THIS STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE WILL TELL YOU EVERYTHING YOU SHOULD KNOW AND EXPECT WHEN BECOMING A WRITER FOR A TELEVISION SERIES!
Written by Johnny Papan
Characters, storylines and the direction of a series evolves with the team who writes it. Though the seed of a series may often come from the mind of one individual, it takes a team to plant, water and blossom a television show into what we see on screen. A show’s direction can completely change based on a number of factors. Characters originally intended to last through the finale are killed off two seasons early because an actor decides to move on, or two protagonists will develop an unplanned romance because it’s what the audience wants.
In the hit mockumentary series The Office (U.S.) the show’s main couple Jim and Pam were written to break up in it’s final season. However, after audience backlash, the entire production backpedaled, quickly rewriting, reshooting and re-cutting episodes to mend the fictitious couple’s breaking bond as the season was already on-air, making sure to get the couple back together for a happy series finale.
Although the screenwriter’s journey is a long and winding road, it’s never too late to start. Diving into the world of film and television later in life, InFocus Screenwriting Instructor Roslyn Muir bloomed into an actively working screenwriter who has penned feature films, television movies and, most recently, was part of the writer’s room for the CBS television series Ransom.
Originally working for the series as an intern after being accepted into the Corus Writer’s Apprentice Program, Muir used the time to learn, network and push for a greater opportunity.
After meticulously studying the show, rewatching old episodes and reading past scripts, Roslyn became a story editor for Ransom Season 3 and penned the ninth episode, “Broken Record”.
Now, Roslyn shares her experience of how a television show breaks down inside a writer’s room.
1. GET TO KNOW YOUR SHOWRUNNER
The showrunner, more often or not, is the creator of the show. They act as lead writer on a series and are judge, jury and executioner, so to speak. Though putting a show together is a team effort, the showrunner will have final say in which ideas make it from concept to screen.
“All the writers, and the showrunner [David Vainola], were really welcoming,” says Roslyn. “I networked with a lot of people in Entertainment One (production company). I asked the showrunner if he would read my samples and consider me for the next season. He did. I got an email from one of the development people asking a few questions, it was kind of out of the blue. It was a really fortunate thing that I was able to do the internship first and be in the room and really learn.”
You will have to adapt your writing style to fit the showrunner’s voice. This enforces continuity in the series as a whole. Once you’ve solidified your understanding of the show’s style and what’s expected of you by the showrunner, the team will begin creating a season.
2. CREATING A SEASON
“The first week [of putting together Season 3] we went over Season 2,” says Roslyn. “We talked about what episodes worked, the arcs for the characters. I believe Season 2 is very much about the protagonist’s family always being in danger. So we decided to step away from that. We really worked on some of the other characters, what they were going to do, what we wanted them to go through. Do they have a girlfriend or boyfriend? What kind of personal problems could they have?”
Since Ransom is not serialized, it allowed the writer’s to touch on each character’s personal life without, as Roslyn says, “getting heavily into soapy moments.” Once the show was mapped out, they would begin jotting episode ideas down on a board.
On the left hand side of the board we see the names of each recurring character on the show. Writers will then write information like what will happen to the character each episode on cue-cards and stick them on the board. This is a popular screenwriting tactic known as “carding”.
“We give characters a three episode arc,” Roslyn explains. “They have a problem, they get to the middle of it and they have to find a solution. The story wasn’t complete at this point because we didn’t always know every detail. We would go back and forth and fill it. Like ‘Okay, now we’re progressing, let’s find out what’s going to happen to these characters in the last few episodes before we figure out what happens to this other character.’ Before we even pitched ideas for episodes, that’s what we worked on.”
3. PITCHING EPISODE IDEAS
In week two, writers begin pitching episode ideas one by one. Some of these ideas will be fully developed and others may not. It doesn’t matter how far along the idea is, each episode will receive input from other writers.
“If you have an idea but you’re not sure where it can go, just pitch it out anyway. That was what happened with my script that got made,” says Roslyn. “The character Eric had a doppelganger, somebody who was pretending to be him. I didn’t know what that episode could look like but we talked about it. It was kind of dropped and then it came back again, everybody would just pitch ideas around it. We’ll write them down and the showrunner will go ‘Okay let’s switch that one, let’s put a pin in that one, etc.”
If your idea is chosen to become a produced episode, you will also most likely write it, though this isn’t always the case. Some writers will pen two episodes in a season, so depending on the order of who writes what episodes, writer’s may end up swapping so there’s ample time between scripts for anyone doing double-duty.
“You’re constantly pushing yourself to go deeper into ideas and expand them. Keep the ideas flowing, you can train yourself to do that. Once you’re throwing ideas around during the breaking of an episode you learn not to be precious about them. The ideas belong to everybody, and you just don’t go like, ‘Oh, why didn’t we use my idea?’ You don’t survive this if that’s your attitude.”
4. BREAKING EPISODES
Breaking an episode involves the team working out all the kinks of each episode. They figure out what happens in each act, writing each scene on the board.
If an episode is about a bank robbery, for example, the writing team needs to know how they are going to catch the robber. What are all the steps needed to lead our protagonists to the final scene where the robber is caught? What happens in the very beginning of the episode? Is the robber planning his big heist, are they already in the bank? All of these major plot points are figured out and written/carded on the board.
Sometimes many of the major points are already thought through by the writer pitching the episode concept. Other times, the writing team will throw spaghetti at the wall, seeing which idea sticks. Roslyn describes this stage as an “organized free-for-all” where everybody gets a turn in sharing ideas.
“Once you’ve broken an episode you have to stand up and pitch your idea to everybody in the room,” Roslyn explains. “You say, ‘This is what happens in act one, and then if there’s any bumps we’ll stop and we’ll all work it out and pitch it again.”
5. WRITE OUTLINES
Once the team and showrunner are happy with an episode, the writers break to write outlines. They’ll take all the cards for their episode and turn those notes into a 10-page document outlining the episode. It’s done structurally, so you know exactly what happens in act one, two and so on. After a couple days the writers will meet, read each other’s outlines and give each other feedback before writing revisions and doing the process over-again. Then the outlines are sent to producers and broadcasters to make sure everything is working for them.
6. WRITE FIRST DRAFT SCRIPTS
“When the notes come back from the broadcaster, there will be another tweak of the outline. Then the writer can go and take it to a draft. Now that generally takes about five to seven work days. It depends on the room and how much time there is,” she says. “Then you send your script to everybody and they read it and note it and give feedback on it the next day. We could end up taking half a day going through the script and giving notes. The writer will take the script away for another day to do all the corrections. Then the script will be sent to the broadcaster and then we’ll get more notes back from them.”
The showrunner will act as a “middle-man” between the writing team and the producers. As expected, sometimes there could be creative differences in the notes, so the showrunner will massage the correspondence between producers and writers, making sure the notes are being given in a constructive way. The script can go back and forth for a few drafts before the producers and broadcasters say it’s ready for production. Even then, given the unpredictability of this industry, writers are always prepared for requests to make more changes even after the script is green-lit. Locations, characters and plot-points can change mid-production. But it all becomes worth it once a season makes it to the television screen.
7. SO HOW CAN YOU GET IN A WRITER’S ROOM?
A) Write Original Content
“The number one thing is having a good script. A good original script. Early on you might write a Breaking Bad spec, or something just to be able to learn to write with those characters. But these days showrunners want to read an original pilot from you. You have to be writing original stuff.”
B) Pick a Genre
“Pick a genre that you really feel that you’re strong at. Sure, you might like to write like horror, sci fi and drama and comedy but you need to have samples that are going to go in to show that you’re a good writer and that you know how to write TV. So never send out those samples, unless you’ve had a few people read them to make sure they’re super polished really sharp.
C) Enter Contests
“You can also send things out to contests. That’s another thing that is always good on your resume. If you haven’t made a lot of films placing first, second or third in a contest is always a good thing. It shows that people like your work.”
D) Keep An Eye Out for Opportunity
“There’s always going to be opportunities if you’re in the film industry. Producers are always looking for stuff. People can connect you to people if you ask. But your main priority is really your work. Working on making the scripts the best they can be.”
E) Keep Writing
“I’ve had to work at it for a long time. Your writing career is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. You are going to be hopefully doing this for the rest of your life because that’s really what you are. A writer. So, don’t be disheartened if you’re not, you know, getting an Oscar right after school. It takes a long time to become a great writer. Just aim to be a good writer for now. And then keep polishing, and eventually you will become a great writer. Take the time to do that. I think it’s really important to learn how to do it right.”