4 Ways To A Better TV Writers’ Room
Creative Screenwriting Magazine has interviewed many television showrunners and they all agree that every TV writers’ room is different – from the size, the hierarchy, and the group dynamics. However, some rooms are more successful than others. This article takes a look at some of the key components that the more functional rooms have.
1) Different Voices, Single Vision
Since television serves a wide audience, having a variety of voices that in the writers’ room to facilitate the single vision of the TV show can only enhance the process. These diverse voices should also be given equal weighting in the makeup of the room too. Every writer should ideally be able to speak openly, freely, and safely in the writers’ room. If they reveal a highly personal and sensitive story, writers should be able to assume that the can do so confidentially and without recourse. What is said in the writers’ room stays in the writers’ room.
There is always a place for a counter TV writer in the writers’ room. For instance, have a conservative-minded writer in the same room as a more liberal-minded writer. The purpose of this strategy isn’t to generate ideological arguments, but to authenticate what a typical outlook or response might be to an issue. If, for example, there’s a storyline on stay at home moms, it can only benefit the show if opposing viewpoints are accurately portrayed. This is different from a TV writer guessing an opposing point of view. This moral debate also allows for the extremities of an argument to be determined and a compromising sweet spot to be found.
Understand the purpose of diversity hires. They are there to represent their life unique experience, their culture, their traditions, and customs to add to the tapestry of the story. Don’t challenge someone from another country about their culture. Look for nuances and areas of cultural specificities. Did you know that different Mexican villages have specific comfort foods that are largely unknown outside local communities? Diverse hires are not a homogeneous monolith with a single world view. Not all Hispanics eat tacos and not all rich white women drink wine before lunch.
2) Hierarchy Of The Writers’ Room
The showrunner is the boss. It is their TV show and it is your job to service and honor their vision. Know your place in the writers’ room. It is fine if you disagree with the showrunner’s creative choice, but pick your battles wisely and know how to articulate them, preferably by offering a solution.
A good showrunner should moderate debates but be the final arbiter of disputes. They know the dynamics of the characters and the tone.
The showrunner will also set the tone of the room and the rules. Some showrunners are stricter than others. Some may leave the room and come back expecting a dozen episode ideas by lunchtime, while others may insist that they approve every idea before it goes on the whiteboard to prevent the show from derailing. Much of this depends on how much the show is developed or formed before the writers’ room convenes.
The room must understand the showrunner’s take on the story and who they are as a storyteller. Know their credits and know the underlying IP (including previous seasons). It’s okay to disagree with the showrunner. Make your point and explain why you disagree and offer a solution. If they disagree, let it go. Don’t labor the point hoping they’ll eventually subscribe to your point of view.
It is important to understand that a TV writers’ room is comprised of writers of differing levels of experience. Respect levels of seniority. Sometimes a baby writer may come up with an idea that is initially rejected, only to be reconsidered when a senior writer brings it up later. They are not taking credit for the idea. It just makes sense in the current context of the TV show. Baby writers earn about a tenth of a showrunner’s salary. Therefore, they carry one-tenth of the responsibility.
3) How To Behave
As in all working environments, there is also etiquette in the TV writers’ room. Learn how to read the room. Don’t be the writer that doesn’t get it. Learn how to listen and then speak. You do not need to be talking all the time. The other writers know you’re there. There is a difference between contributing to the conversation and hijacking it. You can’t be too quiet or too noisy. But first, know what you are talking about.
Know the show. Understand the show.
Add creative spice to the story gumbo. Don’t just add more salt. Be additive to the conversation. You can throw a curveball, but don’t knock the table over. The room will swiftly let you know whether your idea is good or not. Every TV writer in the room is a unique individual who may not share your point of view. Respect differences.
It may be that you simply set the table to spark a conversation for a new storyline.
Contribute from a place of vulnerability. Appreciate that what makes you vulnerable might not apply to other writers. Listen to all ideas and respond with intelligence, compassion, and respect.
Do you have any special skills or knowledge? If you have neat handwriting, offer to be the one writing on the whiteboard. Do you have access to a specialty profession? If your cousin is a detective, perhaps they can help you write the story of a police procedural?
Don’t underestimate your previous resume if you are new to a room. Being a Lyft driver or barista means you’ve likely interacted with a variety of people, each with a wonderful story to tell. Fuse other people’s life experiences with your own.
4) Baby Writers
Every writer remembers their first time in a room. It was invariably nerve-wracking. Baby writers are newer writers, not “less than.” You may not have seniority yet, but baby writers have their own power. Some showrunners even envy baby writers because they don’t yet have to deal with tight budgets or squeezed by unrealistic studio demands on all levels.
They are not expected to hit a bullseye on the first day so don’t try too hard. Don’t try too little either. At some point, they are expected to perform. They were hired for their previous life skills to bring something fresh and exciting to the TV series.
Don’t overplay your position on the show. It’s exciting getting your first grown-up gig, but know your place.
That said, express your truth and always be yourself in the room. That doesn’t give you license to say whatever thought enters your mind, but don’t say what you think the room wants to hear either. There are some suggestions that you might want to say no to. Know when to stand your ground.
Be familiar with pop culture and current affairs. Part of the attraction of television is its relatively fast turnaround times, so events on the news could be on the screen in a matter of weeks. Storylines need to be relevant.
Know your voice. What do you represent in terms of theme, character, and world view? There is also an element of personal style and nuance to consider.
Finally, the TV writing community is narrow. Showrunners talk. Writers talk. When showrunners are staffing a new show, they ask your previous boss what you were like to work with first and foremost. You don’t want to be “dinged.”
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