Inside A TV Writers Room

So you think it’s glamorous for TV writers to sit in a room, often without windows, for 12-16 hours per day? You think it’s cool sitting around all day thrashing out storylines for a TV show at the behest of the showrunner?

On TV shows with compressed production schedules, there can be two concurrent writers rooms. Most writers room have the same basic elements. There’s a board at the front of the room, colored markers and a designated scribe.

One TV writers room looks like a teenagers bedroom with bowls of sweets, stress balls, a basket ball ring and a model turtle, just like the one screened in an episode. These accoutrements immerse writers into the world of the TV show in a manner that doesn’t feel like work. It enhances their moods. How else are the TV show producers going to get the writers to stay? I’ve heard cases of music, incense, baseball bats and balls, cappuccino machines and pets being brought into writers rooms.

On other TV shows there are colored index cards snaking around the room. Currently, they like purple and white. Different characters have different colors, so it’s easier to track them over several episodes. This is ideal for guest characters and for core characters who must appear in a certain number of scenes per episode. They say that once the snake has a head, mid-section and a tail, the outlining and subsequent writing process can truly begin. By breaking down the series into scenes, the story logic can be evaluated.

Scenes can also be color-coded to depict interior and exterior, standing sets versus special sets or plot strand in the case of B and C stories.

In comedy shows, there are sometimes colored markers to ensure a certain number of jokes occur per scene. Are the cultural references valid? You probably won’t laugh at a Middle Eastern man being randomly singled out for additional screening at airport security any more. Another color is used for jokes that need punching up or replacement.

Other TV shows run on half days. The writers gather in the mornings for a few hours to ensure everyone is on the same page and then they go home and write their episodes. They   read each others scripts to ensure the story logic, character arc, tone and voice is consistent. It saves the show runners a lot of  work.

Some TV writers rooms have goody bag of funky expressions writers collect and may or may not be used on the TV show. I keep one myself as a word file.

Once the plot is hammered down for an episode, scene breakdowns are written. At this point, the writers disperse to write an episode or farm out the writing to freelancers. The latter is becoming increasingly rare.

The writers make several additional passes of each script. There may be a tone or theme pass for instance. Is it too dark or too light? Is the mix between comedy and drama just right?  Is the dialogue congruent and consistent to each character?

An extension of the writers room occurs when actors read through scripts. This identifies clunky dialogue, plot holes and to ensure homogeneity of the scripts.

Finally, the scripts are polished, approved by the showrunner and the network executives prior to production. I once heard that on one episode of “Mad Men” the scripts reached the actors at midnight the day before shooting. It was a 6:30am call time. Yikes. That’s what I call performing under pressure.

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