(Excerpt from a lecture by Tim Ferguson at RMIT University, Melbourne Australia)
Beginning the comedy writing process with actual writing is as useful as cooking with spices only. It is not particularly creative for the reason that it doesn’t create anything useful.
Dialogue-jamming is easy and fun. This is why we love to do it. But, to torture another metaphor, it’s the equivalent of treading water – you’ll work up a sweat, look great in your Speedos but you’ll get nowhere. Worse, if you keep doing it, you’ll eventually tire and drown.
The real work (choosing a theme, genre, the series’ regular conflicts, character-development and, of course, story-structure) must be done first or the dialogue you ‘jam’ is a total waste of time and may even be destructive to your project and your faith in it.
If you’ve jammed an episode of your sitcom already, get it out of your desk and set fire to it now before it does any further damage. Seriously.
Yes, this is not what you want to hear. But the creativity equation of 1% Inspiration/99% Perspiration is absolutely, tragically, cruelly true. Any monkey can whip up dialogue without a story. Little old ladies jam dialogue on buses every day – it’s called ‘conversation’.
The theory that 100 monkeys with typewriters will inevitably produce Shakespeare is dubious. And, since you’re writing a Sitcom without the help of monkeys, your chances of writing Shakespeare are dim indeed. Besides, Shakespearean dialogue rarely works on primetime network television. Shakespearean structure does.
The dialogue-jamming process may make you feel that you are getting somewhere, but the sensation is illusory.
Your mum will love your jammed dialogue.
Your friends will say “Ooh, gosh, it’s so, like, interesting and… wow, you really are a writer.”
Your lover/s will say they don’t quite understand it but they’re sure it’s good because you are perfect in every way apart from, you know, that thing you do with your toes.
And no one will mention that you have wasted a month of your life typing useless crap that will never see the light of day.
You may attempt to write dialogue to discover a character’s ‘voice’, but when you’ve done your work developing the character, their ‘voice’ will be apparent to you. Their verbal idiosyncrasies, sayings and rhythms will be clear. And if not, you can discover them as you write according to your well-honed plan. Why take the fun out of the final step because you were bored one Sunday and wanted to prove to your sceptical landlady that you are a screenwriter?
Writers should be called ‘Planners’ because the last task in the process of script-development is writing the script itself.
If you’ve done your work, this part of the process will be the most straightforward. You’ll know what you want to say, know your characters and the changes or reversals they will undergo in every beat of every scene.
Dialogue is the final decoration to your Christmas tree.
The tree itself is everything.
Ignore this truth at your peril.
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