The Cracked Sketch Writing Guide

Welcome to Sketch-Writing!

Hi! I’m excited that you want to write sketches for Cracked but, before you do, I’d like you to check out a guide that speaks to some common mistakes that a lot of people, (myself included), have made in their first sketch outings. I am by no means an expert on sketch-writing or scripts. But, since 2007, I’ve been approving, rejecting, writing, editing and appearing in sketches specifically for this site every single day, so I can, at the very least, offer some hopefully helpful advice on the topic of Sketches.

Defining a Premise

The premise of a scene (or theme, or conceit) is the central joke from which all other humor is derived. These are usually very simple and can be explained in one sentence.

  • A troubled family hires a motivational speaker, who is also a failure.
  • Blue Oyster Cult and their producer clash over the amount of cowbell.
  • A group of survivors deal with a man who is clearly hiding a zombie bite.

These sketches have clear central themes and never deviate from telling that story. If you can’t define your sketch in a single sentence, you might need to re-examine your premise. If you find yourself wondering whether you are getting off track, ask “does this serve the premise.”

Story and Structure Come First- Jokes Come Second

The “list article” has been the single-most important format for new Cracked writers. In our articles, we never just pick a topic and riff on it, we make a list. We take a subject and give it a thesis, we give it a structure, and then we fill in the jokes around that skeleton. While a sketch doesn’t need to be a list, it still needs to have a skeleton. Your sketch should not just be a dead, empty space for you to present and perform your jokes, it needs structure.

All stories have a beginning, middle and end. With a sketch this means that you need to introduce the premise (1 minute), explore the premise (2-4 minutes), and then draw to a conclusion (1-minute). Write a story that supports your premise, then if you find yourself changing the plot for a joke, stop and think “How does this fit into my premise?” If you can’t answer that question, then it probably doesn’t and should be cut. Clarity of purpose beats one joke every time.

Get To Your Point Quickly

Here’s an awful statistic: When it comes to original internet videos, 70% of your audience will stop watching within the first 60 seconds. They close the video and move on to something else, because they‘re bored or they don’t immediately understand what‘s going on and, Hell, why waste time on a confusing video when they‘ve got the whole internet at their fingertips? If you want to hook them, your premise had better be pretty clear pretty early on. Whether we’re reading your script or watching your video, we should know within the first page, (or minute), what the premise of your sketch is.

An old tool, but a good one is Character, Relationship, Action and Place. CRAP!

  • Character: Who are the people in this story? Do they have names?
  • Relationship: How do these people know each other?
  • Action: What are these people doing?
  • Place: Where and when is the action taking place?

In 90% of sketches all of these things are clearly established in the first minute or less.

Once your point is clearly established, be efficient. Build on your point, support it or subvert it, and then get the hell out of there. This is a five-minute internet video; short and sweet is always better.

No Flat Lines

You should be able to chart the progression of your sketch, and it should never be “This joke happens, then this joke happens, then this joke happens, etc,” because that’s a flat line, and a sketch needs an arc. “This happens and, because of that, this has to happen, and because of that, this NEW thing has to happen, and it’s bigger.” Or louder. Or crazier. Or more dramatic. Or more desperate. The point is, within a sketch, you have escalation, a natural intensification of events where stakes get heightened by new information. Your sketch isn’t just bouncing from joke to joke; it’s going somewhere.

Let’s look at some the premises we established before and see how they accomplish this:

  • Matt Foley gets louder and more animated in telling the kids they will fail.
  • The cowbell player gets more extreme in his playing, then sulks when asked to tone it down.
  • The bitten man resorts to more ridiculous measures to hide his wound.

Have an Ending

The absence of an ending is the most common problem I’ve seen in sketches from new writers. It sounds obvious, but ending a sketch doesn’t just mean you’re done writing it. “This sketch is over now” is very different from “This sketch has an ending.” So many scripts start out strong and have a great build, but then never go anywhere, or end with a wacky, out-of-left-field absurdist ending.

How many SNL sketches have you seen with endings that make absolutely no sense or are completely unearned or totally inappropriate tonally? (Lots, I bet.) Of the first hundred completely shitty sketches that I’ve written, I’d conservatively estimate the amount of them that ended with “And then everyone randomly pulled out guns and started screaming” at probably 80. I’d have a perfectly fine premise for four pages, and then on page five I wouldn’t know what to do, so one character would pull a gun on another character, and then the police would barge in, and suddenly my sketch ended with an unearned shootout. 80 times I wrote that freaking sketch. That number is dwarfed by the amount of times I’ve seen and read that ending in my career as someone who reads scripts and watches sketches. Thousands, probably.

So what constitutes an ending? The conflict needs to resolve in one way or another, and a character needs to change. Someone gives in, or is proven right, or dies because of their foolish decisions. This is a result of all the things that have led to this point, and not a completely new story. A remarkable number of sketches actually end on a positive note:

  • The family throws Matt Foley out and is closer than ever.
  • Blue Oyster Cult decides that they love the cowbell.
  • The survivors all resolve to become zombies together.

Don’t Be Afraid to Cut

Every writer struggles with self-editing. Cutting your own jokes feels like drowning your babies, but it is the only way to create a great sketch. Editing is a Darwinian struggle in which only the funniest jokes survive. Some early drafts of Cracked scripts have been 11 pages long and cut down to 4, which only makes them stronger. This means that funny jokes get cut, and that sucks, but I promise you that you will be happier with 10 great jokes than 10 great jokes amid 20 OK jokes.

As With All Things (Creative and Otherwise), There Are Exceptions

I can find a bunch of amazing sketches that break every single one of these rules. Plenty of brilliant absurdist sketches piss all over these rules, and they’re better than anything I’ll ever make. This guide doesn’t exist for you to point out examples where troupes broke the rules to great success; it exists to help you get your feet wet in sketch-writing. You can write your rule-breaking, absurdist, Monty Python-esque script later; if you’re just starting out in sketch writing, let this guide help you avoid some common mistakes we’ve all already made, (at least 80 times!).

A Simple Case Study

Now we’re going to look at a sketch and see if it follows the rules set out in this guide. As of this writing, the latest sketch published to is BriTANicK’s Most Complicated Sexual Roleplaying Ever. Let’s see if it does the things I said a good sketch should do:

  1. Getting to the Point: At exactly ten seconds into this sketch, the woman says the word “Roleplay” and establishes the premise of the sketch: She wants to get into some roleplaying, and he’s not totally interested, but is still on board. Ten seconds!
  2. The Arc: Now that the premise has been established, it’s time to build on it. The first attempt didn’t cut it and, because of that, she wants to switch. That didn’t work so, because of that, they need to involve a friend. That didn’t work so, because of that, they need weirder scenes, with stranger costumes. Her requests become more outlandish, and the sketch escalates.
  3. Short and Sweet: There are maybe ten different versions of their sex “scene” that get played out in this video. Four different cop scenes, a Santa suit, two different ethnic best friends, and a total of six different characters. They did this all in under two and a half minutes. No one knows how to make an internet sketch better than BriTANicK.
  4. The Ending: This is as close to a perfect ending as they come for me. They raise the stakes as the scene gets crazier and crazier until Brian’s character is forced to cool things down. Just when you think they’re going to end the sketch with some recreational fornicating, they hit you with a final, strong button that’s sharp, visually interesting, funny, and earned.
  5. If You’re Good Enough, You Can Break Every Rule: Someone pulled out a gun and shot someone to death and I still didn’t hate the sketch. Miracle!
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