You’re going to make a short comedy that’s set at school. It’s going to involve a small cast, a couple of locations and a simple storyline. You’re going to start by randomly generating a plot. When you are using the plot generator, hit the generate button a couple of times until you and your friends come up with an idea that you can make. Does it sound cliched? So are most of the films made in Hollywood! What will make this film effective is the way you develop your characters and build scenes.
This article is going to take you through the process of developing your ideas. Along the way, you can use these index cards to develop your characters and plots. Breaking down plots using index cards like these is a method that a lot of screenwriters do when they are trying to break down a script.
Thinking about your characters
Whichever you start with, all screenwriters agree that you need to think deeply about your characters, their traits and motivations. When you have a deep understanding of character, it is easy to think about how they would react when faced with particular situations.
Your plot already has two fairly stereotypical characters. Like actual screenwriters, we’re going to use some brainstorming tools to start developing our characters.
The Johari Window is a psychological tool that was developed in the 1950s. The Jahari Window is a good tool for developing a three dimensional character who have clear motivations and inner conflict. It is a table that is divided into four quadrants: open, blind, hidden and unknown. This is a way of thinking about what your characters and others know about them.
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Known to self
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Not known to self
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Known to others
Open. The things that everyone, including your character, knows.
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Blind. Information others know about your character but the character doesn’t. Usually the things that others will say behind their back, truths that are difficult for the character to acknowledge.
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Not know to others
Hidden. Everyone has secrets. These are the things that characters know about themselves but have not revealed to others. Deep, dark secrets that keep them awake at night.
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Unknown. Everyone has undiscovered abilities. These are the unknown traits and qualities that might be revealed about a character in the course of a narrative.
As a character planning tool, the Johari Window forces screenwriters to go beyond the superficial and start thinking about their characters as real people. You might use all of these details in your film or only some of them. The blindspot, hidden or unknown aspects of a character are often a good starting point for your story. When you’re thinking about characters in a comedy remember that comedy is usually a regular person completely ill-equipped for dealing with their problems or attaining their goals. In The Hidden Tools of Comedy: The Serious Business of Being Funny, Steve Kaplan notes: “Comedy is about an ordinary guy or gal struggling against insurmountable odds without many of the required skills and tools with which to win yet never giving up hope.” Comedies are usually a fool’s journey. Characters are either foolish on the outside or have some internal flaw.
Use your index cards to start thinking about your two characters.
Planning your story
We are going to take our simple plot and break it down into three stages: Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3.
The beginning of the narrative. At this stage in the story you will:
- Establish your genre. Because this is a comedy, you need to make your audience chuckle within the first thirty seconds.
- Establish character. Establish your character, their motivation and goals within the first thirty seconds. If the audience doesn’t know what your character wants and sees them go about getting it, you have lost your audience. Establish your character visually and do it with the least amount of dialogue possible. This is often achieved by having your character do something. As Keith Giglio notes in Writing the Comedy Blockbuster: The Inappropriate Goal: “You never want to introduce your protagonist by having her talk to someone else about what is going on in her life. You want to show what is going on in her life. This is the defining action.”
- Inciting event. Once you’ve established your characters, get the story rolling and give your characters some challenges to overcome or goal to achieve.
In the development of your narrative, your character goes about achieving their goal. Every scene consists of your character:
- taking action to achieve their goal.
- the world reacting differently or more powerfully than they expect
- this causes a change in the character’s circumstance, knowledge or emotion.
- decides on the next step
It’s the obstacles characters face and the means they use to overcome these that will generate the humour in your film. As Ken Levine, who wrote for Cheers and Frasier notes: “Most people think that to be a good comedy writer you have to be a good joke writer. That’s not true. Joke writing is a nice talent to have. But would you believe there are ways of writing hysterically funny scenes without a single “joke?” How? It’s in the structure. It’s in the comic premise that you set up. Give your character a goal. And then pile on ways that make it harder and harder for him to achieve it. Guilt, circumstances, temptation, pride, embarrassment, ego, time restrictions – these factors can be the comedy writer’s best friends. The more frustration you can build for a character the better. And sometimes really loading it up can make it funnier. “
At the end of the narrative, the story has to be resolved and tied up neatly. By the end of the story, the character has normally changed or learnt something about themselves. The final act of your story will include:
- Climax. This is the funniest, most awkward and amusing scene in your film.
- Resolution. What will your character do to triumph? In comedies, the character will often achieve their goal or overcome this challenge in an unexpected or surprising way. An amusing twist might bring your story to its conclusion.
Scripting your comedy
When you are writing the script for your short teen comedy, here are ten tried and tested techniques for creating a laugh that you might like to incorporate into your script.
- Anticlimax. Building up to something that isn’t at all dramatic is a great way to create laughs. In Scrubs Season 4, Episode 11, JD (Zach Braff) and Turk (Donald Faison) are running through the hospital in slow motion. “Life in a hospital is never boring,” says JD over dramatic music. The episode cuts to a shot of Carla (Judy Reyes) who gives them a curious look. “What the hell are you guys doing?” she asks. They slow to a halt and the music ends abruptly. “Practicing our slow motion run,” quips Turk.
- Epic fail. When a character tries to do something and fails in the most spectacular way possible. In Hot Fuzz, Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) turns to Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) and says, “What’s the matter, Danny? Never taken a shortcut before?” He vaults and somersaults over several fences. Danny follows gleefully, tripping over and smashing through the first fence. An epic fail doesn’t always have to occur on screen. A character runs out of frame, the audience hears a sudden crash. Or a character might simply refer to their failure through dialogue.
- Running gag. A gag that is repeated again and again. The humour of the line builds as it is repeated. This WatchMojo video counts down some of the best running gags in films.
- The comic rant. When the frustration for a character becomes too much, they unleash a comedic rant. Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) in the sitcom Fawlty Towers was a master of the comic rant. At the end of the episode ‘Waldorf Salad’, he finally loses it: “This is typical. Absolutely typical… of the kind of… arse I have to put up with from you people! You ponce in here, expecting to be hand waited on hand and foot while I’m trying to run a hotel here! Have you any idea of how much there is to do? Do you ever think of that? Of course not! You’re all too busy sticking your noses into every corner, poking around for things to complain about, aren’t you? Well, let me tell you something—this is exactly how Nazi Germany started! A lot of layabouts with nothing better to do than to cause trouble! Well, I’ve had fifteen years of pandering to the likes of you, and I’ve had enough! I’ve had it! Come on, pack your bags and get out!”
- Banter. Banter is witty remarks and dialogue between two characters. Keep it sharp and keep it witty!
- Slapstick. Falling over is always funny. Obviously, you’re not going to put anything into your script that hurts anyone. Mr Bean demonstrates the power of exaggeration and physical comedy.
- Missing the point. It’s always amusing when a character misses the point of what someone is saying. “I don’t trust that kid any further than I can throw him,” says Principal Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. “With your bad knee, you better not throw anybody, Ed,” responds his secretary. In Guardians of the Galaxy, Drax is an alien who doesn’t understand metaphors. When Rocket explains that they go over his head, Drax responds by saying, “Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it!” In Zoolander, Derek Zoolander smashes the architectural model of a school. “What is this?” he yells. “A centre for ants? How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read… if they can’t even fit inside the building?”
- Hypocritical humour. When a character says one thing and immediately does the opposite. In Austen Powers Goldmember, Nigel Powers (Michael Caine) says, “There’s only two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures and the Dutch.”
- Cross talk. When two characters think they are talking about the same thing. In There’s Something About Mary, Ted is arrested by the police. He thinks it’s for picking up a hitchhiker, the police think he’s murdered a homeless man. Hilarity ensues.
- Ironic echo. Repeating a line from earlier to make a character’s actions appear comedic. In Goldmember, Austin Powers (Mike Myers) is freeing his father from a trap. “Oh, please,” he tells his father, “I’m not gonna let Goldmember get away.” Foxxy Cleopatra runs up behind him and says, “Austin, Goldmember’s getting away.”
Here are some ways you can use the language of cinema to make your short film funnier.
- Long shot. Long shots are used for comedic effect in Napoleon Dynamite when Napoleon attempts to do a ‘sweet jump’ using Pedro’s bike. The sustained long shot at the end of this scene emphasises the awkwardness and pain of Napoleon’s failure. Director Jared Hess is a master of the long shot. Later in the film when Napoleon has been abandoned by his uncle in the middle of nowhere, he makes a futile attempt to run back into town. As he disappears into the distance, Hess cuts to another long shot as he runs through the frame, slowly coming to a stop and catching his breath.
- The Reveal. Pan, dolly out or cut to reveal something hilarious. In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, director Gore Verbinski dollies across the reactions of sailors looking in shock as Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) arrives in port. He cuts to a shot of Sparrow standing on top of the ship’s mast, dollying out to reveal that it is mostly submerged underwater. In the opening of Frequently Asked Questions about Time Travel, Ray (Chris O’Dowd) is dressed in science fiction military armour against a backdrop of stars and planets, giving a stirring speech. Cutting to the reverse shot, director Gareth Carrivick shows a room full of children wearing 3D glasses. In an episode of Louie, Louie (Louis C.K) is on an awkward date with a woman (played by Chelsea Peretti). He leans in close to kiss her. The camera pans suddenly as she runs out of frame, revealing a helicopter that takes off as she jumps in.
- Gilligan cut. Named after the sitcom Gilligan’s Island, the Gilligan Cut is when you cut from a character saying one thing to something that directly contradicts what they have said. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones assures the Nazis that they won’t be able to track down his friend Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot). “Brody’s got friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan,” says Jones. “He speaks a dozen languages, knows every local custom. He’ll blend in — disappear — you’ll never see him again. With any luck… he’s got the Grail already.” Spielberg cuts to a shot of Brody in the middle of a crowd shouting, “Uh, does anybody speak English, or even Ancient Greek?”
- Background. Great filmmakers use depth to make their shots visually appealing. In comedies, the background of a shot can serve as a comedic distraction or the punchline of a joke. In 10 Things I Hate About You when Bianca Stratford (Larisa Oleynik) accidentally shoots an arrow into her gym instructor’s butt. She continues her conversation while he writhes around in the background of the shot and concerned students rush to help him. In Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Edgar Wright uses the background of his shot for comedic effect as Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin) covers for Scott (Michael Cera) who dashes around inside the apartment and leaps out a window, his arm shooting back into frame momentarily to grab his coat. In Napoleon Dynamite, when Napoleon (Jon Heder) tries to pick up his date for the dance Pedro’s cousins wait for him in the background of the shot, thumping music coming from their muscle car as it jerks around on its hydraulic suspension.
- Centre framing. Shot composition can make your subject appear inherently humorous. Director Wes Anderson, who made The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) adopted centre framing as part of his quirky, directorial style. Check out his films for wonderful examples of this framing technique. Similarly Jared Hess uses centre framing frequently in Napoleon Dynamite. Because this style of framing is unusual, it can make the subject of your shot appear quirky and unusual too.
- The fourth wall. When comedies break the fourth wall, characters have an opportunity to comment on the events in the film. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a notable teen comedy that uses this technique. After feigning sickness, Ferris (Matthew Broderick) sits up in bed, looks down the barrel of the camera. “They bought it,” he says. “Incredible! One of the worst performances of my career and they never doubted it for a second. How could I possibly be expected to handle school on a day like this? This is my ninth sick day this semester. It’s getting pretty tough coming up with new illnesses.” Director Adam McKay uses this technique frequently in The Big Short, a film about the global financial crisis. After a failed meeting with a bank, Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) stumbles across the prospectus for an investment opportunity. “Okay, so this part isn’t totally accurate,” he says, addressing the audience directly. “We didn’t find Jared Vennett’s housing bubble pitch in the lobby of a bank that rejected us. The truth is, um, a friend had told Charlie about it, and I read about it Grant’s Interest Rate Observer.”
- Reaction shots. In a comedy, reaction shots give the audience an insight into a character’s thoughts and feelings as they encounter humorous situations. In The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, when Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) is singing her birthday song for Ricky Baker, director Taika Waititi cuts to a reaction shot of Uncle Hec (Sam Neil) whose arms are crossed and rolls his eyes as Ricky joins in the song.
- Freeze frame. Freeze frames are often used in comedies to highlight a comedic moment and allow time for for characters to give a wry commentary. In the opening scene of Thank You For Smoking, director Jason Reitman uses a freeze frame when someone in an angry talkshow audience spits at big tobacco spokesman Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart). “Few people on this planet know what it is to be truely despised,” he says.
- Slow motion. Slow motion isn’t just a technique used in action scenes. In comedies it is often used to heighten the humour in slapstick and the absurdity of a situation. In one sequence from the televission series Spaced, director Edgar Wright uses slow motion, admittedly exaggerated by the moment of the actors, during a fake gun battle. It can also be used to make otherwise undramatic moments more hilarious.
- Contrapuntal sound. Contrapuntal sound is any scene that uses music that doesn’t quite fit. Maybe you could use overly dramatic and suspenseful music to show one of your characters succeeding at a game of rock, paper, scissors. Like a lot of good comedy, this is about going overboard with music.
- Non-diegetic sound. Comedies frequently use non-diegetic sound – those sounds that are not part of the story world – to heighten the comedy of a scene. Examples of non-diegetic sounds in comedies include the ding when a character winks at the camera, a record scratch when music is interrupted or swish when a character turns their head suddenly. In the opening scene of Thank You For Smoking, director Jason Reitman uses non-diegetic sound effects to introduce the film’s protagonist, big tobacco spokesman Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart). Reitman introduces the characters talking to an enraged talkshow audience by cutting to a series of freeze frames accompanied by a deep non-diegetic impacts: President, Mothers Against Teen Smoking; Chairwoman, The Lung Association; Top Aide, Health and Human Services; Cancer Boy. When Naylor appears onscreen, Reitman uses a cheerful ding. Later when Naylor is explaining that he’s incredibly persuasive, Reitman cuts to a shot of Naylor standing at a podium, the sound of machine gun fire and explosions layered over his dialogue.
- Voice over. Most screenwriting books agree that voice overs are a lazy way to convey information to the audience. What they’re good at is conveying a sense of character. They can convey the foibles of a character and, because they are usually narrated from some point in the future, provide a wry commentary on the events in the story. In Mean Girls, Cady (Lindsay Lohan) is reflecting on the first time she met Aaron (Jonathan Bennett). “I’ve only had one other crush in my life,” says Cady in voice over. “But this one hit me like a big yellow school bus. He was…” The voice over ends and Cady says, “so cute”, aloud and the rest of the class swivel their heads to look at her. In the opening of Raising Arizona, Joel and Ethan Coen use a voice over to establish HI McDunnough (Nicholas Cage) as a harmless, foolish criminal who just can’t seem to stay on the straight and narrow: “I tried to stand up and fly straight but it wasn’t easy with that son of a bitch Reagan in the White House. I don’t know. They say he’s a decent man. So… maybe his advisers are confused.”
- Inner voice. Hearing the inner thoughts of a character can shine a comedic light n the events in your film. The British sitcom Peep Show is one example of a comedy that frequently uses inner voice. Humour comes from the fact that there is often a difference between what a character thinks and what a character says or does. This is also a highly subjective technique that makes your audience identify with your protagonist. It also gives you further scope to explore the weaknesses and eccentricities of your characters.
- Cutaway gag. The television program Brooklyn Nine-Nine uses the cutaway gag frequently. In the pilot episode, Terry (Terry Crews) explains how he hasn’t been able to undertake active duty since the birth of his twin daughters. “Ever since, I kinda got scared of getting hurt. Lost my edge. There was an incident in a department store.” The episode cuts to a shot of Terry as he jumps out from behind cover, screaming hysterically and riddling an mannequin with bullets. In Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, director Adam McKay uses this technique early in the film when Mack Tannen (Harrison Ford) accuses Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) of being the worst anchorman he has ever seen. “But what did I do wrong?” he asks. “Name one thing.” McKay cuts to a montages of cringeworthy on-air gaffes.
- The Ant-Man Flashback. This technique is named after its pioneering use in Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man. In the film, Luis (Michael Peña) relates a story to Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) about how someone from The Avengers is looking for him. Reed cuts to a flashback of the conversation as Luis’ voice over continues, his voice precisely synced with the characters in the flashback.
- Entering and leaving the frame. As Tony Zhou points out in his excellent video essay on the visual comedy of Edgar Wright, a great deal of humour can be found in characters and objects entering and leaving the frame in amusing ways.
- The Mundane Made Awesome. An obscure cliche listed on TVTropes which involves making mundane events seem overly dramatic. Edgar Wright does this in Hot Fuzz when he shoots and edits police officers doing paperwork like he would an action scene. In Black Books, director Martin Dennis shoots and edits Manny’s walk across the road to buy some ice creams like it’s a shootout from a Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez film.
- Off screen space. Comedies often make jokes about something that is happening off screen. One of the earliest examples of this is a short silent film called The Chess Dispute where two chess players become more and more animated, eventually grabbing each other and falling off screen, their fists, legs and suspenders flying up into frame as they grapple.
- Subjectivity. The use of subjectivity in comedies goes way beyond the humble point of view shot. Comedies often use highly subjective point of view shots that blur the boundaries between reality and imagination. In The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, director Taika Waititi uses humorous subjective shots from the perspective of Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison). In an early example of this, Ricky – who is lost in the wilderness – imagines that Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) is a talking hamburger. Later in the film, he imagines Kahu’s (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne) hair blowing in slow motion to the music from a chocolate bar commercial. These types of subjective shots that blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality can give the audience a humorous insight into the eccentricities of characters.
- Audio swells. Another way to make snappy, comedic edits is by using audio swells. These are typically cymbals or impacts that have been reversed and end abruptly when you cut to another shot. Zach Ramelan discusses how you can achieve these in Adobe Premiere Pro in this tutorial.
- Excess. As Geoff King notes in Film Comedy: “Any conventional formal devices used to excess, can have comedic effect.” Take this example from Arrested Development.
Putting it all together
Once you’ve planned out your characters and plot, it’s time to start putting your simple comedy together. For this task you are going to create a simple set of storyboards to convey what you want to have happen in your film. Remember, keep it simple and keep it amusing!
Student comedies you have to check out
Here are a bunch of comedies made by students that you simple have to check out.
Photo: Perry Hall.