If you're daunted by the task of writing a whole feature script, it's appealing to try something shorter. It builds up your confidence, and you get practice at all the basics.
The sketch is a good place to start doing dramatic writing--screenwriting, playwriting, whatever.
- The sketch is a free-standing dramatic form.
- A sketch is a complete scene, usually comic, between three and ten minutes long.
- A sketch is a self-contained unit: it doesn't imply a next scene. So there's no longer story to worry about.
- The sketch goes back to forms of theater like vaudeville and burlesque, but it's a form that still exists in late night comedy shows--like Saturday Night Live.
Like most dramatic writing, sketches are built out of actions. But a sketch also requires: a change in situation.
- A change in situation might be: a boy is chased by a giant. Run run run. If the boy kills the giant, the situation is changed. The boy no longer has to run.
Writing sketches is good practice.
- A sketch is almost like a tiny little movie. It's a freestanding story with a situation, actions and a change in the situation.
- A sketch has a beginning, middle and end--so it helps you think about story issues.
- But a sketch is also like a single scene from a movie. So writing sketches is also practice for writing scenes.
In short, writing sketches gives you all kinds of practice.
For the purposes of building one, a sketch consists of four 'moments' or 'beats.'
- Within a clear initial situation,
- a character finds a bizarre solution or adaption to one of life's little problems: an action.
- This action is repeated several times (if at first you don't suceed, try, try again), resulting or terminating in
- a change in the situation.
Each 'beat' may be more than one action. (I'm just numbering them here for convenience.)
'Beat' #3 is the bulk of the sketch.
Let's parse an example.
- Initial situation. Parents suffer from aimless teenagers at risk for drug use.
- Bizarre solution. So the parents hire a motivational speaker to inspire the teens--but he is a scary intrusive boor.
- Repeated actions. He yells at the kids. He insults them. He wrestles with one of them. Finally, his actions break the furniture.
- Terminating change in situation. Ironically, this works--the kids are motivated, and the family is unified--in trying to prevent the speaker from invading their house.
After you parse a few of your favorite examples, it's not much work to generate premises to develop into your own sketches. Here are three I often give my screenwriting students.
- When a church organist calls in sick, an unusual replacement is found.
- A young woman's boyfriend is not satisfying her in bed.
- A family finds they must take a very cheap vacation.
- A movie director tries to get an honest, realistic peformance from his star.
Have at it.
--Edward R. O'Neill