by Ellen Byron
It was my first meeting with a network executive. Sherry, who worked at ABC, had taken me to lunch in the network’s executive dining room. Nervous, I was busy trying to sell myself as a playwright and journalist who could bring both skills to the table when she stopped me.
It’s not about talent,” Sherry said. “It’s about whether or not a showrunner wants to be in the room with you at three in the morning.
To this day, this is probably the most valuable piece of advice I received about the television business. But I’ve learned other important lessons during my career. Some of them can be applied to any writing genre, others to life in general.
Here are my Top Ten lessons from the TV writers’ room:
1. Never point out a problem without offering a solution
This is generally a rookie mistake. New writers think they can make their bones in a writers’ room by pointing out story problems or jokes that don’t work in a script. What they don’t share are possible fixes, which is what the room needs. Here’s an example of how I applied this lesson to my other career as a mystery novelist: I had problems with the initial sketch for the cover of my first book, Plantation Shudders. When I shared my concerns with the publisher, I offered several solutions. This led to a mutual brainstorming session and eventually a great cover.
2. Say, “Yes, and” instead of “Yes, but”
This is something I learned doing comedy improvisation that I carried with me into the writers’ room. When we were breaking a story, saying “yes, and” generally helped move a story forward. Saying “yes, but” – another way of pointing out problems without offering solutions (see above) – stalled development. Saying “yes, and” may not get you all the way to where a story should be, but you’ll never get anywhere by blocking forward motion with a constant “Yes, but.”
3. Write the way people talk
Nothing teaches you to write good dialogue more than hearing bad dialogue come out of actors’ mouths. A lesson I learned from playwriting is that a reader should know which character is talking without ever having to look at their name in the script. It’s about creating the unique, specific language of every character, whether in a show or a book. Look at current sitcoms and you’ll see who does this particularly well. My favorites right now are Veep, Silicon Valley, Will & Grace, and Big Bang Theory, which gets extra points for creating three completely different yet equally funny female characters.
4. Keep your humor current
Check out comedies from every decade. What’s considered funny varies with each time period. If you’re writing comedy, unless it’s historically based, your job is to know what’s funny today. I’ve worked with people who write like old farts at thirty, and sixty-year-olds who have a fresh sense of humor. (Although I’m guessing at those ages because few TV writers would ever reveal this potentially career-killing number.) There is one type of humor that’s timeless – physical comedy. Lucy and Ethel working that chocolate conveyor belt is as funny today as it was over sixty years ago.
5. Avoid reference jokes
This lesson is an adjunct to the one above. I love political humor, and therefore I loved the TV show, Murphy Brown. But even I can watch a current rerun of the show and have no idea what everyone’s laughing at because the reference is dated. Bob Dole jokes will sail over many heads in the year 2018. And not only does a joke date, it dates the writer. I’ve read a mystery and thought to myself, why are they making a joke about Mr. T, a guy who hasn’t been in the zeitgeist since the mid-1980s? Reference jokes are popular because they’re relatively easy. It’s in the name – a “reference” taps into a communal concept. But instead of being timeless, this brand of humor is time-sensitive.
6. Put the funny word at the end of the sentence
This is another lesson I learned beforehand that I brought into the writers’ room with me. If you have a funny word in a joke, end with it. Because some words just make people laugh. A highlight of my very first sitcom job was suggesting that we move the word “Snugli” from the middle to the end of a joke we were working on. For some reason, the high-level writers on the show didn’t know about this comedy trick and were quite impressed with me.
7. Manage envy and competition
Somebody will always have a better job on a better show with a better salary. That’s just the bottom line. When it comes to publishing, how many times have you sat in front of your computer steaming after reading some Facebook post touting another author’s success? I constantly remind myself that my journey is mine. I’ve learned the hard way that envy and competition often lead to petty and/or fear-based decisions that rarely, if ever, work out.
8. Listen, don’t wait to talk
Talk about a life lesson. This one came to me in a totally offhand way. A lovely actress named Ally Walker was cast in a guest role on a show I was working on. During a break in filming the episode, we got to chatting and in the middle of the conversation, she blurted out, “Do you listen or do you wait to talk?” The question flew by as if rhetorical, but it stuck with me. I realized I was definitely a wait-to-talker, which basically meant, a) I assumed I was always right, and b) I wasn’t a very good listener.
If you’re just waiting to talk and not really listening, you miss valuable information.
I’ve been monitoring myself ever since that brief conversation, especially when it comes to taking notes on a script or manuscript.
9. Don’t let rejection get you down
There’s nothing like the pain of a television staffing season to drive home this lesson. For every job I’ve gotten, I can’t even tell you how many I haven’t. “They didn’t respond” has become one of my least favorite expressions. Then there are the meetings that go like gangbusters, where you wait by the phone like you just met your dream guy and you know he’s going to call – and the phone never rings.
10. Write a strong first draft
Television shows are produced under tight time constraints. Because of this, showrunners are always looking for “strong first draft” writers. You may get the chance to write a second draft during pre-production, but once the season is underway, odds at getting another crack at a script are remote. There’s zero time for what authors call a “sh—ty first draft” or a “vomit draft.” In TV, nothing makes your heart sink and puts you behind schedule like a script that needs restructuring. I think this is why the first drafts of my novels, while requiring the usual boatload of developmental edits, are pretty tight structurally.
And you know? Getting published wasn’t easier for me. I e-waded through months of literary agent rejections before someone finally bit. My first book never even sold. There were days in both my TV and publishing journeys when I put my head down on my desk and cried. There were worse days when I simply took to bed. But I powered through the pain and eventually caught a few breaks.
Questions? Advice? Personal experiences? (Want to know if your reference is dated?) Let’s chat on the Career Authors Facebook page.