The write way
by Dara Resnik Creasey
The first full teleplay my husband-and-writing-partner and I were paid to write was for a delightful show we were honored to be a part of called Pushing Daisies, created by the inimitable Bryan Fuller. The first few months in the writers’ room had gone swimmingly. Swimmingly as in, we didn’t drown. At the ripe old rank of story editor we managed to hold our own with the more seasoned producers and were feeling pretty confident. Then the real test: we were assigned our first script. It was fifth in the line-up. Late enough for the show to have established a language and style. Early enough for us to still be finding our feet a bit. Gulp.
The first script matters. A lot. This is the test that separates the girls from the women. Showrunners want to know that their writers can, at the very least, hand them a script that will serve as a template for the episode that will shoot in a mere few weeks time. As many are fond of saying, they want to see that “the bones” of the story are solid. And, bonus, if the muscles and skin and hair are pretty too, you’ve got yourself a model script (my apologies for taking that metaphor so far).
A first script should as closely mimic the showrunner’s writing style as possible. Of course every script you write will have some of you in it. That’s why you were hired, after all. For your thoughts. Your voice. But your job in these first precious 55 pages is to show the people reading it that you understand the show – that you can write in the voices of its characters, and grasp its unique vernacular. This is not the time to take a risk, to deviate from the story you collectively broke in the writers’ room because you suddenly think you have a better act-out.
We typed. We sweated. We burned the midnight oil. And the 4am oil. And then the 7am oil, too. It was like Hanukkah without the miracle. Or presents. We clicked “send.” And we waited. And waited. Actually we only waited 24 hours, but it felt like 10 years. And then the word came down from on high (the gods in this case being the EPs and Co-EPs) that we had done a great job. Or at the very least, the job we had been hired to do. Phew.
For the record, waiting on news from the Higher Ups never feels less interminable.
Hindsight is 20/20, which is good because after writing many more scripts, my eyesight isn’t. Here’s what I now understand we did right on our first script:
Thing #1 We Did Right: We followed the outline.
Some writers may disagree with this, but I believe following the outline unless you absolutely cannot do so is imperative. You are a contractor, and the outline is the blueprint on which the showrunner, studio and network have all signed off. If you build the house they expected, and they later say, “you know, there really should be a turret here…” Then by all means, make that change. But nobody wants to pull into the driveway of a house with purple shutters unless they asked for purple shutters.
Thing #2 We Did Right: We didn’t hesitate to ask questions.
Of course, sometimes once you get into the script, you realize something that was in the outline simply doesn’t work in your story. Obviously, if your house is missing a pillar, it’s going to fall down. It’s the same with stories. If they don’t hold up, and you don’t say something, that’s very bad. If you need to deviate from the story in the outline, do so only after a well-thought-out conversation with the showrunner. In our case, there was one beat that we found problematic once we got to the script, but we discussed it with Fuller and he saw a path through the scene that worked perfectly.
Thing #3 We Did Right: We took notes with a smile.
Showrunner notes. Studio notes. Network notes. More showrunner notes. Your first draft is not your last draft. That’s why it’s called the first draft and not the last draft. Television writing is a collaborative process. Showrunners and executives want to work with people who are not only open to receiving notes, but also enthusiastic about making changes. Generally, and very likely on your first script, it will be the showrunner taking the lead on the studio and network notes calls, but if you say anything at all, your voice should sound happy and energetic. A “thank you so much” at the end of the call doesn’t hurt either.
Thing #4 We Did Right: We let go.
On most shows, especially when you’re a staff writer, the script is going to go through a showrunner pass. Sometimes that pass will involve minor dialogue changes. Other times, it’s a bigger overhaul, and often not because you did anything wrong, but because the script as written can’t be shot in the requisite 8 days or because of budget or because something drastically changed in the episode before or after it. Often, some of your precious word babies will be lost (though often replaced with word babies you’ll get to take credit for!). The show is, after all, the brainchild of its creator. When you get that final draft, like any foster parent, it’s your job to love that child exactly as it is, and champion it as it moves forward into the real world – production.
Next time: Your first set.Tags: Ask questions, Bryan Fuller, Entertainment industry, Follow an outline, Hollywood, Letting go, Life lessons, Pushing Daisies, Script, Smile, Television, Television staff writer, Television writer