How to Start a Sketch, Part I, Free Writing

National Sketch Writing Month (NaSkeWriMo) begins tomorrow. In past years, I’ve not done too well. I’ve signed up at least twice before and I’ve written a few sketches, but I haven’t come close to writing 30 sketches in 30 days. I think this year will be different.

I’ve had two problems in the past. On the one hand, I often wait for inspiration before I start writing. Unfortunately, inspiration doesn’t come very often if you just wait for it. I’ve heard it over and over again that you just have to force yourself to write. Inspiration comes to those who sweat. So in the past, when I’ve tried to follow that advice, I’ve sat down with a blank piece of paper and just started writing dialog. Basically, I improvise with myself. It rarely goes well. The dialog I end up with is small talk peppered with conflicts over trivial matters, precisely the kind of improv scene that I would try to steer my students away from.

Still I think the best sketches I have written have come from an idea, a game I’ve thought of before I put pen to paper. So how do I get to that idea besides writing aimless dialog? This series of posts will outline a few ideas that I’ve learned or that I’ve thought of recently which have helped me. The first one I learned on the first day of my first writing class at Second City. It’s called Free Writing.

Free Writing

Get a pad of paper, a pen and a timer. Set the timer for 10 minutes. Start the timer, put your pen on the paper and start writing. Write anything. Don’t worry about having a plan or writing anything specific. Just spew out whatever is in your brain and keep writing until the timer runs out. The only rule is keep your pen on the pad until the time is up. This is free writing.

When your done, your hope is that you will have an idea, a little sliver of inspiration and now you can write your sketch. One method I’ve heard is simply this. Set a timer for 30 minutes, start free writing. Stop when you have an idea for a sketch and switch to writing that. If the timer runs out before you have an idea for a sketch you like. Set the pad aside and come back later or the next day and start again.

Give it a try and let me know how it works for you.

2 thoughts on “How to Start a Sketch, Part I, Free Writing”

  1. Thanks Kevin. I’m starting NaSkeWriMo tomorrow too so I’ll give this a try in the morning.

  2. I took a sketch-writing intensive at the PIT this summer and we spent the first week learning various formulas for sketches, and I found the formulas to be very helpful writing prompts. The formulas we covered were:
    – Shopkeeper/Receptionist sketch (think Monty Python’s dead parrot)
    – Gameshow (self-explanatory)
    – Dating sketch (where one person confesses a secret to the other – mapping the game of a real confession to something absurd)

    I thought this was a great strategy for beginning sketch writers because it frees you from the responsibility of finding the structure, and just lets you fill in the details. The more times you write according to these formulas, the more you get a sense of structure and rhythm, as well as the confidence to break outside of formula.

    I also found the PIT’s advice about writing habits really useful — they encouraged us to finish whatever sketch we start, to write through every idea, rather than allowing ourselves to get distracted and start writing something new (“better”) halfway through. Very sound advice, I think.

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