Spit Takes: Writing Short and Funny for the Internet

Given that I’ve written material for some of the biggest players on the Internet, I’d like to impart some advice on what it takes to write a successful web video. Keep in mind that I’m not talking about writing a web series. I’m talking about writing those short videos you see on YouTube, Funny Or Die, College Humor, etc. that provide a quick comedy fix. So here are some tips to get you started:

writing for internet1. Keep it short.

Your video should not be more than four minutes long. There are all kinds of analytics on viewer retention, and all of them show that most viewers will lose interest in your video around the four-minute mark. If you want to keep your viewers watching, keep it short. You should also know that three to four minutes of video translates to roughly three to four pages of a script.

2. Make your title do the heavy lifting.

You don’t have a lot of time to explain things. So make sure your title is clever and clearly communicates your premise and characters. Check out these titles from successful comedy shorts:

What do all these titles have in common? They clearly tell the audience the premise so you don’t have to waste valuable page space explaining your setup. Devote all that time you saved to your jokes.

3. Clichés are your friend.

You know all those things you’ve been taught about character development and story arcs? Throw it out. You don’t have the page space to create a character arc, so you have to use existing “mental real estate.”  Use props and settings to establish your character’s job and role. If the character is a mom, show her with kids. If it’s a doctor, put him/her in scrubs. If the person is drunk, show him drinking and slurring. Seriously, you have less than a quarter of a page to build this stuff. Save time and space by working with what your audience can quickly recognize and identify.

4. Forget a plot and go for the jokes.

If you do this in any other form of storytelling, you should be slapped. But when it comes to Internet shorts, you have to throw out conventional wisdom. There is no time for an act structure in this type of writing. Your job is to set your scene and characters at the top of the page, and then establish the joke and premise immediately. It’s your job to keep escalating the joke for the next three pages until you reach your final punch line. I think of it like building a staircase. The first page is your initial step where you create character, setting and the joke. The second step (i.e. page) is where you build and expand what you established on page one. The third step is where you reach crazy heights with your jokes and level off with a final twist, punch line, or visual gag at the end.

Once you get the knack of writing everything in three to four pages, you’ll be shocked at how much you can convey with so little. You’ll also find the skills that you gain writing shorts are invaluable, and will help you craft better scenes in your longer film or TV scripts.

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