Sunday, March 08, 2009

Writing episodic TV is like writing Haiku

Two weeks into my new job as the most junior story editor on the TV show The Bridge (premiering July 9th on CTV and CBS at 10:00 pm), one of the more experienced writers said, "Writing TV is like writing Haiku, you have to fit everything into the structure," and I thought, yeah, that's right, people don't complain that Haiku is too formulaic.

Then he said you could also use dirty limericks as the example, but that's not as classy.

The writers' room is a very funny place and a fun place to be.

It's quite different than writing novels. When I write a novel I start with a couple of characters I think would be interesting to follow and I follow them. I have a vague idea where they might take me, but most of the story emerges from the writing. I'm never sure exactly how the novel will end or even who will emerge as the main character. In Dirty Sweet there's an unnamed, low-level biker in one scene and he doesn't say anything, he's background. In Everybody Knows This is Nowhere he gets named J.T. and has some lines and some scenes. He's pretty much a main character in Swap. This was certainly no clever plan I had worked out in advance.

But the whole season of The Bridge (11 episodes actually, the pilot has already been filmed and is going to run as the first two episodes) is getting worked out in note form on a big whiteboard across an entire wall of the writers' room. All six story editors contribute to the outlines of every episode and the head writer (the Showrunner, in TV-speak) is the final word. Then each writer is assigned one or two of these detailed outlines and writes them up as scripts.

The speed at which all this happens is also making my head spin. I'd fallen into a schedule that worked around my kids' school schedule. They start school in September and I start writing a book. For the past couple of years I've been able to finish by June when they finished school.

We started outlining this TV show two weeks ago and the first episode we're working on will air July 23rd. When the producer told us this, I said, "July 23rd, 2010, right?" I was only half kidding. Filming starts in April.

So, everything has to fit. It has to be like Haiku.

Looks good so far.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences, John. It's so interesting. How do those soap writers do it? Even if the quality is bad, they still have to get those words on a page and in someone's mouth at the speed of light.

Declan Burke said...

Like sun on water
TV dialogue must sparkle
But also illuminate.

Barbara Martin said...

The writing you are doing for TV is very interesting.

Brian O'Rourke said...


Sounds extremely hectic but also very exciting to me. Keep us posted on what it's like to be a TV writer.