"How a TV Show Episode Gets Written" - A PSA

Hey everyone - So if you’re following me, you know that I’m not really a ‘fandom’ guy; more of a ‘casual viewer’, hence why I don’t post fandom-related things very often.

However! I was having a conversation with Octoswan yesterday, who is an active member of the Tumblr-SPN community, about a lot of the drama going on with y’all lately and I checked out some of the posts related to said drama. I noticed that, in many cases, there were a lot of accusations and questions being thrown around about “the writers.”

“Do the writers just not know how to write women??”

“Why do the writers think that there always needs to be a romance??”

“Why do the writers…?”

And so on. What I started to notice was that there was a trend of blaming the writers for the problems that fans are having with the show or the direction it’s going, or for ‘baiting’ the fans in various ways, so as a screenwriter working in the industry (if not on SPN) I wanted to clear up a few misconceptions and notions about how a TV show episode gets written.

(Disclaimer: Please note that this is based on how an hour-long drama is usually made and can vary from show to show)

  1. The showrunner(s) plot out the arc of the season; they look at where the characters are at the beginning, figure out where they want them by the end. Then they figure out a nice way of getting from point a to point b, trying to figure out what the core developments of each episode are going to be. Some of these could be incredibly specific (“Character A’s motivations change when he finds out ____ about Character B”) or very vague (“Character A begins to lose faith in his mission”).
  2. When it comes time for an episode to be written, the writers take whatever input they’re getting for that episode and begin the process of outlining the episode. What they’re given can vary wildly - Sometimes it’s vague or specific (see above) OR it might even be based on what guest star they’ve managed to get for that episode (‘We’ve gotten Big Star for an episode; write an episode for them”) In a lot of cases, a big guest star episode will usually not be an integral part of the plot of the rest of the season (aka “A Filler Episode”) because big name stars’ schedules are incredibly difficult to coordinate and thus their episodes needs to be able to “float” (ie. Be able to air at any point in the season without breaking the story)
  3. The writers all begin outlining together, looking at whatever input they’ve gotten and set about plotting out the episode. They start by breaking the story into acts (5-6 for the average hour-long drama), and then figuring out how to get the characters from point a to point b in the funniest/most exciting/scariest way possible while still trying to keep the bigger developments of the season in mind too.
  4. Once the outline has been nailed down, it begins getting sent around the ‘above-the-line’ people; producers, executives, etc. These people all give their notes, comments, and ideas. Spoiler alert: These ideas are not always good. Especially once you reach the executive level of a studio, many of these people view the success or failure of a show based purely on the numbers of people watching. If Show A is not getting the numbers that Show B is getting, then they give notes and advice on how to make Show A more like Show B, in hopes of getting those numbers up, even if it might not match exactly what Show A is ‘all about.’ These executives aren’t usually writers but they’ve been around them long enough to know terms like “B-plot” or “Raising the stakes” and so their notes might be things like “Make this episode sexier by sticking a love story B-plot in there!”, “We should kill off a character to raise the stakes”, “I know [Actor]’s agent. We should write them a character in this episode.”, etc. etc.
  5. After everyone’s given their notes, it all comes back to the writers again for a round of revisions. Now they’ve got to tweak and change their outline to match the stack of (sometimes contradictory) notes that they’ve gotten from all their bosses. They’ll work on it, tweak it, try to stick to their guns on some things, but sometimes compromises might have to be made. If there’s something big that the writers really want to make work, like an idea for the ending of a season or getting a certain guest star in a later episode, they need to keep their execs and producers happy and sometimes the easiest way to do that is a little compromise. (Example: If Mr. Executiveson said “You guys should really kill a character to raise the stakes” and the writers thendo it, Mr. Executiveson can tell everyone “That was my idea” and it’ll make him happy and thus more likely to give in to the writers on an issue later.)
  6. The revised outline will go back out again, get more notes, some people will be happy, some people will be pissed, and a second round of notes will be delivered. This continues over and over again as the deadline for actually writing the episode gets closer and closer until everyone is at least satisfied with where the episode stands.
  7. It’s important to note here that this is happening for multiple episodes at the same time. So when a big change happens in one episode it needs to be changed in all corresponding episodes - with all the notes and changes swirling around it can be harder than you think. 
  8. FINALLY after an outline has been approved it gets handed over to the writer(s) who are actually writing the episode. This might be one of the writers who has been in the writer’s room this whole time OR it might be a guest writer just arriving on the scene. They sit down to actually write it, writing the actual dialogue, scenes, jokes etc. but almost all the plot decisions have already been made for them ahead of time in the aforementioned outlining process. That being said, if there’s something in the outline that this particular writer doesn’t like (eg. something that (s)he really fought against in the writer’s room) then (s)he might not give it as much work as it might need, or if there was something they really wanted in there (but got cut) they might try to subtly (or not-so-subtly) shoehorn it in anyway. That depends a lot on the ego of the writer, the politics of the writer’s room… in an ideal world it wouldn’t happen, but it totally does.
  9. After the episode gets written, there’s usually a round of revisions, the showrunners taking a look at it, the execs and producers given more notes before finally FINALLY it can be pronounced done and ready to shoot.

Epilogue: The director then shoots the episode and may end up ignoring stuff or adding his own stuff in anyways. The writers are sometimes on set to defend things but not always.

Another note: You’d think that if a show were successful or one of the biggest shows on the network then the execs would give them a little more breathing room right? Haha, nope. It’s usually exactly the opposite: The more successful a show is the more that everyone wants to be involved.

So! That’s a little background info on the process of TV writing - It’s a lot of politics, a lot of compromises to keep important people happy, and it’s why sometimes things can seem inconsistent or certain things can fall through the cracks.

What I’m trying to say with all this is that the problems you may be having with a show aren’t always the writers’ fault - They’re not out to upset fans or specifically trying to undo or invalidate your perceptions or “head canon”… They’re just trying to write a good show and navigate the crazy minefield that is TV show production.

I hope this helps and that you learned something. If you liked it, “Reblog” it or do whatever it is you crazy Tumblrites do. :P

Best,

-Eric (@stirpicus on Twitter)

Notes

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