When writing for our last show, Robot vs. Dinosaur writers explored writing longer scenes. Whereas a typical sketch should come in at right around five pages, we played around with ten page scenes, and occasionally some that were even a few pages longer. I think some of the writers liked doing this, as it gave them more freedom to explore and develop the scene. I hated it. Once you get around ten pages, I feel like you are writing more a of play than a sketch, and there is a different set of rules to work with.
Recently, however, we have been going the other way, by writing three-page scenes. I love the three-page scene, and I’ll tell you why. The most common critique I give when reading sketches is that a scene “can start a lot sooner.” Often, when someone comes in with a first draft, the scene doesn’t really begin until page two (or three sometimes) because the writer is “writing” their way into a scene, giving too much setup. In a good sketch comedy scene, you almost never need more than a half a page to set up the scene and then get to the conflict and start creating obstacles for the protagonist. With a three-page scene, you don’t have to worry about having too much setup because you just don’t have space for it.
The assignment here is simple: write a three-page scene, no more, no less. Anything less than three pages, and you run the risk of writing a blackout or an extended blackout. Anything more and you are not writing a three-page scene, you’re writing a four-page scene. Duh.
A three-page scene has everything a regular scene has: a set up, a problem, heightening, and a resolution, but it’s just done more economically. It’s a good way to cut the fat out, because every word has to be there for a reason. That’s why you don’t want to get fancy and have even two or three lines skip over to page four, keep it at three at all costs because it will really force you to go back and trim every unnecessary line out of the scene.
The other reason I like three-page scenes is this: it’s easier than five pages, because you can have an idea for a scene and only have to heighten it for a shorter period of time. I’ve read many scenes that were great ideas, but they either started too far into the scene, or ran out of gas at the end. With a three-pager you can avoid both of these problems. You will also find that it’s easier to take an idea that might not be quite good enough to go five pages, but you can sustain it for three fairly easily.
So write a three-page scene. It can be an original, or go find a five-page script you wrote that maybe didn’t work, and see if you can make it explode in three pages. Have fun.