The “writers’ room” of a television show is a magical place , where creativity flows and awesome ideas are generated. But how do you keep “the room” happy and focused? Some of the top showrunners, including Joss Whedon, share their secrets in this exclusive excerpt from the book Showrunners.
The book Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show by Tara Bennett is out now, and it includes interviews with Joss Whedon, Damon Lindelof, Ronald D.Moore, Terence Winter, Bill Prady, Shawn Ryan, David Shore, and Jane Espenson, among others. It’s based on the documentary of the same name. Below is an excerpt from the section on writers’ rooms...
Lessons in Practice
At the exit of every writers’ room there is accumulated wisdom for every writer to put into action at the next job. If those writers eventually become showrunners themselves, there are myriad techniques that can be employed to get the best creative results from their staffs.
J.H. WYMAN, Showrunner: Fringe, Almost Human
I’m all for small rooms. I’m a quiet thinker. I like to consider things a lot. When you have a room of 12 or 15 people that are like, “And this or that,” what it’s great for is that you get a whole bunch of great ideas. They come and they’re from anywhere. They run the gamut from being on-topic to off. Then you look at it and go, “I never would’ve thought of that,” and that’s great. What it also does is it derails you a lot of times because if you’re really trying to chase the rabbit of what you’re trying to say, you get a lot of different people who don’t really want to chase the same rabbit. Then all of a sudden you become shapeless. It’s my job as showrunner to say, “No. Wait guys. We need to focus on this.” It’s much easier to sit with the writers and actually just have two minutes of literal silence and just think about it. It’s so much easier to stay on theme and everybody gets it. It’s really become my favorite thing ever.
JAMES DUFF, Showrunner: The Closer, Major Crimes
I remember telling [TNT EVP] Michael Wright when we first pitched the show, “Right now, you’re only going to see the best I can do. Wait until I get into a room with seven really smart people, and then you can see how good the show can be with lots and lots of really smart people working at it,” and that’s what we’ve tried to do. We’ve tried to elevate the show every episode and we’ve hired people and we put together a team that’s dedicated to that principle.
I think part of the reason why the writing staff hasn’t changed is that the effort that every individual makes is recognized and appreciated. Everybody wants somebody to appreciate their contributions, and here, the writers are very much appreciated, not just by me—that would be natural, of course—but also by the actors and by post and by production. We are without hierarchy here, so that there are no factions and no separate camps.
ANDREW MARLOWE, Showrunner: Castle
When you’re in the writers’ room you never want to kill an idea in its infancy even if it seems ludicrous, because it can lead you to somewhere interesting. Oftentimes you can figure out a way to land it. We did an episode where we’re living in the zombie world. It was something that we had wanted to do because zombies are very much in the zeitgeist and the challenge to us was how to deliver it credibly. Instead of saying, “There’s no way to deliver zombies credibly, what are you guys, nuts?” It was, “Let’s figure it out. Let’s play with it.” Somebody will come up with an idea that is incredibly off base, but like with improv, you want to be supportive of the idea and then see if it can land you somewhere better. The idea itself may be rubbish but it may lead to the conversation that gets you somewhere really beautiful and really interesting.
[On Fringe] we usually wrote in teams of two. Everybody contributed to everybody else’s work. We like it where everybody feels that they’re in a creative, safe place. They can actually not be laughed at, and not be ridiculed or scrutinized for an idea that may not go over well, but feel that they’re in a very safe place, and they can say whatever their imagination sort of comes up with. That’s how we get the best work out of people. That’s really what it takes.
JOHN ROGERS, Showrunner: Leverage, The Librarians
The best thing for me is being in the writers’ room. It’s not even when the story is broken; it’s that moment when actually you can lean back and the room’s momentum is already carrying it. It’s like, “Oh, this story is so good, I could step in front of a bus right now and this would just keep going. They’d finish writing before they’d pick me up off the street.” When I was in stand-up, I used to say that the cool thing was not getting the laughs, it’s the moment that you do the set up to a joke, and you pause, and everyone in the room leans forward. And then you do the joke. It’s the same thing in the room. The story is great, but for me, the really great bit is when everyone is totally engaged and they are thinking about nothing else but this really cool idea. It’s a communal creativity that you don’t see in a lot of other places.
BILL PRADY, Showrunner: The Big Bang Theory
If you start thinking about the episodes that you’re going to do next year, or the episodes that you’re going to do for the next three years... they’ll cart you away into a room and feed you soft food for the rest of your life. That’s the end of it. You have to develop this tunnel vision where you’re looking at this episode or this scene or this joke or this moment. You have to develop the ability to live in the micro and not in the macro. One of the interesting things about the approach that we’ve taken at The Big Bang Theory, and this was always strongly encouraged by [co-creator] Chuck Lorre, is to not plan, to not develop story arcs that last over the season or over multiple seasons, or even to fiercely protect the ending you imagine in the episode that you’re writing. Chuck says, “You’re writing toward an ending.” The great advantage of it is you know what the episodes are going to be.
The interesting thing to me about television is that you can create this ongoing conversation with the culture. If you’re successful and you’re on for thirteen episodes or two seasons or four seasons or eight seasons, you really have a chance to develop characters over time and you really get a chance to see what your impact is on the audience. I think those evolutionary pressures make the job difficult but also really exciting because you can’t rest on your laurels these days. You always have to be pushing your storytelling into new territory. You can’t just say, “Okay. I have an audience. I’m going to cruise for a season or two.” You always have to be continuing to think: how you are going to build that audience? How are you going to challenge the audience so they don’t get bored? How are you going to do new storytelling?
JOSS WHEDON, Showrunner: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dollhouse
The amount of procrastination in the writers’ room can become eventually absurd and toxic, where we are not able to stay on point and thinking that we needed this absurd flow of just jokes and dirty stories and talking about our personal lives, ultimately lead to a lot of longer hours than they should have, and that’s not helping anybody. Because of my fear of conflict, I tend not to communicate with people when they’re doing something right or wrong.
[Executive producer] David Greenwalt, who is one of the meaner people I’ve ever known, God bless him, had to explain to me that I should tell people that they were doing a good job. My response to which was, “Well, I didn’t fire them so clearly they’re doing a good job.” He said, “No, it’s more than that, do it.” At the same time, if someone was doing a bad job, I don’t know how to tell them. What would happen is if we needed to fire somebody, or if they needed to be uprooted, it was coming out of nowhere and they would go, “What’s going on, what do you mean?” I had to learn to keep that focus on the whole picture and that communication and looking at the minutiae, as well and making sure that everybody is co-operating and everybody understands where we’re going.
TERENCE WINTER, Showrunner: Boardwalk Empire
Once we have a pretty good idea where we want to go [for a season], we sit down and go: what happens in episode one and what’s the story in there? How do we hit these points along the way? It’s a lot of discussion. It’s probably a six to eight week period of just talking before we even generate an outline. Once we have an outline that we all do in the room, it’s basically 25 to 33 beats, each one of those beats being a scene. It’s all written down on a board and once we get the outline, we’ll move on. We’ll try to create enough outline so every writer or writing team will have their own episode. Ideally, we generate five outlines and then we take off two weeks to write. I’m in the writers’ room exclusively for the first couple of months before we’re in production.
ALI LeROI, Showrunner: Everybody Hates Chris, Are We There Yet?
When we were in the run for Are We There Yet?, we had eight weeks of pre- production and I only had four staff writers and a small group of freelancers that I would work with. The traditional sitcom writers’-room way of approaching the material didn’t work for me. It may work for some others, but for me it didn’t work. Creatively we like to keep the train moving. Someone comes in with an idea, I say, “I like that idea. Give me a page of beats on how you think the story will work.” Then I can have three or four people doing that. It was challenging, I think, and rewarding for the writers because on a normal sitcom with 12 writers on staff and only 20 episodes to do, you might get one or two episodes maybe in a season. With 90 to do and four people on staff, guess what? You’re going to get a lot of scripts. You can get as many as you can write. It’s all about if the story makes sense, if I can get down 40 pages of something that’s linear that makes sense. I can make it funny. I can punch it up.
I think the philosophy of my room for the writers has always been, “fall in love with moments, not moves.” It was the essence of everything, which was that every show needs to have a separate intent. It doesn’t have to be moral. It doesn’t have to be anything but intent; just this one little thing. A move is, “Oh my God! It was his evil twin!” Evil twin gives you nothing, unless there is some extremely relatable thing that everybody has gone through in regards to an evil twin that you can mine, and that’s your moment. We will protect moments at all cost. I will give up a good move in a heartbeat. It’s very hard. Most writers are taught, “Just keep it going until you get to the end. Whew, we got through another one, and then shoot out in the warehouse.” Believe me, I’ve done my share of shoot-outs in warehouses, I’m sorry to say. For us, it’s always got to be, what do we need to see? Where’s the big movie moment, whether it’s emotion, whether it’s funny, whether it’s action? What’s that thing we’re leading up to that hits you in the heart? Very often you can think you have one and then realize it’s a move disguised as a moment, or vice versa.