I'm a former Syfy exec who left the network to make a new TV show call Z Nation that airs Fridays at 10/9c on Syfy and Space Channel. I'm a co-creator/writer/co-executive producer on the series and thought it'd be interesting to share with fans how the series got made from conception to air.
Top image: Showrunner Karl Schaefer and Co-Executive Producer Michael Cassutt looking at our map of the U.S.
In How To Make A Genre TV Show - Part 1 I talked about how Z Nation got pitched and got a greenlight under a newer economic model of making TV. Once the show was given the go-ahead, the next step was to turn the raw idea for the series into a full season of 13 episodes. That happened in the Writers' Room.
A Writers' Room is just what it sounds like, a room full of writers. Some shows have a big Writers' Room, others don't use a room at all, a very few are written by just one person and there are other variations as well. Z Nation had a modest-sized room that included seven writers and an assistant.
The Writers' Room is usually run by a "showrunner," which is the most important position in TV and oddly one you'll never see in the credits. Typically the showrunner is listed as one of many Executive Producers, but he or she is the top one. The showrunner is the creative head of the show and its general manager, a sort of CEO/ auteur/ninja. Our showrunner is the extremely awesome Karl Schaefer whose work you know from Eureka, The Dead Zone, Eerie Indiana and many other series.
Led by Karl, we convened our Writers' Room (usually referred to as "The Room" or "Room") in the offices of The Asylum in Burbank, Calif. We had all the basics you need for any Writers' Room: writers, writing implements and white boards. We also had a giant map of the U.S. on one wall because our characters are trying to get from the East Coast to the West Coast with 3,000 miles of bad, zombie infested road in between, and we needed to track their journey.
Before joining the room all the writers had homework, which was primarily reading the treatment for the show I talked about in Part 1. By this point Karl had reworked and fleshed out the original treatment into a more comprehensive take on the seres, which now included more ideas, new characters and a bunch of other cool stuff.
We spent the first few days in the room getting to know one another, talking about the show and what we thought it would be, and discussing things relevant to the series. We chatted about famous road stories like Saving Private Ryan and The Lord of the Rings. We talked about how zombies had been handled in TV and film to this point, about how our show would be different. And we talked about what nearby restaurants we'd soon get sick of eating at.
The meat of the show really began coming together when we dug into our characters. Each one of our zombie slayers had their own backgrounds, their own horror stories of survival, their own hopes and their own flaws. Each will also follow their own story arc as the season progresses. Sometimes we took a character from the treatment and beefed up what was there, other times we changed them entirely or came up with all new ones. Character names ebbed and flowed as we tried them out and either grew attached to them or discarded them.
We also batted around ideas for individual episodes and how they'd fit with our characters, our locations and the overall season arc. We looked for thematic threads that might tie everything together: If the characters were coming to a physical crossroads were they also crossing an emotional one? Could a natural disaster mirror a relationship disaster? Gradually all these pieces of the puzzle started fitting together.
Image: Karl on the pilot set, testing out the "Z Whacker."
Another hot topic in our room was Americana, especially in terms of geography. If our characters were going through Pennsylvania, what would they come across that they'd only find in the Keystone State? Or if they were in upstate New York, what were the nearby landmarks? Was there some iconic obstacle coming up that'd impact our story, like crossing the Mississippi or the Grand Canyon?
Eventually we boiled all this down into 13 separate episodes that together told the physical, mental and emotional journeys our characters would undertake. Then we sent them in paragraph form to the network for their approval, making any necessary changes along the way. Contrary to what you've heard we didn't get a ton of crazy network notes (No "Do they have to be zombies?" or "Do the zombies have to be dead?" notes). Most of the notes we got made sense and improved things, others just needed clarification.
Next we took these approved episode ideas and put each up on a white board in turn, expanding them into the teaser and six acts of a TV show (each act is separated by a commercial break). We also put down all the individual story moments or "beats" that happened in each act. This process is called "breaking the story" or "breaking story" or just "breaking."
Side note: Watch Vince Gilligan talk about breaking an episode of The X-Files for Breaking Bad:
Breaking a story is where the rubber meets the road in TV writing. It's where you find out if those lofty ideas you had for episodes can actually hang together across a full hour or not. Things you thought would take up half the episode might end up just being a beat in the middle of act two and you realize you've got four more acts to figure out. Or you'll find that what seemed like a great episode idea doesn't work at all. Some stories break relatively easily, and others feel more like they're breaking you.
Eventually we had the first seven episodes broken. Then we assigned each one to a writer and he or she took all the broken out beats and breaks on the board and translated them into an even more detailed 8-12 page outline. We sent these outlines to the producers and network execs and got another round of feedback from them, then incorporated that into a final outline for every episode.
Only after we broke the first half of the season this way did we actually get down to the nitty gritty of actually writing scripts. Each writer got an outline and went off to write, which I'll talk about in Part 3.
Note: This is my personal perspective on both this show and the TV business. Other people will probably have different experiences and insights because no two shows take the same path to the screen. If you work in TV and have anything to add to the discussion, leave a comment below. Also feel free to ask me questions on Twitter. I'm at @craigengler.