Aug 25, 2006
This comedy has one of the best scripts to come along in a few years. It's a small indie film, so it's not going to make blockbuster money. But don't let that fool you. You can learn a lot from studying this script.
Comedies are almost always underestimated because they're all about making people laugh. How hard can that be? Very. If you can make people laugh on the page, Hollywood will pay you huge sums of money. Most writers think comedy comes from good jokes. That may be true in a stand-up routine, but it's not true in the movies. In the movies, you have to tell a comic story that lasts about two hours. If you start from the gag or the joke, you have no chance of writing a funny script.
The key is to find the right comic structure by which you can tell your two-hour story and on which you can hang the jokes. One of the reasons movie comedies are so hard to write is that there are so many comic story structures, all of which sequence in a different way. If you don't pick the right comic structure for your idea, or if you don't know the story beats of your form, you're in big trouble. And no amount of jokes is going to make any difference. Without the right comic structure, even the best jokes won't be funny.
Little Miss Sunshine uses one of the oldest comic structures, the comic journey. This form goes all the way back to Don Quixote and is really a combination of the comic and myth forms. Part of the success of this combination is that these two genres are in many ways opposites. The myth form, using the journey as its main technique, wants to be big, heroic and inspiring. Comedy is about cutting things down to size, finding the falsely big and poking a hole in it. So in a comic journey story, the myth sets up the laughs (puffing up the characters), while the comedy provides the punchline.
The downside of combining these two genres is that it causes you all kinds of structural problems. The biggest has to do with the episodic quality of the story. Characters on a journey encounter a number of unique opponents who are usually strangers. This means that every time your hero goes up against a new opponent, that's an episode. In effect, a mini-story. String too many of these together and you get a very bored and tired audience.
Comedy exacerbates this episodic quality. With rare exception, whenever you do a joke or a gag, you are stopping the narrative drive so the audience can see the character knocked off his pedestal. String too many of these together and your story stops dead in its tracks.
Obviously one of the keys to a successful comic journey story is finding techniques that can give you a strong narrative line. Little Miss Sunshine uses two techniques that are especially valuable: the endpoint and the family.
Near the beginning of this script, writer Michael Arndt tells the audience the endpoint of the comic journey. What's more, the characters will be going on a single-line journey. This apparently simple technique is crucial because it gives the audience a line, literally, on which to hang the events and the gags. Instead of becoming impatient with what happens next, the audience can sit back and enjoy the ride - and the jokes. You have already promised them where they are going to go. In effect, you are letting them laugh.
In journey stories with a single hero, all the opponents in the story must be new and they must be strangers. But in Little Miss Sunshine the writer sends an entire family of six on the road. That means that the main opposition is among people the audience knows and it is an ongoing opposition. Instead of a succession of unconnected events, the story has a steadily building conflict. That makes the jokes funnier and it lets the writer build to the funniest gag of all when the family gets to the beauty pageant at the end of the journey.
If you're interested in how to write any of the various comic story structures, take a look at the Comedy Class or the Comedy Software.