I had written three books by the time I entered a TV writers’ room. I thought of myself as a seasoned writer who was, essentially, starting over. It was a new medium with new rules and I was ready to start at the basics. Turns out the basics aren’t that hard. I easily got a hang of the technical aspects (slug lines! act breaks! cold opens!) and I quickly adapted to the new format creatively (a new story structure, quicker pacing, considering how it looks just as much as how it sounds). But there was another element of television writing that I hadn’t considered. The one that took the most work to adjust to.
This guest post is by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Reid’s third novel, MAYBE IN ANOTHER LIFE is about a young woman whose fate hinges on the choice she makes after bumping into an old flame; in alternating chapters, we see two possible scenarios unfold—with stunningly different results. The novel is women’s fiction at its finest—a thought provoking story that is raw with emotion, ripe with wit, but perhaps most importantly, real. Notably, Taylor’s writing career is multi-faceted: she splits her time writing novels and writing for the screen. Most recently, she served as a writer on Resident Advisors, a raucous comedy centering around life in a dorm.
As an author, I had spent years writing my stories on my own in a quiet room. My ideas traveled from my brain to my fingers, executed exactly as I saw fit, never veering from my own intent.
TV simply doesn’t work that way.
Writing for TV entails saying every dumb idea that comes into your head to a room of people. And doing so with the confidence that it doesn’t make you look like an idiot.
It means listening to other people’s sometimes stupid ideas and remembering that they aren’t idiots either.
It means working as a team to decide which of all the ideas being thrown around are actually dumb and which ones are exactly what the story needs to take flight.
It means working, not during the hours that you feel inspired, but during the hours that everyone has agreed to sit down together at the table.
It means knowing that even though you invented the character, you may not know what’s best for that character’s story.
It means remembering that sometimes an idea that seems awful to you — that everyone in the room thinks is great — really is great and you are simply wrong about it.
It means watching an actor say a line completely differently than you intended and keeping your mouth shut because it’s not your place to tell them any different. (By the way, when the show airs, you will most likely realize their way was funnier all along.)
It means accepting that a really great story area will go unused because an actor can’t work that day, and that no matter how good it is, you have to scrap it and write something else.
TV entails a lot of things that ultimately push you to do one particular thing: Trust.
Trust that other people won’t judge your crazy ideas.
Trust that other writers know what’s good for the story.
Trust that some stuff that you don’t get right now will become clear to you later.
Trust that the actor’s interpretation of the character will become just as important as the words you put on the page.
Trust that a story can be good even if external factors limit the creative opportunities.
Trust that the final product will be good because the people involved are talented.
We often compare the experience of writing a book to that of playing God. It is up to us, and only us, to determine what happens to the people we invent. It is for us alone to determine what is good and bad, just and unjust, appropriate and inappropriate for the worlds we create. I love that about writing books. I love controlling every facet of the story, doing my best to deliver the exact moments and messages I intend for readers.
But if writing books is playing God, writing TV is akin to the Big Bang. It’s a lot of elements coming together at once, and you hope you’ve brought together just the right combination to cause it to combust into something extraordinary.
I have come to love the chaos of television. I love working with ideas that are even better than ones I would have come up with on my own, everyone coming together to make something larger than the sum of our parts.
I sense that by writing both books and television, I’ve become better at each. But I know that by letting go of my need for control and learning to trust the talent of others, I’ve become kinder and more generous.
Who would have thought that TV would make me a better person?
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.