Narrative Structure of a T.V. Sitcom
In order to make a 22-minute (30 mins with commercials) T.V. Sitcom (Situational Comedy) both interesting and amusing, the writers of the show must follow very strict guidelines in terms of plot structure.
Above is a diagram, known as Freyatg’s Triangle, which explains how the plot of a T.V. Sitcom is structured.
Events in any episode, of any T.V. Sitcom, are structured approximately as follows:
1-3mins = The audience sees the characters in their “normal” state of existence. They are doing ordinary things like watching teleview (cf. The Simpsons), or having breakfast in the kitchen (cf. Two and a Half Men) or arriving home from work (cf. King of Queens). Within this first few minutes a disruption or complication is introduced that drives the action of that episode; this is known as the “incentive moment”.
4-18mins = This is a period of mounting conflict. The disruption or complication gives way to “rising action”; the characters work to resolve their problem and get their lives back to normal. In the process of trying to solve their problem, the characters encounter increasingly difficult obstacles and conflicts. For example, the cast of Futurama have been employed to deliver a package to a distant planet and in the course of doing this they are help captive by violent space aliens; Throughout the episode they must overcome increasingly more difficult challenges in order to free themselves and get back home; At around the 18min mark they will face up against their final and most difficult challenge, such as the leader of the aliens.
By increasing the intensity of the difficulty faced by the characters, the show is using a technique called “accumulation”. In theory, it should get funnier as the show goes on.
When the “accumulation” peaks, it is known as desis; this is the most intense and difficult moment for the characters in the episode. Ideally, it is also the funniest moment or “the big laugh” of the episode.
19-22mins = Once the show has “peaked”, the audience will rapidly lose interest. So, the show must be wrapped up quickly. In these final few minutes, we see the characters resolve their difficulties and differences. Then; denouement or moral of the story is revealed. The “falling action” leads to a happy resolution for all the characters by the end of the episode. Once the Sitcom episode is over, there is almost never any consequences or lasting effects for the characters to deal with. Comedy is really about “getting away with it”, whilst Drama is about “dealing with things when they go wrong”.