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NEW GIRL Case Study: How To Learn To Plot by Watching Sitcoms

All About New Girl

New Girl was a sitcom that ran between 2011-2018. The show followed the fates of an offbeat young woman Jess (Zooey Deschanel), a teacher who is trying to get over her breakup with her boyfriend after he cheats on her. If you’re in the UK, you can find it on DisneyPlus in its entirety.

Jess moves in with three young men: Nick, a Chicago-born university dropout who now works in a bar; Schmidt, an advertising executive who believes he is God’s gift to women; and Winston, a former pro basketball player who is trying to find his way in the white collar world. An additional member of the cast is CeeCee, Jess’ childhood friend who is now a professional model.

In short, New Girl is a flat-mate comedy of unlikely friends trying to find their way in their twenties. The parallels between New Girl and Friends are obvious. New Girl even leans into this, utilising tropes and even whole storylines Friends used first. It’s a fascinating example of how it can be the ‘execution that counts’ … at least when it comes to commissioned pieces. (It’s extremely doubtful that a speculative sitcom could get away with this).

Kicking off less than ten years after Friends finished, but almost twenty years after it began, New Girl is – as you would expect – a much more modern take on the flat-share comedy. The characters are much more diverse, plus much of the comedy is more progressive as standard with less ‘punching down’.

(Of course, New Girl finished six years ago now. This means it should be interesting to see how long it feels more progressive, since absolutely everything dates, especially comedy).

Why Watch Sitcoms To Learn Plotting?

Working with writers in ALL genres or even mediums – TV pilot, feature screenplay OR even novels – I’ve discovered writers typically struggle with plotting.

These struggles may show up as …

  • ‘Top heavy’ drafts
  • Saggy middles
  • Endings that ‘wrap up’ too fast
  • Character arcs that make no sense
  • Too much in the draft (often because there’s TWO stories or even more there)

Of course, there’s plenty more where these plotting problems come from. But these are the 5 main ones I see on a regular basis.

So why do I recommend watching sitcoms to learn plotting?

Put simply, sitcoms are short (often just 21-23 minutes!), funny = (so not a chore) and packed to the brim with plot. This makes them the PERFECT vehicle to learn how plotting works.

Sitcoms are also incredibly easy to find via your streamer subscriptions. Here’s some previous B2W case study breakdowns …

So even if you’re not actually writing a sitcom yourself, breaking them down can be a fun exercise that is very high yield. In short, the more episodes you break down, the more you will learn about plotting your own TV pilot, feature or novel. What’s not to like???

New Girl, s2 ep17 – Parking Spot

In this episode, a premium parking spot becomes available in the apartment building and Jess, Schmidt and Nick go to war over it. Meanwhile, the other member of the group Winston meets up with girlfriend Daisy but does not have a condom. Originally airing in 2013, it was the 41st episode of the series (it would eventually have 146 overall).

When I’m working with screenwriters and novelists, I often find writers go down what I call the ‘theme rabbit hole’. In other words, they spend too long thinking about what their MEANS ‘underneath’ the main story. This then means they frequently forget about the physical events and actions their characters MUST do for there to be a story at all.

This is why I always draw writers’ attention to the idea that                 ‘P for plotting = P for PROBLEM.’

Check this out …

Like so many sitcoms, New Girl is packed to the brim with plot. There is not just one story ‘strand’ but THREE – A/B/C. The A story is the ‘main’ plot if you will. This is then usually contrasted against a B story, which may or may not cross over with the B story. Finally, the C story usually relates to a serialised element in the story that goes on for the whole season.

Breaking it down into ‘story strands’ is especially useful to screenwriters, but can also help authors work how much is ‘too much’ (or conversely, not enough) for their novels.

So here’s how the A/B/C story ‘strands’ of Parking Spot break down …

  • A Story = refers to the ‘Parking Spot’ of the episode title. It’s the focus of the episode! (Whilst this might seem obvious (and it is), many writers forget to have a main focus like this in their novels or screenplays.
  • B Story = In this ‘strand’, Winston goes off on his own completely separate adventure. This happens frequently in sitcoms and TV dramas. However, when this happens, there’s usually some cross-over with the characters’ separate adventures and we can see this happen here in Parking Spot. (Again obvious, yet spec screenwriters and unpublished authors frequently forget to ‘connect’ their story strands, so the reader is left wondering why there’s two concurrent stories at all).
  • C Story = This refers to the serialised element that takes us from episode to episode. There’s two in Parking Spot – but the most important element is the fact Nick and Jess have kissed. This will feed directly into the characters’ behaviour and actions within the episode.

Got it? So here we go …

From The Overview To The In-Depth Breakdown

One of the reasons New Girl is one of my favourite sitcoms of all time is its commitment to Set Up and Pay Off. As a self-confessed plotting junkie, it delights me to see how things are seeded upfront and paid off later.

In addition, its characters rarely – if ever – go against their own characterisation in service of the plot (unlike many TV dramas of the same period).

We can see this all in action in Parking Spot. All the characters’ flaws come into play from the first second of the episode. Whether that is Jess’ somewhat demanding and manipulative nature … Or Nick’s avoidant tendencies … Schmidt’s hysteria and spitefulness … Or Winston’s hardcore desperation around women, it’s all there.

Each of these characters DOES stuff according to WHO they are. Whether we like the show or not, that’s tight and well-thought-out plotting and characterisation.

What’s more, if we colour-code the A/B/C story strands, we can see how each plays out …

  • A Story = Parking Spot focus, in blue.
  • B story = Winston trying to have sex, in purple
  • C story = Jess and Nick’s kiss, in green

Those eagle-eyed Bangers will also see the red bits, which is for the antagonists. Upfront, the main antagonist of the episode is obviously Schmidt. (He is frequently the antagonist generally as he is the most unreasonable member of the group).

In addition, we have a number of other antagonistic forces against Winston in the B story. In the first instance, it’s Daisy – she won’t have sex without a condom. (It’s important to note this does not make her villain. In fact, Winston’s ridiculous counter-suggestions for not using a condom make HIM the problem). From there, it’s the pharmacy, Daisy’s pants and then the bad directions that become the main obstacles).

In the C Story, Jess and Nick are in denial, marking them out as obstacles against themselves. In fact, as unreasonable as Schmidt is, he is right when he says everything in the group will change … because it does!

Finally there’s a walk-on appearance for CeeCee and Shivrang, who otherwise don’t play a part in this episode. Winston crossed over with them to remind us of this serialised element for future episodes.

Grab Your Free Breakdown of Parking Spot As A PDF!

You CAN watch sitcoms and learn plotting … this writing lark should be fun, which is why I always recommend watching sitcoms to do this, regardless of what you’re personally writing.

Grab your free breakdown of Parking Spot as a PDF, CLICK HERE or on the pic on the left or on any of the other pics in this article.

Then fire up DisneyPlus (or wherever you can find New Girl in your country) and watch Parking Spot.

Have some fun and learn more about plotting for your script or novel. What are you waiting for?

Good Luck!

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