Breaking story to outline in broad strokes.
The Black Donnellys was the first television show I worked on. It was an amazing staff headed by Bobby Moresco and Paul Haggis. I met some life long friends there including Gary Lennon, Allen Steele and Rafael Alvarez. The day before I got hired my cell phone was turned off and we had $1.34 cents in the bank. I was married with a 2 year old back at the apartment. To be honest I was about a month from having to move back to Chicago. This was the second time I ran it down to the wire for work in a creative field. The first time was when I sold a show but that’s a different story for a different day. I promise I will tell it
The working dynamic in a TV writers room is one of give and take. The showrunners, better known as your boss, steer the creative direction of the show in collaboration with the studio and network (as well as a production company if one is involved with the show.) The showrunners will sit in the room and help you ‘break story.’ Coming up with episode ideas as well as story and character arcs for the season. Then it is the job of the ‘room’ to expedite and serve that vision. The walls are usually covered in dry erase boards or cork boards. These are used to put up ‘beats’ of stories. You can move the cards around or erase beats and rewrite them on the dry erase board. When you feel like you have something good to pitch, you bring the showrunners back into the room and run them through it. The person who pitches the showrunners tend to be upper level writers who know how to run down a board and keep the story exciting and moving along. There is usually a Writers Assistant at a desk somewhere in the room taking notes on everything that is said and pitched so you have it in note form later when you are either rebreaking the story or going to outline or script. There will be mini-dialogue lines that come out during a pitch that are great which you will surely forget when you go to script. The room notes come in very handy.
Once the story is signed off, a writer will be assigned the episode and then they are off to outline. You will write down the beats of the story in a narrative form, like a story. Not in script form. That will come soon enough. Each story beat is about a paragraph long and gives the reader a general idea of where the scene takes place, who is in the scene, what it is they want and where they are at emotionally. The outline should paint a vivid picture of the story and a full arc for all characters involved. It should be exciting and fun to read. If you don’t like reading it or find it interesting, guess what? Nobody else will either.
Writing is rewriting. You will hand your outline into the showrunners and they will give you notes. Then you take their notes and do a rewrite. Do a good job. Continue when you want to stop. Don’t take any shortcuts. The lazy person works twice as hard. Once the showrunners feel like your outline is in good shape, they will submit it to the studio. Then you will go on a ‘notes call’ after the studio has read it. They will give you notes and you will have a dialogue about what notes you agree and disagree with. Even though writing is an isolated craft, once a draft exists in the real world, you will have to talk to other people about it. And in television, there are a lot of people who will have notes. Take them. Use what you can. Listen to the showrunner and learn. Becoming a better collaborator will make you a better writer and producer. Once the Studio outline is in good shape, the showrunners will submit it to the network.
The network will have notes. Some you like. Some you won’t. At the end of the day, he who has the gold calls the tune. Whether you like it or not, unless you are in a very high up select group of writer/producers, you will have to play ball. There are a lot more moving pieces out of your view that make them give the notes they give. I am not protecting one side or the other, just stating the facts. Make friends. Play nice. Do the best job you can. You will do one to three passes on your outline back and forth with the network and once they are happy with the shape it’s in, YOU WILL GO OFF TO WRITE YOUR SCRIPT!
I will write another post about what happens when you go off to script and probably another post going into a little more detail about this post but until then feel free to comment or ask any questions