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What goes on behind the scenes in the writer’s room?

by JASMINE ELSHAMY Editor-in-Chief

Have you ever wondered who comes up with all the words the actors say during a television show? Who comes up with the television show itself? Whose idea was it for Spongebob to go bother Squidward while he is playinig the clarinet? Who is Vince Gilligan, and why has he suddenly piqued my interest in eating meth in vans or whatever it is they do on that show?

This wonderful, rare breed of people are TV writers! They write the scripts for those beautiful actors in “Teen Wolf” to follow as we, the audience, simply stare at Tyler Posey and Dylan O’Brien and wonder, “How?”

How does one get hired to write for a TV show? How does one even learn how to write scripts? What happens in the writer’s room? Luckily for you, an amazing television writer, Jessica Gao, answered some questions to ease our pressing curiosity.

Gao did not always know she wanted to pursue a career in television writing, or even writing in general. She did not even attend college for it, something that can be a big issue for young, aspiring writers who are not sure if they too should skip college for this specific career. She got her degree in art, and as most do after college, she had no idea what to do next.

“I worked a bunch of random jobs (retail, office temp, art gallery, etc) while my parents were losing their minds over their daughter doing nothing with her life. Finally, after working in marketing for a year, my boss wanted to promote me and I quit on the spot. I knew I couldn’t just coast anymore and needed to figure out what I wanted to do,” said Gao. “I had been involved with comic books for a long time. My comics friends helped me realize that I was really interested in the storytelling aspects of comics, but just didn’t want to do all the art parts (more work). So I thought I should write for animation because that seemed like a good transition from comics.”

Since she had no experience in the entertainment industry, Gao began asking her friends for ways to get started in writing animation, and one person referred her to the writing fellowship Nickelodeon had. She googled how to write a script, submitted it to the fellowship, and after some time, ended up getting in. That changed everything.

Three months into the fellowship, she got hired on her first staff writing job back in 2006. Her first staff job was “The Mighty B!” on Nickelodeon. She then wrote for “Big Time Rush” (also on Nickelodeon) followed by “Star Wars Detours,” “Robot Chicken,” and “Silicon Valley.”

“If I’m on a writing staff, an average day of work is mostly spent in the writers’ room. Together, the writers will break down all the stories and outline each episode together,” said Gao. “When it’s my turn to write a script, I will either hole up in my office or go home and write the first draft. When I’m not on a staff, an average day is me waking up at noon, trying to get someone to go out to lunch with me, playing Mario Kart, wasting time on the internet, watching TV, and then maybe working on some freelance stuff or going on meetings or coming up with new ideas to pitch.”

As for the structure and dynamics of the writers’ room, Gao explained that there is a hierarchy to it. The showrunner is at the top, and is the “be-all-end-all boss.”  Then, there are the upper level writers (they have the word “producer” in their title), and at the bottom are the lower level writers (staff writers and story editors).

Every showrunner has their way of running the room. Some like a free-for-all where everyone just throws out ideas. Others feel if you are going to say something, it better be good.

“Generally speaking, the upper level writers focus more on the big picture – seasonal arcs, character development, shaping the show overall, etc. The lower level writers are there to be joke machines, just constantly cranking out jokes,” explained Gao. “That’s what a comedy writers’ room is like, I don’t know how dramas are run. I assume everyone sits around being a serious genius all day?”

What so many people do not know and often fail to recognize when reading the credits at the end of any show or movie is the disproportion of male to female directors, writers, producers, etc. in the industry. Not only is there a blatant lack of women in television, there is also a lack of women of color.

“More often than not, I’m the only woman and the only person of color in the writers’ room. And it’s not easy. You walk a fine line of wanting to represent both women and people of color, but you also don’t want to be the constant nag in the room. No one wants to be around someone who just keeps saying, ‘You can say that,’ or ‘You can’t do that joke.’ However, if you’re not protective of the female and characters of color on the show, who’s going to do it?” said Gao. “One thing that happens a lot when there’s only one woman in the room is that the lone female writer feels pressure to be one of the guys and they try to tone down being female. The thing is, that’s what makes you unique on that staff. There are already 8 other guys in room, they don’t need one more. You are the only one in the room who knows what it’s like to be a woman, so that’s what you bring to the table that the male writers can’t.”

Now, what is the actual process a script goes through, from the idea to the bound papers sitting in the actors’ and director’s hands? Gao told me that every script starts with ideas. Together, a writing staff will come up with the story for a script, and this is written down as a one-page premise. The staff then makes an outline breaking down each scene.

Once there’s an outline, whoever is writing that script takes it and writes the first draft of it. After that, they will either get notes on it from the showrunner and then rewrite it based on the notes, or it gets “punched up.” That means everyone on the writing team reads the script and adds their notes and jokes.

“Usually, the entire staff goes through the script together line by line, rewriting and making every page better. The script goes through several drafts this way until it finally becomes the draft that gets shot,” said Gao. “So, even though an episode on TV says ‘Written by’ someone, every single writer on that show was involved in writing it. You have to learn and accept very quickly that you can’t be a big baby about that. It’s a team effort, so you need to keep your ego in check.”

As I mentioned earlier, a big question young people have when they become interested in pursuing screenwriting is, “Should I go to film school?” Well, there are no rules that specifically say you must go to film school; it is not required. However, not going to film school will you leave you somewhat behind because there are a lot of things that you learn, such as knowing how a writing staff operates, how deals work, how to go on meetings with executives, what agents vs managers vs lawyers do, etc.

As Gao pointed out to me, the great thing about starting now is that you have many resources online. Read as many scripts online as you can and write as much as possible. That is how you get better. Read the blogs and websites of professional screenwriters who give tips and insight.

The biggest piece of advice Gao gave to aspiring screenwriters is “to write good stuff and make it accessible to as many people as possible. People won’t hire you if you’re not good, and they can’t hire you if they don’t know about you. Also, don’t be a jerk.”

Currently, Gao is working on pitching her own show and writing a spec script. Go watch her most recent work on “Silicon Valley.” I promise it will be worth asking for your co-worker’s HBOGo password to do so.

Do you have any interest in becoming a screenwriter?

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