Here’s what bothers me about sitcoms.
Traditional narrative structure gives us a protagonist who has a desire. Between this protagonist and his desire lies an obstacle. The story depicts how the protagonist gets around this obstacle. In boy meets girl, the boy must convince the girl his feelings are true. In the brave little tailor, the tailor must overcome monsters and challenges to win his fame and fortune. Etc.
Sitcoms, however, have to tell lots of stories in rapid succession. So eventually, the writers reach a point where most of the obstacles are in the protagonist’s own head.
Common examples include:
- “Oh, I have a crush on her, but I can’t tell her.”
- “Oh, I’ve done something despicable, but I can’t let anyone know.”
- “I think my boss gave me this promotion because he thinks I’m cute. How can I find out?”
- “Despite years of competence at this task, I suddenly doubt my own abilities!”
These all suck because they can be resolved at any time. They exist entirely inside the protagonist’s head. He could get over them tomorrow; he could get over them ten years from now. There’s no logic to when the obstacle should be overcome and, therefore, no tension. If I’m late for the opera and my car keys fell down a sewer drain, the obstacle will logically be resolved when I either get my car keys out of the sewer, or flag a taxi down, or call my husband and let him know, etc. But if I’m delaying going to the opera because I hate opera, who knows when I’ll fess up to it?
(If it’s a standard sitcom, actually, we know exactly when I’ll fess up to it: sometime between the twenty-fifth and twenty-eighth minute. But that’s not a function of good storytelling)
Sometimes the writers force their characters into situations that push them over their (self-created) internal tension and get them to act. The meek secretary is trapped in an elevator with her handsome boss. Will she confess her feelings? The problem is that, again, the writers are under no pressure to resolve this dilemma now. They could string along her obvious discomfort until the end of the episode. It’s happened before.
So can internal tension still make interesting stories? Absolutely. But only if it is absolute.
A perfect example would be The Shield. Vic Mackey does something questionable – like snatch five hundred thousand dollars from a drug bust and hide it at his house. Does he spend an episode debating what to do? No. He makes a decision and acts on it. The plot advances. The tension comes when events outside his control force him to reevaluate his decision. For instance, his wife Corinne finds the money while searching the basement. What does he tell her?
“But Vic Mackey was a bold, decisive character,” you object. Fine: consider Billings. In Season 4, Billings witnesses a drive-by shooting while at a self-serve car wash. Rather than flash his badge and draw his gun, he hides around the corner of the building until the shooter drives off. This is a craven decision by a despicable character. But Billings doesn’t fret over it. He sticks to it. He remains silent on what he’s seen until events outside his control force him to reevaluate his decision: Wagenbach gets the case, runs Billings’ plates (from a witness or a videotape, I forget) and corners him.
The Shield is a drama, so let me turn back to sitcoms for appropriate examples. The Office occasionally veers into woe-is-me territory, but can usually count on Steve Carell’s character, Michael Scott, to propel the plot forward. When Michael Scott gets an idea, he acts on it instantly and drags the rest of his office into it with him. We’re hiring a stripper! We’re running a marathon! We’re going to Benihana! You can hate him, you can pity him, you can laugh at him, but the one thing you cannot do with Michael Scott as your office manager is ignore him and continue on with what you were doing. “Everybody into the conference room.” This makes Michael an essential character and Jim Halpert, sadly, a weak one.
What’s the lesson? Decisions drive plot; debate delays it. People want to see stuff happen. As soon as you introduce a desire and an obstacle, your characters need to start climbing that obstacle. They can’t just stare at it and pull their hair. And once they start climbing, they either need to cross the obstacle in a reasonable period of time, or they need to fall off. Or find another hurdle at the top. Either way, your story needs to move.