Surviving Your First Season In A Writers Room

Written by Ali Laventhol

CONGRATS! You’ve made your way onto a writing staff for the first time. But it’s a step into the unknown. So it’s normal for a bit of anxiety to set in somewhere between the congratulatory champagne and your first day of work.

We got your back, don’t worry. Here’s how to navigate that daunting first season.

It’s OK for a Staff Writer To Be Quiet

Remember: you’re there for a reason. They loved your sample and they loved you in the meeting otherwise you’d still be looking for a job. But they also know you’re not experienced, and they don’t expect you to do the heavy lifting. So, sure, don’t be afraid to pitch if you have a great idea, but don’t be afraid to stay quiet, too.

The mid and upper levels will be trying to get their ideas heard and therefore won’t be paying as much attention to you as you think they are. I know this from experience. As a staff writer I’d toss and turn at night, berating myself for not pitching more and pitching better. But as a Co-Ep I can reassure my Staff Writer Self that that was wasted energy.

Most great staff writers aren’t pitching all the time. They might have a few home run ideas and a handful of solid base hits across the season, but mostly they’re supportive and passionate about the show. They help with research, they turn in solid outlines and drafts on time, and they have a team player attitude. Now, if 2011 could only give me those sleepless nights back!

don’t repitch

When story is on the table and time is of the essence, the room can get fast and furious. Often more than one person will talk at once and it can be difficult to get your ideas heard. Sometimes an idea pops into your head, but by the time there’s enough of a lull for you to interject, the conversation has moved on. Is it appropriate to bring up the thing you were all talking about a minute ago? It’s a tough call. It could be a buzzkill, or it could save the day.

One thing I can say for certain, however is – don’t re-pitch something you already pitched.

Maybe your Showrunner didn’t respond when you pitched it the first time. Maybe they gave a lukewarm shrug. You may think they didn’t hear you or they didn’t understand what you were trying to say, but chances are they did, and just didn’t have time to explain why it’s a no.

Let it go!

Peggy, Mad Men

don’t worry if another writer repitches your idea

It’s really maddening especially if the Showrunner loves it when they hear it from the other writer! But there is often a reasonable explanation.

Perhaps the other writer didn’t hear it when you said it. Or the other writer addd a little something that makes it land. Or time has passed, and the story has gone in a new direction and now the idea makes sense whereas before it didn’t.

Or—and I know this feels terrible—your repitched idea lands precisely because it comes from an experienced writer that the Showrunner trusts. Or… the other writer is just a jerk but let’s hope not.

Whatever the reason, it’s best to let it go. If you let frustration get under your skin, you’ll be focusing on that instead of the story and your next great pitch. Just know that as I type this, I’m giving myself this advice just as much as I’m giving it to you!

every room is different

You may have gotten advice from other writers about what’s worked in rooms they’ve been in, and this advice may be valuable. But after being in 13+ rooms run by almost as many different Showrunners, I can tell you that what one Showrunner likes another may not. The way one Showrunner breaks story may be apples to oranges compared with the way your new boss works.

So, first and foremost, read the room. What is the showrunner responding to? Not only idea-wise, but how are pitches phrased that are landing? For example, we came from a room that welcomed both small and big ideas – meaning you could pitch a scene or moment, on the one hand, but also a season arc or an episode storyline. That Showrunner was excited to hear all of it. On the next job, however, we joined the staff for Season 3, and all the other writers had worked on the previous season. We quickly noticed they only opened their mouths to pitch if they had an entire A-story worked out down to red herrings, suspects, twists, thematics, the whole shebang.

If you’re not sure and having trouble sussing it out, find an Upper Level who seems nice and ask them how the room functions and how you’re doing. Don’t go overboard, but every now and then it should be welcomed. And if there’s a “Showrunner Whisperer,” even better—that is, an Upper Level who’s been your Showrunner’s #2 on jobs in the past and continues in that role because they know the ins and outs of your Showrunner’s brain and personality.

everything will change

Story wise, it can be hard to realize this since you’ve been in your own wonderful world writing specs that likely have not been produced. You’ve been the decider in terms of what gets cut, what changes and what stays. Well, now you have a staff, studio and network execs, non-writing EPs, a Director, a 1st AD and a Line Producer who all have an influence over the contents of the scripts. And then there is the Showrunner who has the most say of all and will probably give notes and/or do some rewriting.

That means that even when the room comes up with an incredible story that makes you all laugh and cry and shout with glee upon said story making it up onto the board or into an outline or draft, there is a very good chance that too will change.

The advice here will sound contradictory: Pitch passionately and fall in love with your show and your episode, especially when you have to sit down and write it—but don’t fall in love so hard that your heart shatters irreparably when your darlings are killed. Because it will happen!

Dwight, the office

Not everyone will get along

Throw together a bunch of creative people (who may be a tad bit sensitive) and ask them to agree on story, character motivation and behavior, the setting of scenes, structure, themes, dialogue and what is funny, poignant, thrilling or even plausible… and they’re going to disagree.

Sometimes these disagreements are handled easily, sometimes not so much. Cliques may form. Egos and insecurities will emerge. But remember that writers often make lifelong friends in the rooms they work in.

So, be as professional as you can possibly be and try not to get involved in what used to be called “hallway politics.” (Is it called zoom politics now? Who knows!)

At first blush, a hat on a hat is too tiny town

Welcome to writers’ room terminology. You’ll pick it up easily but here’s a head start:  a “hat on a hat” means we don’t need to add that second story element onto the first, because the first is enough. “Too tiny town” means that if we make that particular story decision it will feel like these characters live in a place where the population is about 25. “At first blush” is usually used when someone responds to an idea but doesn’t want to commit to their response. As in, “at first blush that seems like it will work but let’s see once we get Act Two in place.”

There are a ton more of these, so if you hear one and don’t know what it means just ask. Folks will be happy to translate.

Hat on a Hat

Share Your Personal Stories

A pitch that comes from a personal experience or from a true story you read about or from a friend’s lived experience is usually of great value. Now, do not be like the Grey’s Anatomy writer who lied about having cancer! Be honest but open. I’d say about 90% of the Showrunners we’ve worked for appreciated personal stories. They bring authenticity to the room and they help writers get to know each other, which only makes everyone more comfortable and therefore more creative, take more risks and do better work.

If you want to develop your project, whether it’s period or not, there’s a Script Anatomy class waiting for you. Check out the class calendar for details.


Ali Laventhol

Ali Laventhol has been Tawnya‘s writing partner for over a decade, most recently as the Co-Executive Producer for My Life With The Walter Boys (Netflix), and Bel-Air (Peacock), as well as several Lifetime movies. She is a long time Script Anatomy instructor.

 

 

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