These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty . . . or the Easy Peasy Half-Hour Comedy Sitcom Plot Formula
Ever wanted to write a half-hour comedy sitcom? Or just curious as to how their episodes are plotted out? Then let’s take a look at the easy peasy half-hour comedy sitcom plot formula, derived from pretty much every successful comedy sitcom ever.
The formula consists of five parts:
1. the Intro (first 3 minutes)
2. the Trouble (next 5 minutes)
3. the Muddle (next 5 minutes)
4. the Outcome (next 5 minutes)
5. the Outro (last 3 minutes)
*These numbers are not exact, mind, but averages, because some half-hour sitcoms might be 22 or 24 minutes long instead of 21, as well remember that the average half-hour sitcom has two or three commercial breaks depending on the amount of acts involved (either two or three). Most half-hour sitcoms are around 22 minutes long, with the remaining time devoted to commercials. The length of a commercial break varies by broadcaster, but is usually around two or three minutes. The average length of a TV commercial is between 15 and 60 seconds. Most commercial breaks last between two and three minutes with between four and six 30 second commercials.
1. The Intro (minutes 1–3): A short, introductory sketch that runs before the opening credits proving little more than the three-step combo of a single joke: set-up, delivery and reaction. Its purpose is to introduce the protagonist (especially to new viewers of the show) while presenting some aspect of their unique personality. This single opening scene serves as a quick joke to get the comedy ball rolling, and it can introduce the main obstacle to be overcome in the episode or have nothing at all to do with it — either way works.
2. The Trouble (minutes 3–8): The protagonist is right where we left them from the last episode, but of course a new problem or goal has arisen which forms the main plot of the A-Story. A plan is required to achieve the goal or resolve the problem needing overcome. Typically around minute 6 a subplot is introduced which features one of the minor characters as a sort of secondary protagonist in their own right, a co-tagonist; though not always necessary, this B-Story subplot can somehow link to the ultimate conclusion of the main plot.
3. The Muddle (minutes 8–13): The plan devised a few minutes ago to tackle the main plot is put into action, but it can’t work or else the episode would be over. There must be another obstacle, an unforeseen complication which requires an alternative plan or some amusing delay to the success of the initial strategy. With subplots in play, minutes 8–9 establish where we left off with the A-Story. Minutes 9–12 provide the middle muddle of the B-Story, in which the co-tagonist overcomes a minor obstacle toward their goal, then minutes 12–13 return to the A-Story and we see the main plan diverted.
4. The Outcome (minutes 13–18): The stakes are raised high for the desperate protagonist because they’ve already tried once and failed, so they initiate a last resort plan of action and it either works or it doesn’t. Minutes 13–15 reestablish the action of the A-Story, then pauses before the payoff of whether or not the backup plan will work. Minutes 15–17 conclude the B-Story, where the co-tagonist either succeeds or fails to accomplish their goal, and this outcome may or may not influence the outcome of the A-Story. Minutes 17–18 then show whether the protagonist succeeds or fails in the A-Story.
5. The Outro (minutes 19–21): Similar to the Intro segment before the opening credits, there is usually an Outro (sometimes while the closing credits roll), which shows the protagonist in the aftermath of that episode’s action. Nothing much has really changed, and life returns to where it started for the next episode. It usually finishes with a punchline at the end that harkens back to an earlier joke in the episode.
With half-hour-long television series episodes, you break down the story into three acts between the Intro and Outro, like thus:
Intro: Is a brief scene that opens the episode with a stand-alone comical moment which may or may not also introduce the main plot point of the episode. You’ll recognize a TV episode’s Intro by the scene that appears before the opening credits.
Act 1: Is where the conflict of the A-Story the protagonist will be facing throughout the episode is introduced. You can also introduce the B-Story subplot if one exists (and sometimes even a C-Story subplot as well).
Act 2: Is where a series of complications, additional conflicts and obstacles stand in the way of the protagonist and their goals. They fail time and time again (failure is frequent and fine in comedy sitcoms because it’s humorous instead of frustrating, and we the audience don’t really want them to change), while the episode shifts focus back and forth between A-Story and B-Story (if it has any subplots to do so).
Act 3: Is the resolution of the conflict(s). The protagonist has learned from their failures and struggles in Act 2 and must now use that knowledge to overcome or hilariously succumb to the conflicts.
*note that some sitcoms employ only two acts: if the sitcom is of only two acts instead of three then the set-up of Act 1 and the rising action of Act 2 are blended into the bulk of the episode as a single act before the conclusion/resolution.
Outro: Is the scene at the end, included after the episode’s story has played out where one last gag or character moment is offered.