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Community Spec Script Toolkit: Part 2 – Structure & Story

May 18, 2010
Okay, so you’ve done your homework and you’re ready to dive into the framework of a Community script.  Like a house (I’m sure you’ve never heard this before…), a sitcom script needs  a solid foundation.  What’s the foundation of a good script?  Hint:  It’s in the title.  I think amateur writers (myself included) neglect the importance of learning a show’s structure.  We tend to hurl ourselves into a script, writing as fast as the words explode into our head…and then we get to the end and realize something’s off.  And we realize, after reading countless blogs and screenwriting books, that if we had taken the time to properly structure our script, we would’ve saved a lot of time and energy fixing things that might not be fixable at the actual script level.  So, let’s take a look at Community and see what trends can aid in your spec writing.
A lot of sitcoms tend to have a cold open, two acts, and a tag. Of the scripts mentioned in my previous post, Community Spec Script Toolkit: Part 1, two have three acts (Episodes 1 & 4) and two have two acts (Episodes 7 and 9). There are quite a bit of revisions on the latter two, so it’s possible that the Act Three headers were cut. So, for the sake of argument, I would say the structure of Community is:

Cold Open – Credits – Act I – Commercial Break – Act II – Commercial Break – Act III – Commercial Break – Tag

The structure is more noticable when watching the episodes, since there are obvious “cliff hanger” endings to Act I and Act II, prior to the first two commercial breaks. I like to support my outrageous claims with facts, so I’ll point you to a quote from a Dan Harmon interview:

I had to start from a position…that Community wasn’t a sitcom. I had to write the pilot as if it was a movie.

So, it may be helpful to write from the perspective that your episode is similar to a mini-movie with a three-act structure. I’ll get into story-specifics in a moment, but here’s a brief description of what each section of the script should accomplish:

Cold Open – Sets up the storylines and possibly foreshadows of things to come.

Act I – An opportunity arrises, but when the character(s) take advantage of it, unintended consequences occur.

Act II – In order to remedy the previous consequences, a new direction or opportunity is taken, which lead to even worse consequences and a crisis point.

Act III – A final solution leads to the resolution of all previous problems and the character(s) learn some sort of lesson.

Tag – A quick joke that may or may not have anything to do with the actual episode.

The good (and bad) news about Community, is that there’s no set formula to the story structure and throughout the first season there have been a few different story structures used. For example, in “Contemporary American Poultry” there was really just one major storyline that involved the entire study group and Jeff’s loss of power (to Abed) through his own selfishness. While, “Debate 109” has a more traditional an A-B-C story structure. To further complicate things, “Introduction to Statistics” has four storylines.  Aspiring writers have the free reign to choose how many storylines they want to include in their specs, but keep in mind that you should use a structure that showcases your style as a writer and fit the type of story you want to tell. If your style leans toward the more “traditional” writer, then you may be better off using an A-B-C story structure. If you’re a product of complexity, then by all means, throw in four storylines!  Just remember to try to avoid over-complicating the story so much that no one can tell what the hell is going on.  No matter which style you decide to take, try to somehow connect all of your storylines through an event or theme.  If there’s a strong backbone, or running theme, that tie everything together, it will help readers follow the story and also help guide you as you write the actual script.

Let’s dive into “Debate 109” and see how the story and structure play out with a produced script. I’ve created a very very very rough Beat Sheet using the index card feature of Celtx. (I hope I’ve captured the major beats of the episode, but who knows, I may have missed something…) For newbies out there, a beat consists a character’s reaction to a given situation. Each reaction should propel the story forward and possibly into a new direction. Check out this explanation from an MCU class. It’s a few years old and it uses Friends as an example, but I believe the same still applies to current shows. After you’ve done some brain storming, this is a good place to begin writing. Figure out what your major story beats are and when they occur–Trust me, it’s better to know these things before your first draft rather than discovering them after you’ve written two or three drafts…

It’s clear from the Beat Sheet that “Debate 109” uses the A-B-C story structure. I’ve written the storylines in narrative form below to show that each one of your spec script storylines should be clear and easily written with about one or two sentences dedicated to each beat.

A Story: The Greendale Debate Team (and Annie) need another debater to fill in for the debate against City College. Jeff joins the team to get a free parking spot. Annie recommends studying, but Jeff, being a lawyer, would rather wing it. They lose the first round of the debate (Is Man Good or Evil) to the wheel-chaired menace, Simmons. Even after, Jeff doesn’t want to study, as he doesn’t care one way or another, despite Annie’s pleads…until, he’s mocked by Simmons. While studying hard, Jeff learns the value of hard work via a stress headache and Annie learns the importance of being spontaneous. Shirley interrupts them and tells them that Abed’s next movie predicts that they will kiss. This creates awkward sexual tension and Jeff and Annie decide to finish studying alone. During the final round, Jeff and Annie crush it, staying neck and neck with City College. They do so well, that they basically have it won, until Simmons goes rogue and throws himself into Jeff’s arms, forcing him to catch Simmons, thus proving that man is inherently good. In a moment of spontaneity, Annie kisses Jeff, forcing him to drop Simmons, proving that man is evil.

B Story: Britta wants to stop smoking, so Pierce offers to help her through hypnosis. She agrees, not because she thinks it will work, but because she wants to make him feel good. Pierce is an awful hypnotist, but Britta toughs it out and fakes hypnosis. Pierce catches Britta smoking again, so he sets up another session. During the second session, Pierce catches Britta faking it and he’s insulted that she pities him. However, it turns out that his methods worked, because every time Britta tries to smoke, she thinks about a three-way in Pierce’s hot tub.  Pierce is actually a genius…sorta.

C Story: Abed’s movies are predicting the future of the study group, so Shirley believes he’s some kind of psychic. He explains that he just knows character and that he can’t predict the future. Abed shows Shirley his next video, where he predicts that Annie and Jeff will kiss, Pierce is a genius, and Shirley is chased by a werewolf. The predictions are so ridiculous that Shirley doesn’t believe Abed to be a psychic. However, Jeff and Annie kiss at the Debate, Britta thinks Pierce is a genius, and Prof. Whitman might be a werewolf.

As I said before, Community uses several different story structures, so there’s no wrong way or right way to approach the spec script, but I feel that Debate is a good template for a well crafted episode. Here’s what we can learn from it:

A Story

  • The longest paragraph is the for the A story, as it takes up about 7 of the 15 story beats.
  • Although it’s very much an ensemble cast, Jeff Winger, is obviously the show’s main character. In this episode, he drives the action, he is an important element to another character’s goal achievement, he teaches something, and he learns something.
  • The last point is important to note: In every episode of Community, the A story main character(s) learn something. It’s not ambiguous either. After Jeff gets a stress headache, Annie tells him candidly: “They happen to people who actually make an effort in life. Not tall, popular people who never had to work for anything.” So, Jeff’s lesson for this episode is to learn the importance of hard work / effort. Your spec script better have a clear lesson!
  • The climax of the episode ties into another storyline (C Story). I feel this is another vital trait that your spec should have. If you can combine all three stories into the climax, even better! (“Introduction to Statistics” is an awesome example of how all the storylines come together in the end.)

B Story

  • This is the second longest paragraph and it takes up about 5 of the 15 story beats.
  • The lesson is not as deep and personal as the A story: Britta learns to not pity Pierce, while still making him feel better, since he did actually help her quit smoking.

C Story

  • This is the shortest paragraph and it takes up only 3* of the 15 story beats. *Note: The C story is actually involved in 5 total beats, but I only count the ones that solely involve the C story characters.
  • The C story is lighter, sillier, and doesn’t really have a deep lesson, but it still should display some sort of truth. Abed can predict the study group’s actions, because he knows their true character. It’s a silly thought, but has a lot of truth in it. In fact, “professional” psychic read people’s character and mannerisms more than their minds to make it appear that they have a “gift.”
  • The story ties into the other two story lines. It helps move the plot of A (when Shirley tells Jeff and Britta about the kiss). The B story is tied into the C Story at the end, too. So, the C story is a good tool to use to tie in all the storylines together.

Overall Notes:

Personally, I like this episode a lot. If I remember correctly, this might have been the episode that made me belive that this was a great show. However, this isn’t my favorite episode of Community. In fact, I prefer “Introduction to Statistics,” as I enjoy the intertwining of four storylines, more than an A-B-C structure. But, it’s much easier to explain story and structure when working with an example that is simple, clear, and effective. If you struggle with a more complex structure, try coming back to the A-B-C structure and see if that helps make your script work.

Lesson learned while writing this blog entry: I should probably start writing my Community spec script, rather than writing about Community spec scripts.

Don’t forget to check out…

Community Spec Script Toolkit:  Part 1 – Homework

Community Spec Script Toolkit:  Part 3 – Characters

Community Spec Script Toolkit:  Part 4 – The Numbers

 

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2010 4:23 pm

    A note for people doing specs: the Tag is usually just Troy and Abed goofing off. There are some exceptions, but the point of a spec is to show you’re familiar with their world and could write within it, and that means maintaining status quo. So keep it Troy and Abed.

Trackbacks

  1. Community Spec Script Toolkit: Part 3 – Characters « the [eventual] sitcom writer
  2. Community Spec Script Toolkit – Part 1: Homework « the [eventual] sitcom writer
  3. Community Spec Script Toolkit: Part 4 – The Numbers « the [eventual] sitcom writer
  4. Eventual Sitcom Writer 2010 Stats « the [eventual] sitcom writer

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