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Home » Archives » October 2006 » The Vague and Winding Road
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10/01/2006: The Vague and Winding Road

The mission statement for this blog is to talk about the writing of spec scripts. But, fairly frequently, I meet people who don't write at all, but who read because they're simply interested in the process of writing for television. Hi, non-writers! Welcome! And, I suppose, you writers might also sometimes be interested in knowing something about the process beyond the spec script part.

Which leads us to a cluster of questions sent in by gentle reader Jason in Tennessee. He's a Buffy/Angel fan, intrigued by the shows' complex mythology. Take it, Jason!

"I'm curious about the way a mythology is developed -- is it planned out at the beginning of a series by one person, or is it built slowly by several writers? Where does a seasonal arc come from, how is it broken up from episode to episode, and what sort of flexibility do writers have for including pieces of overall seasonal development into their own individual, stand-along episode?"

He goes on to ask "how the demands posed by outside forces (network politics, sponsorship, special effects, budgets, guest directors, etc.) impact the writers, and also the integrity of the show's seasonal story arc."

Holy cow, Jason. That's a lot of questions. The answers, unfortunately, tend to vary wildly from show to show, so it's going to be hard to be coherent here. Let me try.

The mythology of a show sets out the rules of the world and how the main characters fit into it. The basics of the mythology are actually part of the initial pitch when a writer is trying to sell a series to a network. So, yes, that is generally the work of one writer -- the show's creator. Of course, that creator will have had help and input from all sorts of places, including his or her friends, fellow writers and certainly from studio or network execs.

And, as you might expect, the mythology as initially devised doesn't cover enough to take a show though many seasons without being augmented, altered and affected, as you point out, by outside forces. So the writers have to be a bit flexible. And sometimes of course, they have to ask for an audience's indulgence. Androids don't age, so please ignore our actor's subtle wrinkling. Or, we know we had Frasier say his father was dead, but now he's not, so... um... I guess he lied before?

Seasonal arcs, the continuing story lines that shape a season of a show are sometimes developed seasons in advance, but usually are planned during the first meetings of a show's staff at the beginning of the writing year. They might be developed committee-style, or they might be decreed by the show runner. Sometimes arcs are sketched out separately for a number of main characters (Desperate Housewives, clearly, has this). And some shows, undoubtedly, don't even have the arc planned, but rather let it develop. So I'm afraid there's just no one answer to this one either.

But let's imagine we have a seasonal arc in place. It doesn't, obviously, come broken into 22 different segments. So, as the staff works together to "break" (i.e. devise a rough outline), for each episode, they have to figure out how, how much, and if, they are going to advance the arc in any particular episode. Since a writer is never sent out to write an episode until they have an outline, no individual staff writer really ever has to decide during the writing of an episode if they're going to advance the arc or not. That's already been determined during the break. But, again, there is variation here between shows -- some allow writers more or less autonomy in making changes during the writing process. One show I know allows writers so much autonomy that an individual with a brainstorm could end up changing the whole season arc -- you know, if the show runner liked what they did and didn't send them back to change it. Other shows are very rigid.

Finally, we reach the question about outside forces. Again, it just serves to underline the need for flexibility in questions of this kind. Many a staff has laid out a season arc and started writing scripts only to discover that an actor is pregnant, quitting or untalented enough that they need to simplify some emotions. Or perhaps the network vetoes a choice. Or issues of cost might curtail the big season-ending parachuting sequence. Or maybe someone just comes up with a better idea.

However, two of the factors that were listed in the question aren't really forces to worry about too much: sponsorship and guest directors. I've never been on a show where a sponsor affected our story-telling. And I'd be pretty pissed if it happened. And in TV, most directors are "guest directors" and they also have limited powers to affect how we write the show. They might have notes, and often they have suggestions for cool ways to shoot something that the writer might not have thought of. But it would be, I think, fairly unusual for a director to do anything that would affect a seasonal arc, or even the main point of any one episode. They simply usually weigh in too late in the process, after the script has been written, rewritten and approved by everyone involved.

So, there you go. The short answer: Every Show Is Different. This is one reason that I think it's valuable to work on a variety of different staffs before you run your own show -- you get exposed to many different ways to handle these issues. Television isn't written by only one procedure. Even the Very Best Television is created in many different ways. Clearly, there's more than one way to skin a cathode ray tube.

Lunch: I reheated a left-over Croque Monsieur from Campanile. Grilled cheese that tastes like fondue. Wonderful.


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