Corey Miller has been interested in the entertainment business since he was a child, much to his mother’s (and often his own) chagrin. After holding an ungodly number of Production Assistant, Production Coordinator and then Writer’s Assistant positions, he got hired as the Assistant to the Show Runner on the television show “CSI.” After impressing his boss (i.e., bugging her until she relented), he got the chance to write a freelance episode. Later hired as a Staff Writer on “CSI: Miami,” he eventually rose the ranks to Supervising Producer. His other writing credits include the indie film “Border To Border” and episodes of the series “The Forgotten” and “NCIS: Los Angeles,” and he sold a spec pilot to The Peter Chernin Company and Fox. He is currently a Writer and Co-Executive Producer on the series “Body of Proof,” which airs Tuesday nights (10/9c) on ABC. Corey is not ashamed to admit that he is an L.A. native. You can follow him on twitter at @toomuchfire. Here, he shares what it’s like inside the writers’ room of a network TV drama.
Pretty much every writer can attest to the fact that the blank page is one of the scariest visions that they face on a regular basis — the harsh, bright-white beacon of their presumed failure, since most assuredly, THIS time the page will remain wordless.
Now picture a conference room bathed in fluorescent light, its walls covered with huge, white dry erase boards, with nary a word on them. Add a group of screenwriters to the mix, and that fear is compounded, with interest. They gaze up at the blank walls and then each other, all thinking the same thing: “You mean, we have to come up with an idea that will sustain a full episode of television? Craft a plot, and character arcs, and have the suspense gradually and realistically build in every act, leading to every commercial break? Oh, and it needs to entertain millions of people, especially in the 18-49 demographic? And we have to justify spending millions of dollars of our employer’s money?”
Cool. No big. Ain’t no thang. Because that’s a huge part of the job. In essence, that is a writers room on a television show, and those same thoughts hit the room every time a new episode has to be crafted, which on a one-hour drama is about every week to ten days. I have spent a good portion of my working life in one of those rooms — my first time on the show “CSI,” and currently on the ABC series “Body of Proof.” So, how does a writers room function?
First, I should note that every show runs differently, and I am only speaking from my own experience. Most network dramas employ anywhere from five to ten writers. And, depending on the Show Runner’s preference, there may or may not be one of these rooms. On some shows, the writers work like veal with laptops. They create and pitch stories independently from each other, “break” the stories (i.e., work out which scenes they will need to tell the story) by themselves, get them approved, and then go to script.
The shows that I’ve worked on, however, have never worked that way. So I can’t attest to its practice or effectiveness. I believe “Law & Order” had no writers room, and they seemed to do okay. But on shows with one, all of the available writers go into “the room” most mornings, the aforementioned fluorescent playground where all the stories are worked out. (You’d think a group of professional writers could come up with a better term for the room than “the room,” but go figure. )
“The room” is an interesting place. It’s at times a creative wonderland. A battleground. A psychotherapy session. A place to vent, confess, cower, and clash; a place to form friendships and rivalries. And the writers on a staff usually somehow end up playing different parts of the collective. There’s the quiet one. The tortured one. The funny one. The one with Big Ideas. The one who obsesses on minutiae. The fresh-faced naif. The wizened cynic. All of these parts can be valuable in their own ways, however, and if all those personality types somehow click as a group, great material can be borne from it.
When an episode is about to be broken, the Big Idea People get their time to shine. What’s the overall story? What’s the hook? Big Idea People are filled with them. And that’s a great launch pad. Once the overall story is agreed upon, the white boards are divided into acts. For those who don’t know, television scripts are divided up into acts, like a play. And between acts are commercial breaks. On “CSI,” for instance, we did a short “teaser” and then four acts. On “Body of Proof,” we do six acts.
The goal with television shows is to keep people coming back after each of the commercial breaks, so each act has to be engineered to build to its own mini climax, before the actual climax in the last act. This can be tough, because you don’t want the beats to seem unnatural or false. Added to that fact, you have just over forty-two minutes on broadcast television to tell your story. That’s a lot of plot in very little time.
We then go about thinking of every scene we will need for the story, and put them in the right order. Sometimes we’ll have a spectacular opening and stare at the blank boards, hoping the rest of the story will magically appear. Other times we’ll know the beginning and end, and have to create everything in the middle. Or maybe we’ll just know the ends of a couple different acts and work around those. There’s no rhyme or reason, it’s just what each individual story calls for. Structuring them is the hardest part.
And this is when others get their chance to shine. The expert in minutiae will find those tiny details that give an episode its nuances. Others are great at offering up dialogue that may work in a scene. Others speak of any personal experiences that inform the characters and their journeys within the episode. And throughout the entire process, vulgarities sail around, a lot of bad food is eaten and coffee gulped down. An axiom is usually thrown around in the room: “there are no bad ideas.” Well, actually there are. And that’s completely fine. But the worst idea on the earth can be tossed out, and after everyone else mocks the person and whittles them down to nothing but broken cells, another idea can be launched off of that. And so on, and so on, until somehow you have something really great.
On my current show, within the six-act structure, we usually end up having around five to seven scenes in each of the first four acts, and then fewer scenes in the last two. This can fluctuate depending on how the story unfolds, and when those natural breaks come. Once all of the story beats are up on the boards, its pitched to the Show Runner, and the story is revised accordingly. All through this process, the Writers’ Assistant takes notes on everything that is discussed. The writer or writers assigned will then takes those notes off to craft an outline.
And then the boards are horrifically erased, and the process begins all over again.
So damn you, blank page. And damn you, blank white boards. You can be conquered. Over and over again. As it has always been, and always shall be. And if you’re venturing into the world of television writing, be smart, be strong, and be social — and think about what part you’re going to play in the collective. Crafting words in a dark and cavernous room reeking of old coffee and cigarettes just won’t cut it any longer.
Instead, you’ll be bathed in fluorescent light.
(Read Corey’s previous blog about breaking into the TV writing business here)