How do they make them shows on the teevee?
January 31, 2008 7:39 PM   Subscribe

How are serial television dramas, like "Deadwood," written?

I'd like to know about the mechanics behind television shows that run for several seasons, and have involving, complicated plots and complex characters. The kinds you kind of have to watch from the beginning to really enjoy or understand what is going on. Other examples I'm thinking of would be "The Sopranos," "Weeds," "The Wire," etc.

Are entire seasons, or even entire series outlined in the very beginning so writers know what each character's arc will be? Does a team of writers write each episode, or is it one writer per episode? In a show like "Deadwood," for instance, how is the stilted, inferring language kept consistent from episode to episode if there are different writers?

Blogs or "HowStuffWorks"-style articles or other references would be great. I've read Jane Espensen's blog.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Deadwood is slightly unusual: after the writing staff breaks the stories (puts together overall arcs, episode structures, etc.), showrunner David Milch rewrites every scene from scratch, essentially improvising the episodes without any written plan. He can get away with this because he's the greatest writer in the history of television. (No really.) Season Three of that show (don't worry, no spoilers) is a complicated example of what happens when that mode of storytelling goes wild: Milch had an endpoint in mind for the story, but got so wrapped up in other narrative elements that he ended the year on a very, very different note than had originally been planned. Again, he's crazy/brilliant, and not like most writers. (His name is rarely on the scripts; he writes more or less every word of every episode of his shows. But then 'writing' means more than 'cranking out dialogue.')

The West Wing was similar: Aaron Sorkin had less a writing staff than a team of researchers, and he'd cook up episodes around their suggestions. Cocaine is a hell of a drug.

Many hourlong dramas go something like this: the writing staff convenes in summer to pound out the big stories. The split the year up into episodes, then go hour by hour, breaking each ep's story (outlining, figuring out where each scene needs to go, etc.). This often happens on a whiteboard split up into 'acts' (separated by commercial breaks). For HBO shows, no act breaks (no ads), so there's more freedom in structure, i.e. less help. Once the story is shaped and its scene-by-scene requirements established, a writer or two will then go off and work up a detailed outline, get some notes, then bang out a draft. This means improvising specific responses and so forth, but the structure has more or less been set. More notes, another draft, etc. Eventually you get to a shooting draft. (This process varies, show to show, but those are the broad strokes.)

On shows with looser structure, there's room for freelance writers to pitch episodes, which the staff writers will then go over in the writing room, fitting the one-off's events into the arc of the season. On a show like The Wire you wouldn't have freelance work; indeed the era of entirely staff-written shows is a relatively new thing.

No U.S. yearlong series is entirely written in advance; you have to leave room for the exigencies of production, like actors' schedules, etc. The Wire is tightly plotted in part because it's only 10-13 eps/year, unlike e.g. the arc-heavy Buffy, which left lots of wiggle room for production in its 22 yearly episodes.

It is frustrating to admit, but these continuity-heavy shows evolve away from their initial conceptions in response to production choices and new ideas. Lost is an example of this process leading to an incoherent mess; Buffy was a similar production style with much, much greater integrity and thematic coherence. But also a very slipshod approach to mythology (so showrunner Joss Whedon et al. could get away with taking narrative shortcuts). The one year Whedon planned out a yearlong arc in its entirety, it was fucked up by the lead actress's pregnancy, necessitating the total rethinking of the year's story. And...incoherent mess.

If you want more rigorous construction, consider a BBC miniseries like The Singing Detective, which is a single six-hour work.
posted by waxbanks at 7:53 PM on January 31, 2008 [66 favorites]

If you want to learn about U.S. TV story construction from the fly-on-the-wall perspective, besides reading screenwriter blogs (e.g. John August, Alex Epstein, John Rogers, Ken Levine, etc.), definitely check out the Battlestar Galactica podcasts, particularly the writers' room recording: three hours of the writing staff beating out story arcs for Season Two. An extraordinary resource.

(BTW: Canadian/British shows are often written differently, in a more auteurish way - e.g. Gervais and Merchant wrote and directed every moment of The Office and Extras. That's changing over time, as the U.S.'s successful model is exported.)
posted by waxbanks at 7:58 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, waxbanks - that was out of the park. Thanks!
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:07 PM on January 31, 2008

Ooh waxbanks - can you link to the Battlestar Galactica podcasts? I've never even seen that show, but those sound amazing!
posted by moxiedoll at 8:08 PM on January 31, 2008

Best answer: Television shows have a document they call a "bible" which is an outline for the entire season (or sometimes the entire series). You need at least a general outline of a bible to sell a series, though that initial document often changes in execution. Though they employ many writers, the showrunner, an executive producer-writer, is responsible for the creative vision and voice of the show. Some showrunners have a very distinctive voice - writers like Aaron Sorkin and David Milch come to mind.

Many years ago, when David Milch (the showrunner for Deadwood) was still the showrunner for NYPD Blue, I was asked by Milch's assistant to submit a writing sample because they were getting flack for having few (or no) female writers. I responded that I thought my writing style was not right for the show, and that I did not think I could write that distinctive dialog; (most of my experience was in film at that time) she said that "David runs everything through his typewriter anyhow" so I should not be concerned. (I did not get the job.) I've heard the same about Sorkin when he was still running West Wing (before NBC fired him), and I'm sure it's true for others, especially for showrunners who come from literary or theater backgrounds where having a distinctive voice is trained and encouraged.

Other shows are not so dependent on an individual voice and while the showrunner is still the overall creative force, the writing is more evenly distributed. Television shows employ a group of writers who work together in a "writers room" to "break the story" for each episode and then the actual writing is assigned to one or more writers. Shows with multiple storylines may assign different storylines within the same episode to different writers.

You could check out the books and articles at The Writers Store for more specific information.
posted by ljshapiro at 8:09 PM on January 31, 2008 [4 favorites]

I believe I've read that Straczynski worked out the entire series plot arc for Babylon 5 before making any of the series.

As it continued, they did make changes, though. It was obvious that casting Michael O'Hare as the lead was a massive mistake, so they had to rewrite pretty seriously to get rid of the Sinclair character and create the Sheridan character as a replacement. Still, overall the series did more-or-less end when and where he had originally planned it to end.

But there are few American TV series which are planned for a specific run length. If a series makes good ratings, the studios want them to keep going as long as possible.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:25 PM on January 31, 2008

WRT Babylon 5, Straczynski said that every character on the show had an "escape hatch" (I believe one per season) in case the actor left for some reason. That happened not just to Michael O'Hare but also to Claudia Christian and Patricia Tallman (and then to her replacement, Andrea Thompson, and they brought Tallman back). They got lucky and none of the alien ambassadors needed to be replaced, though G'Kar's aide did get swapped out.

How much of that is true and how much of that was JMS spinning things to keep the fans from freaking out over the arc going awry, I cannot say, but it seems like a good idea if you're planning things out five years in advance.
posted by kindall at 8:50 PM on January 31, 2008

Off topic but... if you haven't read this New Yorker article on David Milch, you should. Fantastic.
posted by dobbs at 8:54 PM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

He can get away with this because he's the greatest writer in the history of television. (No really.)

That may be so. But John From Cincinnatti is the post-Deadwood counterpoint that kind of unreserved praise. I actually enjoyed its single season quite a lot, but I reckon it was sprawling, aimless and bloated, its characters cardboard caricatures, and its dialogue bafflingly tonedeaf. If the cast weren't larded with a dozen refugees from Deadwood, I wouldn't have believed it was the same writer behind it. The final episode, trying to wrap the story up in a clumsy panic after it was not picked up for a second season, is, from the perspective of the poster's question, a perfect example of how that kind of Milchy thing can go very badly indeed.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:07 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Galactica podcasts reside at the site, which is insufferable; the page is here. Galactica (the reimagined contemporary show) is a wonderful, wonderful thing, though of course it's nowhere near as consistent as the three great HBO shows. Indeed it's the most inconsistent show that I still think of as 'great.' I like showrunner Ron Moore a great deal though; he's got a head on his shoulders (and some chips to go with it, I imagine), and has taken some impressive risks with the work, in terms of political content and stylistic variety. The greatest risk, of course, is his game of chicken during the strike; he says he's willing to let the show go unfinished and I believe him.

Additional data point by the way: Carnivale. Disastrous show, Moore was one of the heads, and it suffered, oddly enough, because it focused too much on its complex mythology and overall arcs, some of which were composed years in advance. Its airless hermeticism stems from precisely that decision, I suspect. Unlike its progenitor Babylon 5 - a middling show - Carnivale had a lot going for it on paper; unfortunately on the screen it never quite took off, its weird, impressive ensemble notwithstanding. It was to have been a six-year arc. The moral seems to be: if you're hiring humans and not animators, don't plan six-year televised stories. Something will go wrong. Shame, really.
posted by waxbanks at 6:09 AM on February 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

I was coming in here to recommend the BSG podcasts. I agree with all waxbanks has said on the show, too.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 7:18 AM on February 1, 2008

The Making of Star Trek (TOS) was written by Stephen E. Whitfield, and, while it describes more than just the writing part of putting on a TV show, is a fascinating glimpse into how a TV show was created and produced. Interesting, even if you do not like ST.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 7:30 AM on February 1, 2008

I believe I've read that Straczynski worked out the entire series plot arc for Babylon 5 before making any of the series.

So he said, but they were worried that the show would be canceled after the fourth season, so I think a lot of stuff was accelerated, and I think the fifth season was a bit more improvised.
posted by grouse at 12:52 PM on February 1, 2008

On "The Sopranos" Season 1 DVD there's an interview with David Chase where he talks about how he was involved with writing the first season and how the team of writers dealt with the over-arching storylines. It even showed the big whiteboard they used and everything. I couldn't tell you more than that, but it's there if you want to watch it yourself.
posted by soonertbone at 7:54 AM on February 2, 2008

Thanks dobbs for the link to the New Yorker piece on David Milch. It took me three days to get through it, but it was very much worth it.
posted by intermod at 7:30 PM on February 7, 2008

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