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From Idea to Screen: The Craft of TV Writing

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The Banff World Television Festival introduced a new programming stream to this year's 29th annual industry event called The Craft, workshop-type sessions breaking down the creative process. Included were two sessions by two writers with several high-profile series in their credits, who gave insight into how shows are assembled from concept to screen.

Comedy writer Jeff Greenstein, currently on Desperate Housewives and formerly with Will and Grace and Friends, talked about the craft largely from the big-picture perspective of the showrunner or creator, while drama writer David Hoselton of House delved into the nuts and bolts of writing an episode from one-line idea to shooting script.

Despite the fact that they were the most process-oriented, industry-insider sessions I attended in my three days there, they were also two of the most fun and informative for a television fan who's a bit of a process nerd and industry geek.

Know Your Show

"When you come up with a show, you have to be thinking in the 100 episode range," Greenstein said in his session, which he conducted with the assistance of legendary BBC producer Jon Plowman (A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Absolutely Fabulous, The Office, Extras, and pretty much every other BBC show ever made).

"The first thing you need to know in the making a successful series – and this is going to sound almost stupidly elemental – is what is it about? And when I say 'what is it about,' it's not 'it's about a Wall Street banker who goes to work in a fish market,' but what is it About with a capital A. What does it attempt to capture in the culture, what theme does it attempt to explore, what previously unseen aspect of contemporary life does it attempt to illuminate, what kind of character does it portray you haven't seen before?"

Greenstein gave the example of Friends, the pilot that tested poorly but launched a ten-year run. "There was a lot of cynicism in the American television press that this looks like a show that was assembled to order for Gen X, that this was a show designed by an audience research firm. And really, nothing could have been farther from the truth. That show was about the experience of Marta Kaufman and David Crane who created it, and the experience of those of us who worked on the show. It was about that experience of being in your late 20s and you've broken away from college and you've started to assert your independence from your family and yet you haven't really built a family of your own yet. Your friends are your family."

Even a medical show doesn't have to be about the medicine. "[House creator David] Shore doesn't care about the medicine," said Hoselton in his standing-room-only session, referring to the show as more of a character study. "I don't think the audience cares about the medicine. A few people are really fascinated, but generally we care about characters."

Hoselton called Hugh Laurie's titular character an "iconic figure" who half the viewers love and half love to hate, but all find fascinating. "When the other characters are trying to get at House's emotional core, trying to analyse him, figure out what makes him tick, those are the most satisfying scenes."

"Shore will always say, 'Where's the heart in this scene? Where's the heart in this story? Why does House care about this case? Why do we as an audience care about this patient?' If the patient lives or dies, we want the audience to have an emotional reaction to that, even if House doesn't. House might not care if the patient lives or dies, he just wants to solve the case. But if the audience feels that way, then we've lost them."

Don't Sweat The Small Stuff

Hoselton confirmed that House doesn't have a show bible, a document that supposedly collects the known facts of the series. "It's sort of a joke," he revealed. "Every now and then, somebody will say 'Where does Wilson live?' 'I don't know, it's in the bible.'"

Greenstein suggested show bibles are not particularly common or useful, given the collective memory of the writing staff and the availability of episodes and scripts online. "If there's one on Desperate Housewives, I haven't seen it." In fact, he hasn't read a bible for any of his shows. "It's probably a useful tool if you're a freelancer," he shrugged. "But the series bible to me is a relic of pre-Internet days. It's not necessarily a tool we worry about."

Take An Idea To Script

One hallmark of television writing is the enormously collaborative nature of the process. Unless they're Aaron Sorkin or David E. Kelly, it's very unlikely the credited writer of an episode wrote every line, and even the plot was probably influenced by others. While the showrunner often does a final pass on every script, ensuring the voice of the show is consistent, the other writers and producers, the studio and network, and the directors and actors on set might have a say in the final product.

On House, Hoselton said, two of the writing executive producers fall under head writer David Shore, and the rest of the writers report to those two. That show doesn't operate with a full writers' room the way Greenstein's comedies do (fellow House writer Pamela Davis described the process in more detail), but Hoselton described the collegial work environment in our Banff interview. "There's 14 other writers who will help you with anything. They know exactly what you're doing, what the show is, who the characters are. So you can walk into anybody's office and pitch a scene that you're working on and they know what you're going for and they know how House should react."

Occasionally, all the House writers gather to discuss potential story arcs. For example, at the beginning of season four, someone threw out the idea of a "Survivor arc," spawning House's game of replacing Foreman, Chase, and Cameron, who had all quit or been fired at the end of season three.

"We had talked about bringing in a new team, new cast members," Hoselton explained. "It gets harder and harder to write fresh material for cast members that have been around for a long time, so it was a way to inject new blood."

"Each writer is assigned a piece of that story," he continued. "Part of the problem is you may not find out until late in the process what piece you're doing, and that can affect the script immensely. With the new team, it was always 'which guys am I going to have in my episode?' You'd find out a couple of weeks before your script was due."

Whether an episode is part of an ongoing arc or not, the individual writer is responsible for pitching ideas and coming up with the medical mystery that forms the core of the story. They write three or four drafts, again with input and changes along the way, a week of prep, an eight day shoot "that always runs nine days" with the writer on set the entire time, before the episode enters post-production for a week. "The writers have nothing to do with post."

Finally, he said, "we go back and come up with another one-line idea: 'House on a train.'" (See Anatomy of a House Episode: "Airborne" for more on how an initial concept changes through that process.)

Jeff Greenstein prefers to arc out a season by himself or with a smaller group of writers. On Desperate Housewives, for example, four of the upper level writers, including Greenstein, started this season with a "two week boot camp" where they came up with the year's mystery and how to deal with the five-year flashforward, a creative choice they'd made to "reset the predicaments of the women in ways that were very relatable."

After network approval of their overall plans, the full writing staff convenes. At that point, Greenstein feels the showrunner's job changes from "being the person with all the answers to being a facilitator and question asker."

"As the showrunner, you have to be the person who draws on all these talented people you're paying tons of money for. I need to get very good at understanding the ball club I've put together, because I've chosen people for story sense and comedy and character development and point of view and I need to be constantly looking in the eyes of people around the table and checking in on them. I need to stay tuned in to the show's frequency so when the right answer comes in I can recognize it."

Whatever the exact process, each script goes through many hands, from writers to producers to executives, all aiming to make it stronger. (For mind-boggling levels of collaboration, check out how the Hannah Montana writers work.)

"I think people have the idea that the team writing process results in something that is bland and attenuated," the articulate and animated Greenstein said. "If it's working properly, it results in stuff that's better. I've never had a draft of mine go through the room and come out with something that I liked less. That's the secret of the process. If it's working right, you feel like the writers have helped you take the armature that you've built and make it into something that's more funny and more beautiful and more moving."

Get Lucky

Greenstein and Hoselton are both fortunate to be working on hugely successful shows, meaning the network and studio don't interfere much with the creative process. That's probably not true for a struggling show like Friday Night Lights, and wasn't even true for the first half of House's first season.

"When it's a hit show, the network and studio say 'fine,'" said Hoselton, who joined the House staff in season three and has now earned the title of producer. "The notes session is, 'there should be an apostrophe after the s.' I'm not complaining: those are the notes you want. They basically leave us alone."

"Listen, we're a top five show," echoed Greenstein of Desperate Housewives. "If we make the case we believe in a choice, they give us enough rope, you know?" The studio did balk at a storyline involving a former supermarket shootout hero being under suspicion as a child molester, until the writers assured them they were parents who weren't going for laughs with that particular choice.

Play Well With Others

That team writing process means that selecting a writing staff is a tricky undertaking for a showrunner. Greenstein compares it to assembling a ball club, picking players with individual skills in areas like who can also play as a team. "Finding people who can play ball is the hardest thing," he said. "I'm looking for people who have a point of view who can put it into words, but are not so in love with their own stuff that they can't listen."

He and Plowman referenced a sketch by British comics Mitchell and Webb about a story meeting with the recurring theme of "not this, but …." As in, as Plowman paraphrased: "Maybe she falls in love with a fish. I don't mean literally a fish, but …."

"That's the discussion that goes on in a writers room. I can't tell you how many 'not this buts' have turned into something," Greenstein said, revealing that one example was his own, "Not this, but what if Lynette gets cancer?" He thinks that type of openness and willingness to experiment and collaboration is a "skill that extends beyond the writers room to the business of making television, to the studio, network, actors. It's an immensely collaborative medium."

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About Diane Kristine Wild

Diane travels. She doesn't tan.