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Modern Family Spec Script Toolkit: Part 2 – Structure & Story

December 12, 2010
Well, it’s been a long time since my first Modern Family Spec Script Toolkit post…over six months to be exact.  It didn’t actually take six months to write this post; I just didn’t think there was a huge demand for it, so I put it on the back burner for a while.  However, as I look at the number of hits the original post received, the number of people writing Modern Family scripts (per the Scriptapalooza winners list), and the fact that I’ve had at least three people email me to ask when Part 2 would be available, I realized that there might actually be people out there who are looking forward to this post.  Hopefully it was worth the wait! 

When watching an episode of Modern Family, it would appear that there’s a Cold Open; however, the actual scripts start off with Act I.  It’s just that the first scene(s) of Act I end up being used as a Cold Open.   Occasionally, the commercial breaks in the episodes that air end up being at different places than the Act breaks in the script.  Generally, when writing your Modern Family scripts, this is the structure you should be using:

Act I – Commercial Break – Act II – Commercial Break – Act III – Commercial Break – Tag

Almost all sitcoms have a Tag, but not all shows actually include the Tag in the scripts (at least not the versions found online).  Modern Family scripts, on the other hand, do in fact contain a Tag at the end.  So, don’t forget it!

Act I – The episode premise is established and the conflict for the each storyline is introduced.  Occasionally, a minor attempt to solve the confict has been tried with no success.

Act II – Further attempts to remedy the problem are attempted and story twists are introduced.  Often, a twist that sends the storyline into a different direction is introduced early, which often leads to a new problem that must be solved.

Act III – A final solution leads to the resolution of the previous problem(s) and most of the time a minor truth is revealed about the characters involved.  (That minor truth part is really important for Modern Family. If your script doesn’t reveal any truths, then you might want to go back to the outline stage.)

Tag – A quick joke that normally makes a reference to a scene or situation from the episode.

Modern Family’s structure is fairly traditional in the sense that it almost always uses the A-B-C story structure.  However, where most sitcoms tend to focus on the A story, while the B and C stories are smaller, more supplemental storylines, Modern Family tends to craft the episodes with two or three stories of equal weight and importance.  This isn’t the case in every episode, but it certainly happens more often than not.

There’s a Storylink Q&A with one of the creators, Christopher Lloyd, where he discusses the story structure of the show:

…the story breaking process is both the same and different on Modern Family than it is on other shows of which I’ve been a part. The same: stories need a good mix of humor and heart, and until we’ve got a good ending (the hardest part always), we never sign off on a story. It’s an axiom of ours that ten good beginnings are worth one good ending. The different: when we’re telling three parallel stories they need to be a bit more compact than what you’d normally do on a television show, and the three should vary in tone (if one is a bit broad, another might be a bit more emotional). Also, the three should have some link – either a thematic one, or a story turn that brings the families together at some point during the episode.

Let’s take a look at “Come Fly with Me (aka Changes)” and see how the story and structure are executed with a produced script. I’ve created a fairly primitive Beat Sheet using the index card feature of Celtx. (It ain’t perfect, but it’s close enough for my rudimentary analysis.)  For newbies out there, a beat consists a character’s reaction to a given situation/action. 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, figuring out the  beats of your story is the next logical step toward writing your spec script.  Even if you don’t literally outline them, at the very least you’re subconsciously mentally breaking the story down while you write, so it’s still beneficial to be aware of the beats.

It’s clear from the Beat Sheet that “Come Fly with Me” uses the A-B-C story structure, with two fairly strong A and B stories, and a lighter, shorter C storyline. 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:  After an awkward moment between Phil and Dylan, Claire points out how Phil continues to walk on eggshells around her father.  To prove that they’re “buds,” Phil goes over to Jay’s house to hang out with him.  Phil makes an effort to be friendly with Jay, but Jay is more interested in his model plane than being friends with Phil.  They take things outside to fly the plane, where Phil continues to try and reach out to Jay, until Jay hits him in the face with the airplane.  Jay takes an injured Phil home and despite his injuries, Phil seems more concerned about the plane than Phil.  It comes out that Jay finds Phil’s efforts annoying, while Claire points out that Phil tries so hard, because Jay doesn’t try at all and has never even told Phil he loves him.  In an effort to make amends, Jay tells Phil he likes him, which turns into a group man-hug between Jay, Phil, Cam, Manny, and Dylan.

B Story: Alex refuses to wear a dress to a wedding, despite Claire’s persistence.  When Gloria drops off Manny to play with Luke, she ends up taking Alex shopping.  Manny doesn’t want to play with Luke, so he and Claire begin to bond, while Gloria and Alex do the same while having lunch.  Manny makes Claire realize that Alex just wants to be herself and not Haley, while Gloria makes Alex realize that she’s more beautiful than she thinks and that wearing a dress won’t change who she is.  When Alex and Gloria return home, Claire decides not to make Alex wear a dress, while Alex has already purchased one with Gloria and plans on wearing it.

C Story: Cam takes Mitchell to Costco, despite his protests.  Mitchell’s snobishness begins to fade upon discovering that Costco sells wine and a paper shredder he’s been wanting.  Now pro-Costco, Mitchell is out of control, buying everything in sight, while Cam tries to get him to leave.  Their interview scenes mirror the Costco adventure and relate to the audience how Mitchell mis-judged Cam and eventually grew to like him, like Costco.

Given the strength and dynamics of the characters in Modern Family, the show lends itself to fitting into whatever story structure you want to use.  You could use the traditional A-B-C stories, with each story line being progressively smaller than the previous.  You could have a script with three equally strong, parallel stories.  Or, like “Come Fly with Me,” you could have something in between.  Given how interesting (and fun to write) these characters are, I would lean toward a script that has three fairly equal story lines that are connected in some way.  That way you’ll have an opportunity to write for all or most of the characters in good detail.  I find it hard to choose which characters I want to write for the most, so by having equal stories, it negates the need to choose “favorites.”

Here’s a few things I noticed about each story line.

A Story

  • The A story takes up 6 of the 16 story beats (it’s not the longest).
  • The B story actually takes up more story beats, but the reason why I labeled this as the A story is because of how it’s structured.  The episode begins with Phil on the couch with Dylan and it’s their interaction that sets the story in motion between Phil and Jay.  Next, let’s look at how the episode ends:   Jay tells Phil he likes him which ends up spurring the group hug.  At that point all of the other story lines had been wrapped up, so the A story is used to book-end the episode, i.e. it’s the first story to begin and the last story to end.  Book ending an episode with a story is one good way to tell the audience which story is the most “important” or will have the greatest impact on the characters, despite how much time the actual storyline takes up.  Looking back at the story lines, I’d agree that the impact that the story had on Phil and Jay’s relationship is greater than the other two story lines.  As a rule of thumb, I almost always try to book-end an episode with my A story.

B Story

  • The B story takes up 7 of the 16 story beats.
  • Where the other two story lines each utilized only two characters, this story utilized four.  At its core, it’s still really only about Alex and Claire, but Gloria and Manny are there to facilitate both of their changed attitudes.
  • I really like the mirroring of conversations, as both are very unconventional.  Claire is talking to her step-brother (who’s a child), while Alex is talking to her grandmother (who is anything but a “grandmother”).

C Story

  • The C story only takes up 3 of the 16 story beats.
  • For most sitcoms, the C story can turn into almost a throwaway joke or just a really silly three-scene gag.  However, Modern Family seems to try very hard to create depth with all of its stories.  While, the Costco trip is silly and funny, it ends up being a fantastic metaphor for Mitchell’s original perception of Cam.  So, while we watch Mitchell turn into a Costco-aholic, we also get some backstory on how he and Cam first met.  It’s always hard to cram “how we first met” exposition like that into an episode, since it can really only be told and not shown since it’s in the past, so the utilization of the Costco trip like that is just….well, great writing.

Overall Notes: This isn’t my favorite episode of Modern Family, but I like the way it was structured and the writing really shines.  The other thing I wanted to point out was that this was Episode 3.  Some shows take a few episodes or even a season or two to “figure out” the show and become its own.  For Modern Family, the creators and writers seemed to know early on exactly the type of show they wanted it to be.  Cougar Town is quite the opposite.

Lesson learned while writing this blog entry: Writing a good Modern Family spec shouldn’t be hard…but, writing a great one will be very, very difficult.

Coming in the distant future:  Modern Family Spec Script Toolkit:  Part 3 – Characters

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Travis Jones permalink
    December 14, 2010 11:23 pm

    I actually read your website. :0)

  2. Derek permalink
    December 15, 2010 9:01 am

    Nice post. It confirms my thoughts about the shows structure.

  3. December 18, 2010 2:39 pm

    Hey there folks.

    I managed to write a Modern Family spec a week ago and since I’m a regular follower of this blog, I thought it would be fair if I’d give you something back in return. This is obviously not a complete list but I hope you nevertheless find these tips helpful.

    1) Interviews shouldn’t be used after the cold open
    2) Don’t put too many characters in one place and/or in the same episode
    3) Cam & Mitch are the funny characters
    4) Avoid story arcs that are too convoluted
    5) Don’t run out of your story too early
    6) Try to avoid storylines that don’t add up & forced “what we have learned” endings

    1) Interviews are okay and sometimes are really funny. However, they mainly serve as expositionary devices. They also slow down the episode and pull you out of the story. So if you use these later in the episode, the chances are overwhelmingly that you’re making a really big mistake.

    2) Having too many main characters in the same scene/room is a big problem too. It makes the show feel directionless and even claustrophobic. That’s why I’d recommend to avoid the Dunphy house as much as possible (yikes!). You should also limit the amount of main characters in your episode to give your episode some clarity. I dropped the kids from my spec script by the way.

    Having said that, it’s okay to use guest stars and one/two line part characters. Also, make them go to new places as much as possible – because unlike in the multicam sitcoms – in this format they can and should.

    3) About Cam & Mitchell. These two are the best part of the show. Eric Stonestreet is the funniest guy on tv. Mitch and Cam are believable, relatable, refreshing and charming. In short, they are the main reason that the show won the comedy series Emmy. If you don’t have them in funny situations and making funny comments, you’re script is toast. The rest are very hard to make funny so pay attention to the gay couple.

    4) Convoluted storylines: there was this one episode that looked like it was going to have a solid beginning, middle and an end. However, the episode fell apart when it came to the resolution of the Claire/Haley watching tv in the bed together.

    We had two other separate storylines that were going on and then there was this storyline where Haley thought that Claire was talking about herself (mom) and Claire thought that Haley was talking about herself (daughter). It was way too convoluted. So my point is that you have to keep the storylines simple and straightforward. If you don’t, your script won’t work.

    5) Story runs out too early: remember the episode where Mitch dressed as a spiderman at his work? Mitch in the booth wearing costume trying to hide from his co-workers. Hilarious, absolutely great stuff. Except that the episode continued for like 7 minutes after the climax. I think this was another of those “Claire has a thing for” episodes. The halloween scene after that at Dunphys’ was painful, miserable and tedious. Avoid mistakes like these.

    6) Finally, the most problematic part of the show in my opinion: an emotional wrap in at least half of the episodes that we have seen. It almost always comes out of nowhere. The characters haven’t learned anything in the episode or they might be at each others throats – but 15 seconds later a voice over or a couch interview or some kind of a montage with music resolves it all. Don’t do this unless you and the characters on the show have earned it.

    • January 2, 2011 12:12 pm

      @Ville – Thanks for the input and great advice. (sorry for the delay in responding) I’m actually a fan of “complex” storylines, but from a reader’s perspective it’s very hard to follow, so I think your advice about keeping things simple is right on. If you lose the reader early, it’ll be tough to get them back and some will just put your script down. I also agree that Cam and Mitch are the funniest; however, I wouldn’t say the others are hard to make funny. I find all of the characters fairly easy to make funny as long as the situations compliment their characters.

      Thanks again, and feel free to toss up any more advice anytime!

      • January 10, 2011 1:09 pm

        Well, (continuing on my thoughts) a writer needs to understand that in Modern Family 21 minutes is a really long time and that it allows you to do a lot of stuff. At the same time it means that what you write has to be well thought out. Otherwise you’re bound to run into serious trouble. Last episode that aired was a rather good example of this.

        First (wasn’t first that was introduced) we had Phil and his work-related stuff. I thought it was likely the worst of the three. It was bad because it was so muddled and the setup was non-existing (without setup there’s no plot). Claire bullhorning about a speeder leading to Phil’s old work related friend leading to Phil not feeling like telling something to Claire leading to Phil doing something leading to Claire chasing that friend…

        That might be okay if we were dealing with a single storyline episode. But to put all that confusion and weak motivation into one of the three plotlines is simply mindboggling. It’s wrong. (even though Avclub gave it A-)

        The second plot was about Jay teaching Manny and Gloria to ride a bike. I don’t have a problem with the structure of this plotline but did any of you think it was a plausible storyline? Childlike Gloria and a 13 year old Manny not knowing how to ride a bike without additional help? Out of character stuff. (not to tell too much, but I kinda reversed it myself)

        The third plotline. When it came to the Cam/Mitchell plotline, the doomswitch was the “twist” of the guy actually living in their playhouse. The premise of the guy “upstairs” itself was hard to swallow but the twist simply wasn’t any good and was a massive letdown. (nevertheless, funniest of the three)

        The thing is that if you have to do the twist, it better be something that 1) is unexpected 2) is something that the audience is going to really like and 3) is something that the audience doesn’t recognize as a twist. The moment has to be seen as an awesome change in the direction of the plotline. Very hard to do. Almost impossible I guess.

        Nevertheless, hopefully I succeeded in where the writers of the show didn’t. What I did was that I tried to have 1) simple, clear setups 2) universal truths about us and about our characters = plausible storylines and 3) twist that won’t be seen as a twist.

    • Wallace permalink
      September 19, 2012 2:36 pm

      Haha you dropped the kids? It’s called Modern FAMILY for a reason. It’s a family show. The kids are hilarious.

  4. January 6, 2013 1:54 am

    I used your Community toolkit for a spec. I checked again for a Modern Family, but I really wish you had more of it completed. They’re helpful.

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