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TV Writing 101: How a writers' room creates a season of TV

Updated: Feb 23

Before I ever stepped foot inside a TV writers' room, I had no idea how TV was created.


TV writing 101

More importantly, I had no idea how to write my own TV pilot scripts, which I was writing in the desperate hopes that I would meet somebody important enough to show my script to who would, in turn, decide I was the best writer they'd ever seen and would propel me to the Hollywood elite...


I'm still waiting for that one. But in the meantime, while I was a writers' assistant and script coordinator in writers' rooms, I was soaking up the lessons. And here's what I learned...


I knew nothing beforehand.


When it comes to TV writing, you can read a lot of material and a lot of scripts. But it's really hard to master the craft without firsthand experience.


Now, the act of writing is certainly part of that firsthand experience.


But seeing how a writers' room navigates story problems, network notes, character dynamics, seasonal arcs... these were things I had no clue about and it was hugely beneficial to my writing once I learned about them.


Being that we're not in a writers' room right now, I want to start small with how a writers' room actually breaks (meaning creates) a season of TV.


These are the actual phases the room goes through. This is THE most helpful piece for up-and-coming TV writers because it holds huge lessons for how to create you own scripts.


So, here are the phases...


Blue Sky: The first stage in any TV writing environment


Blue Sky has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? It connotes freedom and that's generally what it means.



This is the beginning of any TV show, or any season of most TV shows. The writers will gather with maybe some general ideas for where they want the season to go, or maybe some episode ideas.


But other than that, they'll have nothing. So, now, they blue sky... meaning, they throw anything and everything at the wall and see what sticks.


Maybe an alien comes to visit. Maybe they adopt a kid. Maybe they get hooked on crack. (I've lost sight of what TV show this could possibly be...)


Through this process, the ideas slowly get whittled down.


The showrunner, the head writer, starts to see a path and a general arc for the season, and eventually, these story ideas become season long arcs and then individual episodes.


There are plenty of shows these days where the showrunner has the whole season pretty much plotted out already. And there are many others based on IP where this type of thinking would not be appropriate.


For example, the first few seasons of Game of Thrones adhered pretty strictly to the books, so a blue sky period in the writers' room was never going to be an option.


Now that the episodes are set, let's take a look at how these episodes are crafted. This will give you the perfect insight into how to craft your own TV pilot script...


Story Area: The first step on the episodic TV writing obstacle course


The writer of the episode will take all the notes that have been gathered that are relevant to their episode and will write a story area.


This is a 2-3 page document that gives the summary of the episode. It is written in prose, meaning like a regular story, not a script.


In very general terms, it tells you the entirety of the episode's story from start to finish.


We should be able to see big character moves, big emotional moments and any big setpieces or plot points. But generally dialogue is not really included and settings, for the most part, are left out.


This story area then gets sent to the showrunner, then the studio, then the network. And once all that is cleared, we're on to...


The Outline: Almost writing a script but not quite


The outline is an 8-10 page document, also written in prose, that is a much more detailed summary of the episode than the story area.


If you're familiar with a treatment for a movie, this is kind of like that. The outline is broken up into scenes, so we can see how the whole story flows and comes together as if it almost were a script.


After running the showrunner/studio/network obstacle course once again, you move on to...


The Script: The final hurdle


Now you can finally sit down and write the script.


The idea behind approaching your writing in this way is that in every stage, problems become apparent and as you dig deeper into the story, you're able to flesh it out even more, discover unique characteristics or scenes that you may not have seen before, and make it better at every stage.


Once you hit the script stage, there will certainly still be problems, but there will be a lot less than if you hadn't refined the script over the rounds of story area and outlining.


I find this to be extremely helpful for my own writing. I don't create as extensive of an outline since it's just for an audience of me and my writing partner.


But the general idea remains. And it helps make the idea of writing a script more manageable. Because at every stage, you're better prepared to tackle the next.


So, by the time you're starting the script, you're not staring in abject horror at a blinking cursor on a page. You know exactly where you're starting and exactly where your story is going.


Photo Credit: NBC Universal, IFC

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Hello!

I'm Anton, a TV writer and author of Breaking Into TV Writing, a book about the business of TV writing and how to get your foot in the door.

 

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