Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Comedy Sketch in Four Beats

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.'

  1. Within a clear initial situation,
  2. a character finds a bizarre solution or adaption to one of life's little problems: an action.
  3. This action is repeated several times (if at first you don't suceed, try, try again), resulting or terminating in
  4. 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.

  1. Initial situation. Parents suffer from aimless teenagers at risk for drug use.
  2. Bizarre solution. So the parents hire a motivational speaker to inspire the teens--but he is a scary intrusive boor.
  3. Repeated actions. He yells at the kids. He insults them. He wrestles with one of them. Finally, his actions break the furniture.
  4. 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

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