Monday, January 22, 2018

"Breaking" Good

Another quality post brought to you by Steve!
Hey all!  Last week I got my first opportunity to work in a writers room and I thought for this month's blogpost I might give you a rundown of how it went.

Late last year I was tapped by an exciting new NYC-based company to work on a project very similar to a television show.  It's not quite TV in that it won't be filmed, but the process will be, for all intents and purposes, the same as television production.  I and my other collaborators have signed NDAs, so in public we've been referring to the project as "The Door."

My friend and mentor Brian Keene has been acting as the head writer/showrunner.  Former literary agent Lydia Shamah is our producer and contact with the company.  Filmmaker Tony Valenzuela is part of the creative team, and authors Rich Chizmar, the Sisters of Slaughter (Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason) and myself will be writing.

Left to right: Rich Chizmar, myself, Lydia Shamah, Melissa Lason, Michelle Garza, Brian Keene, Tony Valenzuela

We all met in Phoenix, AZ last week to conduct a process known as "breaking" the show.  This basically consists of boiling the show down into its component parts - characters, episodes, settings, etc. - talking it over, ironing out any issues, and creating a final game plan.

"Breaking" begins with the head writer, in this case, Brian, creating what's known as a "show bible."  You can find a few show bibles online to see what this looks like.  One I particularly enjoyed was "Batman: the Animated Series," but YMMV.  So, as you can see, a show bible outlines background for the characters, descriptions of the setting, episode ideas, and it may include illustrations, character arcs, and possibly plans for an entire season or seasons.

A show bible can be fairly short, around, say, twelve pages, to very long and intricate, several hundred pages perhaps, depending on how complicated the series is.  I would imagine your "Star Treks" and your "Doctor Whos," with their decades of history and baggage, would lean more toward the latter category, while something like a children's show or a lowbrow sitcom would lean more towards the former.  Writing a bible or episode of a show that gets produced is one way to earn your Screen Writers Guild card, if you're interested in that.

(As an aside, I actually do something very similar to a show bible when I'm doing the worldbuilding for my more complex science fiction novels.  I might be a weirdo, but in addition to everything listed above I'll also usually include a glossary.  You can see examples in BRAINEATER JONES and EVERY KINGDOM DIVIDED.  As a linguist, it's one of my favorite parts of writing.)

Brian's bible for "The Door" intricately plotted out all the episodes of season one.  I wasn't 100% sure if that was going to be the case or not, so I planned to have a few episodes to pitch.  At writers room sessions where the plotting is less complete, all of the writers get the chance to pitch episode ideas.  Most television shows in the U.S. are either 13 or 22 episodes long, so there's a lot of plot in there (or, as our friends in the UK with their six-episode seasons often say, a lot of padding.)  So I can't really speak to this process (but if one of our readers knows more about it, please let me know in the comments!)

Next we went over the characters and brainstormed.  The brainstorming process in the writing room is to scribble on sticky notes and post the notes on a wall or whiteboard.  The purpose is that you can then move stickies from one character to another, add or delete as necessary.  So, for instance, we ended up gender-swapping one character, and for another couple we ended up flipping their backgrounds.  The sticky notes made this easier.  I've also heard this process called "making an ugly baby."  You make an ugly baby by throwing all the spaghetti at the wall (is that mixing metaphors?) then you cull away notes until it's a beautiful baby.

Next we went over the episodes, using the same "ugly baby" process.  This turned out to be the most fruitful part of the process.  Brian had outlined the episodes he had envisioned, but as we went over them, each of us was struck in turn by clever, better, and often, yes, worse ideas.  But in hammering that out as a team we ended up with a exceptionally strong season plan.

The next step was to compare our character notes to our episode notes.  This way we ensured that no characters were getting short shrift, or that we were missing out on untapped potential.  In a few cases we said "fuck it" and disposed of some character notes that weren't serving the story.  But also, having a physical entity to look at we were able to determine story problems at a glance.  Did we leave this character for too long?  Why is this character's in seven episodes but does nothing?  Are we just marking time with this character?  Asking questions like this let us sharpen the season plan.

When that was complete, we assigned the episodes, and again, I saw the value in the "ugly baby" process.  We were able to see at a glance which episodes suited each writer's strong points.  (Obviously, Brian had baked some of this into the story bible after choosing us - or perhaps before - but at the end of the day it was almost blindingly obvious which story belonged to who.)  We were able to discuss, with very little bickering, who might enjoy writing which episode.  As with anything, for me some were "must-haves" some were "I can do this" and some were "I'll do this if you need me to."

The final step we took was looking at our worldbuilding.  As much as we'd discussed our various story elements - tainted pollen, an evil sap-like substance, a monstrous bear - I'm certain we were each picturing them appearing and behaving in different fashions.  So by going over this, we knew we were all starting from the same baseline.  And it gave us one final chance to pitch ideas, this time with less worries about how it would deeply affect storylines and character arcs.

There are pictures of each of these steps, and I'd love to show them to you, but that, of course, would be a violation of my contract.  So Lydia let us pull a few stickies from each of the walls for a sort of sizzle reel of fun ideas.  ("Sizzle reel" is another industry term, but I'll let you look that up yourself before I go fullblown Hollywood on you.)  And that I am happy to share:

Various brainstorming concepts from "The Door" secret project

Now, I'm going to close with a caveat.  First of all, this was my first writers room experience, so I'm less than a novice at this.  Second, according to all of the veterans present, this was by far one of the smoothest and fastest experiences anyone ever had.  They told a couple of horror stories.  There were the antics of boneheaded empty suits who feel like they have to contribute ("What if, instead of an orangutan, we pair Clint Eastwood up with a moose!")  But I was also warned about personality conflicts, egos getting in the way of the process, and stories that just left everyone creatively constipated. 

So while I am super excited to get to my next writers room, I'm also tempering that with a grain of salt (boy, I'm the king of mixed metaphors today, aren't I?)  I'm preparing to be in a writers room where numbskulls are not open to ideas that aren't their own, where bickering and backbiting ruin the day, and where any number of things might go wrong.  Certainly, one imagines we didn't end up with the Geico "Cavemen" series or "My Mother the Car" because everybody was firing on all cylinders in the writing room.  But for me, "The Door" was nothing like that.  It was a highlight of my career, and I'm excited to get to go through the process again, hopefully starting with a "Door" season 2.


Carrie Beckort said...

Great post, Steve! Thanks for sharing. It sounds a lot like some of the 'war room' experiences I've had at my company in the past. I always did enjoy the experience of collaborating this way with others. I suppose that's my geeky side :) It's cool to see how a similar process plays out in the creative world. I hope all your future experiences go as smoothly!

Cheryl Oreglia said...

Excellent post. I had no idea about writing rooms and projects like this Stephen! How exciting to be a part of a project that is so interesting, fluid, and collaborative. The fact that it went so well with so many creative types speaks to the character of the group. Thank you for sharing and I wish you well on future sessions.

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