Category Archives: TV shows

Tales from the Writers’ Room, Part 3: How an Episode of TV Gets Made

People often ask me how a writer’s room works. Do all the writers work on episodes together, like a snarky, eight-headed hydra, or do we toil away in solitude, typing until our fingers bleed?   The answer is neither, and both. Though I can only speak for Bones specifically, the following essay will walk you through the basic steps of how an episode of television gets made.

Step One: Pitching a World

There are eight writers on staff at Bones, and we each come to the table with a plethora of episode ideas. Some are more issue oriented, like “The Lost Love in a Foreign Land,” which dealt with human trafficking. Others take a peek inside a unique world, like “The Geek in the Guck,” which was about video games and gamers. The creator of said ideas then pitches them to our head writer, who takes a chosen few to the show-runner, who gives one of them a green light. This moves us on to…

The dudes, deep in thought inside the BONES writers' room.

The dudes, deep in thought inside the BONES writers’ room.

Step Two: Breaking the Story

Once we know the world we’re dealing with, we start breaking the story in the writer’s room, with the writer responsible for that episode leading the charge. At Bones, we typically have no more than four writers breaking a story at a time so that every voice has a chance to be heard. If you compare scriptwriting to house-building, breaking a story is a lot like putting up the frame. Using the A-story (on Bones, this is the murder case) as our driving force, it is our job to “beat” (plot) out all six acts scene by scene. When it comes to writing an episode of TV, this is the part that requires the real heavy lifting. Taking a concept and a few vague character ideas and fleshing that out into a dramatic six-act drama is no easy task. Yet on Bones, we do this 22 times a year.

Step Three: The Writing Process

Once the story’s been pitched to the show-runner and (hopefully) approved, writers are sent off to outline. We have approximately one week to transform the beats on the white board into a more formal, readable story, which then gets sent to the network for notes. Once the network approves, we’re off to script and have two weeks to deliver a “Writer’s Draft.” On Bones, each writer is responsible for writing two episodes per season, with freelancers and the show-runner filling out the rest. Also, if we choose, we are allowed to write our outlines and scripts from home. #PajamasAllDayLong

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A hint of the episode title for #1020. Plus, Emily’s Silver’s manicure.

 

Step Four: Rewriting

If you’re a writer, you already know that writing is really rewriting. And in the case of TV writing, this concept takes an added dimension as it is truly a collaborative process. Being rewritten by the show-runner is not only common to TV writing, but expected. And while it’s crucial to stand behind what you’ve written, you never want to be married to your own words. Ultimately, the show-runner is the voice of the show, and his or her revisions are an opportunity for learning. I am constantly in awe of Bones’ show-runner Stephen Nathan’s wit, pathos, and depth of understanding of the show’s characters. Also, he writes faster than any human I’ve ever met.

Step Five: Prep

This is the stage where you think you’re done, but really you’re not, because prep (pre-production) brings up all sorts of questions and issues that necessitate script changes. Sometimes, those changes are big, like adding a whole new scene or changing a location due to scheduling issues. Other times, it can be as a small as correcting a single word of medical jargon. But pretty much every day during prep, new script pages are distributed in varying colors, marking what has been changed. Prep is also when we cast our actors, find locations, and determine costumes and props, which is my favorite part of the process.

Step Six: The Shoot

On Bones, we have nine days to shoot each episode and the majority of this time is spent on our standing sets of the Jeffersonian lab and the FBI (on Stages 6 and 9 at Fox Studios) with one-two days spent on location. Writers are encouraged to produce their own episodes of Bones, which means spending as much time on set as possible. If you’ve never been on a film or TV shoot, the days are long and the pace is slow—then suddenly fast. But the cast and crew are amazing, the atmosphere on set is fun and friendly, and there are always lots of snacks. Sometimes, one of the actors will have a question about what you’ve written, which usually leads to a rewrite on the spot. This can be slightly stressful, but I find these changes always make the show better. Plus, writing on set under time pressure makes me feel like a real TV writer.

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Shooting Episode 1016 on the Fox lot.

 

Step Seven: Post-Production

This is the part where everyone’s hard work turns into an actual episode of TV. Editing is really the show-runner’s domain, so I haven’t spent much time in post, but my office is right across from it, so I have the torture pleasure of hearing each episode come together before I watch it on TV. 😉

 

I think I’ve answered the most commonly asked questions here. But if you have any others, feel free to put them in the comments section and I’ll do my best to get to them as soon as possible.

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Tales from the Writers’ Room: Part Two

So, we are getting ready to shoot my second “Bones” episode. As I mentioned before, seeing something I’ve written turn into an actual thing is one of my favorite parts of the process, even when it’s only trash.

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Prop trash: better than regular trash.

If this weren’t exciting enough, the props department brought in a food stylist to lead a “show-and-tell” of all the food we’ll use in this episode. I didn’t actually taste any of it, but Ian, our props guy did.

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Spoiler alert: this pizza burger is not the murderer.

Spoiler alert: this pizza burger is not the murderer.

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Ian digs in to "The Everest" while director Alex Chapple captures the moment for posterity.

Ian digs in to “The Everest” while director Alex Chapple captures the moment for posterity.

I can’t tell you much about this episode, but I will reveal the title here:  The Big Beef in the Royal Diner.  It airs April 2nd.

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Tales from the Writers’ Room: Part One

One of my favorite parts about writing for TV or film is the magical process of seeing my words come to life. In reality, it was a very talented props person named Ian, and not magic, that made the centrifuge I wrote about on Thursday appear in the entryway of our building Monday morning. But unless I end up winning Powerball, scriptwriting is probably the closest I’ll ever come to that genie-in-a-bottle moment: your wish is my command.  I hope I never become too world-weary to appreciate how special this feels.

So, I called this blog “Tales from the Writers Room,” but the truth is, I’m not actually spending much of my time in the writers’ room these days as I start to prep my first Bones episode. However, I do hope this kicks off my (sporadic) blog about the super awesome job of writing for a network television show.  For the uninitiated, Bones is a drama that airs on Fox, 8pm Thursday nights.

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Some props, including a piece of the centrifuge, which will end up looking a lot more magical (and bigger) when the show finally airs.

At Bones, the writers each produce their own episodes and are encouraged to be involved in the producing process.  We are lucky.  Not all TV writers get to have a hand in production.

Location scouting.

Shall we shoot a scene here? Nah.

Here we are on a location scout.

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How ’bout here? Nah.

One of the scenes in my script calls for a bunch of animals in the Ookey Room.  Cue the animal parade…

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Director Tim Southam auditions a cat.

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Director/iguana whisperer.

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Now he’s just showing off.

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Seriously, someone give this guy the directing gig for Dr. Doolittle 6.

It was like one of the animal shows you hire for a kid’s birthday party. Except I was at work, getting paid for it. 😉

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Nibbles the Raccoon needs you in the conference room. ASAP.

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Best. Meeting. Ever.

 

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Filed under Bones, books, movies, YA, writing, David Boreanaz, Emily Deschanel, screenwriting, TV shows, TV writing, Writers' Room

Hollywood Trend Alert! Is Quiet the New Noisy?

white_noise_tvNoisy is the new buzzword in television, and as several TV execs told me recently, the noisier the series, the better. In the old days, a few unsolved murders and a little sexual tension was enough to titillate the masses. But in today’s world of 10 billion channels, it’s no longer just about a cool, high-concept idea. For a show to succeed, it needs to make a frigging cacophony.

So, if your show’s main character is a time-travelling, gay, bi-polar cannibal who teaches Sunday school by day and by night, battles zombie prostitutes… congratulations! You might just be on to something. The equation for success in the TV biz being: More + More = More!

The word noisy so well-encapsulates the ideal of the modern television that it has officially dethroned Hollywood’s former favorite catchphrase, “fresh and edgy.” (A note to aspiring screenwriters still using the term “fresh and edgy,” you might as well describe your series as  “groovy” and see how well that goes over.)

It’s like that AT&T commercial where the guy asks the roundtable of kids, “What’s better—doing two things at once, or just one?” and the kids all shout “Two!” But when did we decide it was a good idea to listen to six-year-olds? These are people who actually laugh at The Chipmunks movies, people who prefer One Direction over Radiohead, people who’d eat an entire bag of marshmallows for dinner if we let them. Of course children (and their teenage counterparts) want noisy television. They are noisy. Which is why, whenever I find myself in a room full of kids, it takes everything in my power not to start shouting at them to zip their lips and calm the f*ck down.

My point is:  isn’t our world loud enough? Especially when it comes to TV. From the splashy lower-third promos constantly assaulting us, to the fact that roughly half of us now watch while simultaneously Tweeting, we have forgotten everything we once enjoyed about television—namely, the ability to lay down on our couches, get lost in a story, and forget all about our crazy lives.

And let’s not forget the shrill onslaught of commercials that come booming into our living rooms at alarmingly high decibels these days. After years of advertisers turning it up to eleven, the FCC has finally managed to avert their lecherous gaze away from celebrity nipple-slips in order to do their actual job. And for the past few weeks, they’ve been banging their brooms on the ceiling like the angry grandpas they truly are, shouting for advertisers “Turn that racket down!” The only problem: the damn commercials are so loud no one can hear them.

Of course, there are some cable networks that are making an impact with quieter, slower shows, like Sundance Channel’s great new series, RECTIFY. As many people have already commented, RECTIFY’s two-hour premiere episode was extraordinarily slow-paced—refreshingly, even shockingly so. But maybe that’s what it takes to truly stand out in today’s noisy world. Could it be that successful television isn’t just about who can create the biggest racket? Maybe being quiet actually makes the biggest noise of all.

Author’s note:  In the interest of full disclosure, I might be turning into an old crank, like my mother, back in the 80’s, who was baffled by my love of “quick-cut” music videos on MTV. “You’re going to get epilepsy,” she would warn as I lay, transfixed on the floor of our shag-carpeted family room. I recently went onto YouTube and re-watched some of these quote-unquote fast-paced music videos with my son, and we both agreed that by today’s standards, they seemed almost laughably slow.

 

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Win Tons of Books & Stuff at TeamTEEN Author’s Dare Day Challenge

Guess what, teamTEEN author fans?  It’s Dare Day again!  I know I said that last week, but apparently I jumped the gun a bit.  Whoops.  But the good news is, this week, you can enter to win books & stuff!

To check out all of the fabulous PRIZES, just go to the TeamTEEN Author Dare Day Contest, read the rules, enter the contest, & you may just get lucky.

Dares for this week were concocted by the evil, young minds over at The Perfect 10.  Our choices were:

1) Covering your face with peanut butter & takign a picture (yum!)

2) Writing about your most embarrassing teen moment Shakespearean sonnet-style

3)  Revealing your biggest teen crush, complete with photos (see below)

And if you like seeing authors make fools of themselves, check out these Dare Day posts from other TeamTEEN Authors.

Julie Cross

Janci Patterson

Laura Ellen

Elizabeth Amisu

Eugene Meyers

Kim Sabatini

And now, I present to you, my biggest teen celebrity crush.

My Celebrity Crush Likes Richard Nixon!

I guess I’m a bit of a pragmatist when it comes to love.  Sure, I had my share of teen crushes, but always on boys I actually knew, boys who were, at least theoretically, within my grasp.  Unlike my pre-teen friends, I never understood the thrill in pressing my lips to the pages of Tiger Beat Magazine.  Probably because I had the good sense to realize that there was no way in hell Leif Garret or Shaun Cassidy would choose a nine-year-old as their girlfriend.  And except for one naughty dream about Van Halen front-man David Lee Roth (which I blame entirely on my subconscious) the boys of my fantasies were always just regular ol’ dudes.

And then I saw Michael J. Fox.

For the record, I also had a girl-crush on Justine Bateman.

Never mind that he was 5’2” and, in all likelihood, weighed less than me. Or that his character on FAMILY TIES was a rabid Republican.

Why, Alex, why???

Then BACK TO THE FUTURE came out, and my infatuation swelled to proportions not even a flux capacitor could measure.

Wait a minute, Doc. Are you telling me that you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?

By the time I went to Japan for the summer as an exchange student, I’d created a well-worn collection of romantic MJF fantasies to keep me company whenever I felt lonely. Which was a lot.  These often played to the soundtrack of Paul Simon’s Graceland—one of the few cassette tapes I’d brought with me on my trip.

Thinking about that time in my life brings up fond memories. And as a tribute to my former crush, I’m going to go donate to his charity for Parkinson’s Disease right now.

https://www.michaeljfox.org

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Dare Day: In Which I Reveal My Biggest Celebrity Crush

Guess what, teamTEEN author fans?  it’s Dare Day again!  Oh yes, I already completed my qualifying dare last March (see below).

But I’ve never been one to turn down a chance to humiliate myself on the interwebs.  And so, I present to you, my biggest celebrity crush.

My Celebrity Crush Likes Richard Nixon!

I guess I’m a bit of a pragmatist when it comes to love.  Sure, I had my share of teen crushes, but always on boys I actually knew, boys who were, at least theoretically, within my grasp.  Unlike my pre-teen friends, I never understood the thrill in pressing my lips to the pages of Tiger Beat Magazine.  Probably because I had the good sense to realize that there was no way in hell Leif Garret or Shaun Cassidy would choose a nine-year-old as their girlfriend.  And except for one naughty dream about Van Halen front-man David Lee Roth (which I blame entirely on my subconscious) the boys of my fantasies were always just regular ol’ dudes.

And then I saw Michael J. Fox.

For the record, I also had a girl-crush on Justine Bateman.

Never mind that he was 5’2” and, in all likelihood, weighed less than me. Or that his character on FAMILY TIES was a rabid Republican.

Why, Alex, why???

Then BACK TO THE FUTURE came out, and my infatuation swelled to proportions not even a flux capacitor could measure.

Wait a minute, Doc. Are you telling me that you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?

By the time I went to Japan for the summer as an exchange student, I’d created a well-worn collection of romantic MJF fantasies to keep me company whenever I felt lonely. Which was a lot.  These often played to the soundtrack of Paul Simon’s Graceland—one of the few cassette tapes I’d brought with me on my trip.

Thinking about that time in my life brings up fond memories. And as a tribute to my former crush, I’m going to go donate to his charity for Parkinson’s Disease right now.

https://www.michaeljfox.org

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Writing Characters People Love: Why Andy Bernard is No Michael Scott (Or, Why It’s Easy to Love a Shmuck With High Ideals)

Oh, The Office, how did you let this happen?  With all the build-up over who would succeed Michael Scott as boss, you picked the wrong man.  Don’t get me wrong, Andy Bernard’s insecure and obliviously unself-aware dork is often amusing.  And Ed Helms has absolutely nailed the stiff-legged physicality of Andy’s pastel chino-wearing White Guy.  But ultimately, Andy Bernard’s a shmuck.  And audiences don’t want to root for guys like that, unless, of course, there’s something underneath the schmucky exterior.

Take Michael Scott for example.  The guy was the very definition of a jerk—egotistical, self-absorbed, immature, with a self-perception that bordered on (and often crossed into) delusion.  But the thing about Michael Scott was that we loved him despite all that.  Or maybe even because of it.  Wherein lies the very reason Michael Scott was such a brilliant character—because his greatest flaw, his total ineptitude, also doubled as his greatest talent.

Interestingly, Andy Bernard and Michael Scott share many personality traits.  Yet, I find it impossible to care about Andy Bernard’s downtrodden goober, whereas I rooted for the highly flawed Michael Scott right from the get-go.  And here’s why.  When writing highly flawed characters—and all of your character should have flaws—it’s important to give readers (or audiences) access to that character’s vibrant inner life.  What do your characters think about in bed at night when they’re all alone?  What makes their heart sing?  And which of their secret innermost desires breaks our hearts, even just a little?

Michael Scott wore his grandiose delusions on his sleeve.  And even though we laughed at them, the unabashedly bold scope of these ridiculous dreams was always something to admire. Andy Bernard, in contrast, has no high ideals.  Yes, they’ve tried to make us root for him by tossing him the unrequited love plotline with Erin.  But the poor guy’s inability to admit his love for the woman he wants makes him come across as more of a sad sack than a tragic hero.  Why?  BECAUSE WE NEVER GET TO SEE ANDY SEE HIMSELF AS A HERO.  Not once have we been allowed to see Andy picture himself as the man he hopes to be.  And even if he’ll never step up to become his higher self, the hope that he will, however repressed or foolish, NEEDS TO BE THERE.

The whole reason human beings love to root for the underdog is because we see that small glimmer of promise twinkling in a character’s eye.  But sadly, we can’t root for our characters to overcome their miserable lives unless they first imagine it for themselves.

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