WHAT IS A WRITERS ROOM?
5 key points
It’s surprising how a room with some tables, chairs, and a whiteboard can gain value when it’s called writers room. The word itself is explicit enough. It’s a room where the screenwriters of a TV series meet to write it. It’s a very American concept, that started in the city of stars… Los Angeles.
Said like that, it looks pretty simple but the reality is that this room tends to produce a mysterious atmosphere around and a generalized excitement between screenwriters who dream to be inside it. There’s no wonder why! There is where all the magic happens. Where writers struggle to break down the scenes, creating the characters and writing the first drafts of a series.
The size of a writers room depends on the TV series type of production. To give you an idea it could be either a five or a thirty people room. Part of the mystery created around it has something to do with its privacy. They are not public spaces because it literally is where everything around a series is created. Therefore, it tries to avoid possible leaks of information outside those four walls. No two writers rooms work the same way, each one has its own rules and procedures to create stories. However, some elements could be considered common.
Many screenwriters ask how they can become part of that select group of people and, the truth is that it’s like any other job. There isn’t any precise formula but everything is related to the dedication and hard work.
Maybe the best way to start is as a writer’s assistant. Part of the assistant’s responsibilities consists of knowing the story like the back of your hand, taking notes and, basically, facilitating the screenwriter’s work so he can dedicate his time to write. What you must understand, especially when you start to work in a writers room, is that everything is a learning process. For that reason, stay humble. Don’t try to look like the smartest guy in the room, the one that has the best ideas or the funniest one because the most probable thing is that you’re not and you could cause a bad impression. Take your time to learn the mechanics and, mostly, how people behave around you and you’ll make progress.
Truth is that, like in every single job, there is a hierarchy. There is the Writer’s Assistant, Script Coordinator, Staff Writers, Story Editor, Executive Story Editor, Co-producer, Producer… and other few job positions that ultimately leads to the showrunner leading figure. The differences between them are, fundamentally, the years you’ve been working on a series, the responsibilities and the decisions you can take. For example, becoming a Staff Writer is the first step and, although he’s an active part of the screenwriting process of the series, he may not be able to write an episode. While the Story Editor, although being quite similar to the Staff Writer figure, usually appears on the credits and writes at least one episode. Finally, the showrunner is who chooses who gets to be in the room and who doesn’t, keeps writers writing and creates the TV series. The showrunner has creativity and management freedom. Ultimately, he’s who has all the power inside the room.
The good thing about this hierarchy is that absolutely everyone has the same kind of work and the same mission: writing and creating. It doesn’t matter the job position, everybody inside a writers room are screenwriters. This creates a great opportunity to learn from other writers and cooperate in the creation of relevant stories. Who said that being a writer was a lonely job?
The most important part of a writers room is to know the story inside and outside. That’s why some showrunners look for a specific profile that can provide a different and relevant point of view when hiring. For example, at The Handmaid’s Tale room, Miller tries to have more female writers than male because of the subject matter. At The Marvelous Mrs.Maisel, two stand-up comics are part of the teams and Damon Lindelof for The Leftovers asked the candidates about their beliefs before hiring them.
Screenwriters must be experts in the TV series main subject. A political series needs writers that know its procedures and are news junkies. In the same way that in HBO’s series, Silicon Valley, screenwriters must know everything about the area to discover its weaknesses and explode them through comedy. Isn’t it obvious?
Research has such importance that some writers rooms promote activities that stimulate it. For example, when Glow production begins the screenwriters’ team usually moves to the set to see how the actors are training for wrestling. Also, as the series is set in the ’80s, writers usually meet together to have 80’s movie nights. The Hollywood Reporter has some very interesting articles where some of the most popular series reveal the routines inside its writers room.
Due to the actual massive production of series, the screenwriter’s job is more collaborative than ever. This facilitates working in parallel and boosts the entire creative process.
We used to think about a writer as an introvert and a lonely person. That’s not a wrong way to see it, the writer usually lives in his own world with his laptop as a best friend. However, in a writers room, you have to be open to sharing your ideas with other writers. You cannot stand still and write your part because you might end outside the room. Careful here, I’m not saying you have to be the centre of attention. As we mentioned, before saying something up you have to understand how the room works. Once you have enough experience, share your ideas, consider other ones and create based on them. Shonda Rhimes in this MasterClass shares some tips about how to behave inside one of these rooms.
Each room has different dynamics but collaboration is key in all of them. Generally, at the beginning of every meeting, there’s a brainstorming. When everybody knows the structure and the most important points of the story, the showrunner assigns the episodes to each writer. Some writers prefer to break down the story on their own, however, everything is shared or modified at some point either in small groups or in general. Moreover, pitching is also very important inside a writers room. You have to know how to pitch in order to sell your ideas or you won’t stand out.
EXHALE AND BE INSPIRED BY IT
For a screenwriter a writers room is like a golden dream and, although it is the bomb, it also has its dark moments. Yeah, we’re talking about the hated writer’s block. That moment where you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The writers inside that room don’t get rid of it either. After long brainstorming sessions, it’s pretty normal to get to that moment where ideas don’t flow. Each room has its methods to get over the writer’s block, it’s part of the writers room culture. From the most common solution, like taking a walk, to the most curious one, like making polls about the writer’s preferred meals, breaks are essential to the production of ideas. Nevertheless, the interesting point here is that all breaks have as the main goal to inspire the writer.
Absolutely everything that belongs to a writers room is oriented to facilitate the writer’s inspiration. That also applies to the food! These rooms usually have an assortment of snacks and drinks available to the writer, even some of them usually order food from different restaurants to encourage the writer. It can’t be denied that everybody is happier after lunch. These initiatives are key to a series development because the screenwriter comes back to the room fresh and with new ideas acquired during the break.
What prevails in the room is people committed to creating stories. Screenwriters who end up working in a writers room don’t limit themselves to the working hours. In this room, a writer without commitment doesn’t last for too long. In general, and especially if they’re newbies, they use to study the story inside and outside that room. They take notes and gather information during the meetings, they arrive at their homes and they study them, rewrite them and create new notes in a daily manner. And the next day they start over. It seems exhausting, and it is, but if there’s something that distinguishes a writer is his passion.