we go straight into their next action? What is their story right now?

What? You’ve got ten pages so show us the good stuff! Don’t save it for later on in the episode or even later in the series. Give us your best right from the beginning and if the best isn’t in the first ten pages then play around until it is. 

How? Beware of dialogue that is ‘too on the nose’ and cut, cut and cut again. The best sitcoms give us a sense of the characters and what they want within the space of a few lines as though we’ve dropped into that moment. The opening of Detectorists tells us everything we need to know about these two treasure hunters in under 40 words: 

LANCE: Got Anything? 

ANDY Fuck all. Three shotgun caps and a blakey. 

ANDY What you got? 

LANCE Ring pull. ‘83. Tizer. 

ANDY What d’you do with them? 

LANCE Bag ’em up, stick ‘em on Ebay. People buy this shit. 

ANDY Sad tits. 

LANCE You said it. 

Happy editing!

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