Over the course of my almost 12 years of blogging, I’ve often made references to “the writers’ room” as it’s a crucial part of the production process. But what, you may ask, is the purpose of “the writers’ room”? What goes on in this storied chamber?
Well, simply put, “the writers’ room” is a gathering of a show’s writers, brought together to brainstorm the narrative elements of the upcoming season. Depending on how much development has taken place going in, participants in the room may be tasked with anything from world building to coming up with every beat of every episode planned.
The process can be alternately fun and frustrating, sad yet satisfying, exhilarating and exhausting. It really depends on what you need to get done and who you’re getting it done with.
Back on Student Bodies, the first live-action series my then writing partner, Paul Mullie, and I ever worked on, WE were the room. We pitched ideas to the show’s producers, then retired to our shared office (a carpeted classroom in the abandoned high school where we shot the show) and simply broke the story ourselves. And by “broke”, I mean we broke down the episode into acts, broke down those acts into scenes, and broke down those scenes into key beats. What happens here? What do these characters do? What do they say? And, most importantly, why? Each scene builds on the one preceding it and, before you know it, you have yourself a rough outline which will eventually become a full outline, then a revised outline, after which it will be used as a blueprint for a first draft.
Post- Student Bodies
By the time we graduated from Student Bodies to one hour action adventure, Paul and I had a pretty good system when it came to breaking episodes. We would always start with the general idea (What happens in this episode?), then work towards our designated act breaks, those mini in-episode cliffhangers just before the commercial break. Unfortunately, one of the first one hour shows we landed on took a completely different approach. It was more freestyle, eschewing targeted act breaks for a more free-wheeling approach. We would start with our first scene then roll into the next, and then the one after that, and so on. On the surface, it seemed like a perfectly logical approach but, in practice, it was like being caught offshore during a sudden rainstorm and madly rowing for land only to realize, after the storm clouds lift, that you’ve actually taken yourself out to sea. And such was the case on this series when, after a long day of breaking a story, the showrunner suddenly realized everything we had spun wasn’t going to work and would have to be thrown out so we could start over again in the morning.
On Stargate, the writers’ room was very different, no doubt owing to the fact that most of us in that room were defecto showrunners. Yes, lots of great ideas but, admittedly, a lot of clashing egos as well. It wasn’t always pretty (see “The Great Sam vs. Cam SG-1 Leadership Debate”), but we got it done – and we got it done fast. And, by fast, I mean we would often break a story in a day, maybe two tops! And this was in addition to our other writing and producing duties on a 20 episode series (40 episodes for a couple of years when SG-1 and Atlantis aired back to back). To an outsider, this may not seem that impressive, but consider that many network shows take months to break a season. That’s the norm.
Unfortunately, for much of my career, I haven’t had the luxury of “the norm”. I mean, in a perfect world of a perfect production with unlimited time and budget, I’d love to spend months on end nailing down every little detail and dialogue exchange but, realistically, those ideal situations rarely present themselves.
In preparation for Dark Matter‘s first season, I convened a tiny but efficient writers’ room made up of Paul, Martin Gero, and myself. We broke the show’s first season, all thirteen episodes, in two and a half weeks! Season 2, we expanded the writers’ room, bringing in a couple of new voices – yet only managed to break nine episodes in three weeks. In the lead-up to our third season, we were five in the room and only managed to break seven episodes in three weeks.
The Un-Named Awesome Series
On this new series, we have five weeks to world build and break as much of our ten episode first season as possible – and we’ll be doing so with eleven writers in the room (although we lose two after our second week, and another one at the end of our fourth). Having more voices in the room offers up a wonderful array of ideas, but it can also slow down the process considerably. Surprisingly, that hasn’t been the case here. We spent the first week world building, as planned, and are now poised to start our story breaking. I’ll be very interested to see what kind of a pace we set with our first episode.
Ideally, we average an episode every two days and get all ten episodes done by end of day Friday, October 12th. In a less ideal but altogether acceptable alternate scenario, we get nine episodes broken, leaving me to break the season finale later, at a time when the creative can be directed by some of the production developments (ie. A breakout performance by an Android character far surpasses my initial plans for her, inspiring me to build up her role and pay off her arc).
Those are the options.
I mean, it could very well be that we spend a week on the pilot episode, laying all the groundwork, and then positively fly through the rest of the season. Sure, that’s possible. And I’ll reassure myself with this thought if things don’t move…quite as quickly as I’d hoped. But I’m heading into Monday feeling pretty damn confident.
As confident as I felt last weekend when I played the New Orleans defense at home against the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers in my fantasy league. And we all know how that turned out.
Note: I did not turn out well.
Stay tuned for Tuesday’s update!