The single best thing I’ve done to improve my writing was learning how to write sketch comedy.
Sketch comedy is the guerilla warfare version of storytelling. In sketch, you don’t have 50,000 words to tell a story. Or an hour. Or half an hour. You have to tell an entire story – beginning, transition, climax, and end – on a stage and in under 5 minutes. Ready? Go!
Given such insane constraints, sketch writers need to do three things that all writers should do:
1. Get to the point
The first thing that your sketch needs to do is establish the who, what, and where quickly. How quickly? The first 4 lines of dialogue. It’s called the four-line setup.
This is an excerpt from my sketch “3 Strikes You’re Out“.
Whoo! Way to to Thome! Ya! Send those Northside pricks packin! Buck up kiddo, the Sox are winnin’, you should be happy.
Oh, yeah…Nice hit Thome.
Yeah! That a kid! Hey, you Northside pricks, pack your shit and go back to Wrigley you Old Style drinkin’ yuppies. Man, can you believe these guys still play in that shitty stadium of theirs? That place don’t even got a jumbo-tron.
Dad, there’s nothing wrong with Wrigley Field.
Who: A White Sox fanatic of a father & his apathetic son.
What: The son is not enjoying the game despite the father wanting him to. At the end, the son contradicts the father’s beliefs. If you watch the video, in two more lines comes the turning point.
Where: A baseball game (Thome is a White Sox player, so if you catch that, you know it’s a game between the White Sox and the Cubs in Chicago.)
2. This is the day
The sketch has to tell a story that is significant in the lives of its characters. The late Mary Scruggs would always tell us, “This is the day!” This is the day that these characters grow in some way. So make the plot significant. Is this the day where the husband and wife realize they’re meant to be together forever? That they’re not? That the husband is actually a woman with a hormone disorder? Why is this day significant to them? Heighten the conflict that goes along with such a momentus day; that’s what keeps an audience’s attention. The characters will end in a different place than where they started from at the beginning of the story.
3. Character wants and subtext
Characters can, and should be complex. Establish what your characters want. That gives them motivation to move forward, and therefore move your story forward. When we know what a character wants, we can get behind them and hope for their success, or hope that they fail. It gets the audience involved. If we don’t know what the characters want, the scenes will become stiff and lose the audience.
Knowing what your characters want also drives subtext to their actions. Dave may really want to eat the cookie that Jane has in her hand. To get it, he may hit on her or make a pass in some way. His actions come across to her as romantic, but we know that he only wants that cookie. Right there we have conflict, a relationship, and we want to know what happens next.
3.5. (Bonus) The knockout
A sketch or a story will really stick with you if it has a good button or knockout ending. What can happen at the end of the story that catches your audience by surprise? In sketch, it’s often a final one-liner before the blackout. The most obvious example from a movie is the ending of “The Sixth Sense.” The knockout at the end is what people remember most about it.