Room 101 Script Essay Contests

Chances are, you’re probably unfamiliar with the old expression “There’s no I in staff.”

That’s because I just made it up.

But still…it’s true (Okay, technically, there are two I’s in “writing staff,” but let’s not nit-pick. I’m still new at this blogging thing).

Here’s the point: writing is a solitary endeavor. Writers spend lots of time in self-imposed isolation from the world (even in a crowded room or coffee shop), accompanied only by our preferred writing instrument: computer, tablet, legal pad, spiral notebook, or cocktail napkin. The solitude of writing is part of what we love about it. As a result, writers tend to be introverts. We’re always up in our own heads, either thinking up new ideas, or revisiting old ones, or trying to figure out how to solve some story problem that’s been bugging us. It’s a very internal process. And we like it that way.

But once you’re on a writing staff, that has to change. You’re now part of a team, and since there’s no way for a room full of of quiet introverts to read each others’ minds, some adjustments will have to be made to your creative process.

The first and most important part of understanding what There’s no “I” instaff” means is this: you have to embrace the teamwork aspect of it. You have to learn to love it. You can’t go dragging your feet into the writers’ room every day because you’re “really more of a solo writer.” You can be a lone wolf on your own time, but you must be a team player in the room.

On a similar note, here’s the next critical thing to know about being on any staff: you must fall in love with your show. Literally. You MUST. Otherwise, you’ll always be a detriment to the process of writing that show rather than an asset. I mean, if you’re not an enthusiastic fan of the show, why should anyone in the audience be? So take the plunge. Drink the Kool-Aid. Yes, it’s ultimately the showrunner’s baby, but you’re a part of the show’s DNA as well. And loving the show will only inspire you to want to make it the best that it can possibly be.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that you have to check your objectivity at the writers’ room door. Don’t be so blindly in love with the show that you’re willing to let anything fly. It simply means that you have to find the things you most strongly connect to about the show and latch onto them. Fight for them. If there’s a character in the show that you happen to not like, figure out some aspect of their personality that helps you zero in on their humanity and pitch ideas based around that.

You might even end up writing for a show that’s outside your personal comfort zone altogether. Maybe you’re more of a dark, supernatural thriller kind of writer, but a legal procedural show offered you a job, and you were in no position to turn it down. Your task is now very simple: figure out, as quickly as possible, something about the legal show that you can sink your teeth into and write to it. Become the show’s biggest fan. Otherwise, your days in the room will be miserable, and everyone will sense it. You don’t want your agent to get a call from the showrunner, explaining that you were let go because you “weren’t a good fit.” BECOME A GOOD FIT. That’s what they’re paying you for.

One more lesson that I’ve learned over the years is this: You must stand or fall with the team.

Here’s what that means. As production gets underway, the showrunner will spend less and less time in the room. The head writer will run the room in their absence, and the staff will be tasked with breaking (or re-breaking) whatever stories the showrunner wants worked on. At some point, the showrunner will return and listen to what the team came up with in his/her absence.

And sometimes, this happens:

John (Head Writer): So here’s what we came up with while you were out… (*pitches the story*)

Sue (Showrunner): Hmm. I don’t know. I like it, but I’m not sure I believe our main character would ever do that thing he does in the fourth act.

Billy (Another Writer): Right? That’s what I said! But everybody else liked the idea, so I just went along with it.

No. No. Noooooo!

Never…ever…EVER do this.

Here’s what just happened in the above example: Billy just threw the entire writing staff under the busin front of the boss. And now everybody hates Billy.

Don’t be Billy. Billy has no friends, and will die alone in a one-bedroom apartment in North Hollywood.

There was plenty of time for you to voice your objection to whatever story point everyone else liked, and that time was during the actual brainstorming process. That’s when you were free to raise your hand and say, “Wait a minute, guys…” and work with the staff to iron out whatever wrinkle was bugging you. Nine times out of ten, the staff will be more than happy to listen to your concern and help adjust the story so that everyone’s in 100% agreement.

And every once in a while, 100% agreement just isn’t possible. But don’t take the attitude that “everyone’s wrong and I’m right,” and definitely don’t withhold your objection until the showrunner comes back. It will look (and rightfully so) like you’re trying to curry favor with the showrunner at the expense of everyone else. You will not be rewarded for this behavior, even if the showrunner agrees with you. Trust me on this.

Chances are, John the Head Writer will be gracious enough to tell the showrunner, “Well, Billy had the same concern as you do,” and everyone will work through it with your objection officially on the record. But let someone else say that, and don’t pout about it if no one does. Be humble about the times that you were right, because there will be plenty of times when you’re dead wrong.

So you’ll win some and you’ll lose some. But learning how to play nicely with others is as important as how skilled you are at crafting scenes on the page alone in your office.

Stand or fall with the team. Don’t try to score points by separating yourself from the pack. It’ll backfire on you every time.

Because there’s no I in “staff.”

Learn from television writers in
Inside the Room: Writing Television with
the Pros at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program

CATEGORIES
Ask Script Q&A, How to Write for Television, Screenwriting How-To Articles, TV Writer’s Room, Writers’ Room 101 by Eric Haywood

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About Eric Haywood

Eric Haywood has spent over a decade writing for network and premium cable television series including ABC’s Private Practice, Showtime’s Soul Food, NBC’s Hawaii, and the Fox drama Empire, starring Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, and Gabourey Sidibe. His other writing credits include the Hallmark Channel Original Movie Relative Stranger and Four of Hearts, an independent feature film that he wrote and directed. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricHaywood.

View all posts by Eric Haywood →

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In the previous blog post, I talked in detail about some specific tips for navigating the pitching process. This time, we’re going to delve into the next few steps you’ll be taking in the writers’ room, all of which are meant to bring you closer to being ready to write an actual script. Essentially, what you’ll be focusing on after pitching can be boiled down to three things: beats, breaking, and blending. These are the basic building blocks of crafting a story.

(And yes, in case you’re wondering: today’s post is brought to you by the letter “B.”)

So your writing staff has successfully pitched some ideas for a given episode and gotten them approved by the showrunner. Great. Now what?

Now the writing staff must turn those pitches from vague ideas into actual, concrete storylines. This process is called “breaking stories,” and it’s another group effort in which you’ll be expected to participate.

In order to minimize confusion among your episode’s various stories, one of the first things you’ll want to do is name them. In most cases, the stories will simply be assigned a letter, with the “A” story being the most important (and longest) in the episode, the “B” story the next most important, and so on. You’ll most likely have a “C” and maybe even a “D” story (sometimes called a runner), and while it’s fairly rare to have more stories than that, it’s not unheard of. The number of stories will vary from show to show, but you can generally expect to follow the same basic A-B-C-D pattern.

Simply put, breaking a story means coming up with each individual scene for that story and arranging those scenes in their proper order as they’ll appear in the script. A scene is often referred to as a “beat,” and the terms are used pretty interchangeably. So you’re basically taking the story idea (the pitch) and expanding it until you’ve literally broken it down into pieces, beat by beat.

Breaking a story is really just an extension of the pitching process, because the writing team will toss out different ideas for beats, and generally speaking, it’s another best-idea-wins process. The beats get written down – usually on a whiteboard, allowing everyone to watch the story begin to take shape – and before you know it, you’ve got a complete beginning, middle, and end, with some cool twists and turns thrown in along the way. Then the writing staff repeats these steps for the “B” story, the “C” story, and – well, you get the idea. In each case, the goal is to simply figure out the right beats necessary to tell a satisfying, compelling story.

If the showrunner has been away from the room while all this is being done, she’ll return once the stories are broken, and the writers will pitch each story to her, one beat at a time. You’ll then receive feedback ranging from minor tweaks to major overhauls, and in some cases, you’ll re-pitch the adjusted stories and hopefully get that highly-sought-after thumbs-up from the showrunner.

And now you’re ready for the blend.

You’re already aware, from all your years of watching various TV shows, that the plotlines in a finished episode are interwoven. In the writers’ room, weaving those stories together is also known as blending, and it allows the writer to jump from the “A” story to the “C” story, then back to the “A” story, then the “B” story, or whatever order works best, in order to keep things interesting. Oftentimes, this is a highly subjective process, and the writing team will use their best judgment to determine the order of the blend. Other times, logic will dictate the order of certain scenes, because if you need a certain character to appear in an “A” story beat, but that same character is also in a “B” story beat that chronologically happens earlier, then the decision for how to arrange these beats is pretty much already made for you.

One other critical aspect to keep in mind, if you’re writing for commercial TV, is the need to blend your stories in such a way that each act ends with a compelling act break. The act break is the scene that holds the audience’s attention and makes them want to sit through the commercials (or hurry back from the kitchen or bathroom or whatever) to see what happens next. Usually, your act break will involve some kind of big plot twist or revelation, raising the stakes of the story so your audience will be unable to resist seeing how the story progresses and ultimately resolves itself.

As you blend your stories, the beats that are the most obvious candidates for act breaks will usually jump right out at you. And sometimes you’ll have to rearrange your beats because what you thought was going to make an ideal act break feels less attention-grabbing than some other scene in the act. Other times (if you’re anything like me), you’ll want to identify the act break first, then reverse-engineer the order of the earlier beats. This allows you to know what you’re building towards, and can help you arrange the preceding beats in such a way that the act break is a genuine surprise yet doesn’t feel like it came out of nowhere.

By the way, if you haven’t already done this, you should be closely studying your favorite shows and figuring out what makes the flow of their stories work so well and their act breaks so effective. It’s the single best way to learn, and it’s free.

All right. So now you’ve got all of your stories beat out, broken, and blended. That means you’re ready to write, right?

Wrong. There’s still one more step before you’re sent off to start writing your episode: the outline. And we’ll discuss that in a future post.

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Screenwriting How-To Articles, TV Writer’s Room, Writers’ Room 101 by Eric Haywood

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About Eric Haywood

Eric Haywood has spent over a decade writing for network and premium cable television series including ABC’s Private Practice, Showtime’s Soul Food, NBC’s Hawaii, and the Fox drama Empire, starring Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, and Gabourey Sidibe. His other writing credits include the Hallmark Channel Original Movie Relative Stranger and Four of Hearts, an independent feature film that he wrote and directed. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricHaywood.

View all posts by Eric Haywood →

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