writing episodic TV is like writing Haiku

Two weeks into my new job as a story editor on the TV show The Bridge (premiering July 9th on 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.

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 April 20th.

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

Looks good so far.

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Comment by Dana King on March 9, 2009 at 10:33pm
That sounds like a premise with a lot of potential, John. Hill Street Blues, an all-time favorite of mine, was somewhat like how you described your arc. Some stories had to get completed every week, including the main story, but others could wend their way throuhg episodes for weeks at a time. The Sopranos was like that in some ways, too.

It's nice that every episode doesn't have to be wholly self-contained. Provides the writers with a lot of flexibility. I also think it more fully engages the audience, which is always a good thing.

Thursdays at 10:00, huh? Great time slot, with CSI as the lead-in. CBS must have a lot of confidence.
Comment by Benjamin Sobieck on March 9, 2009 at 1:45pm
I tried to come up with a clever limerick for you, John, but I blew the part of my brain that does poetry on my boss at work (really). Here's my lame attempt:

There once was a writer named John
A TV show he was signed on
Peers scoffed, "It's haiku"
So he said, "F-you
"My deadlines are tight like a thong."
Comment by John McFetridge on March 9, 2009 at 11:34am
Ha, I like the poetry, Dana, thanks.

The arc is a good question. Yes, there is something of a season arc to the 13 episodes, but there also needs to be a complete story in each episode.

In the pilot movie (which will be shown as the first two episodes) we see a lot of problems on the police force - understaffed, overworked, low moral, lack of support from the brass who are politically motivated at all times, Internal Affairs who treat every officer as guilty till proven innocent (and even then with great suspicion), and so on. Our hero, Frank, takes over as head of the union with the intention of making the city a safer place by making the police system better.

We use the expression, "solve and resolve." The crime of the week will be solved, and some problem within the force will be resolved. Although we hope it won't all be tied up in a nice bow each week and there may not always be a solve and a resolve.

It's quite an interesring process and I'm really lucky to part of it. I can say that certainly everyone involved from the network on down wants to make a difficult, challenging show. We talk about story resolutions that will leave people on both sides of the argument as a good thing.

So I'm hoping it becomes a really good show.
Comment by Dana King on March 9, 2009 at 11:08am
Writing in a group
The tight deadlines a challenge
The Bridge, July 9.

Or,

There once was a man in Toronto,
And a TV show staff he got onto,
The deadlines were met
With patience and sweat,
Which is good, 'cause the filming starts pronto.

(Okay, so it's not dirty. I had a tight deadline.)

It sounds like the show will have a story arc over the course of the season. Is this correct, or am Ireading too much into your description?
Comment by I. J. Parker on March 9, 2009 at 12:26am
The bell-shaped curve is an abomination. Grades should never be adjusted to fit some idiotic paradigm based on statistics. The make-up of a class never fits the ideal situation, and assignments and tests can be made harder or easier. All of this, plus the weather and unknown factors, can skew results.
Comment by Sue Dawson on March 8, 2009 at 2:57pm
Lordy, I used to do a small unit in Haiku when I was teaching high school. It was fun for the kids. The bright ones enjoyed the experience, and the students that were "just average" could compete on a level playing field. Personally, I hated to have to give grades. I always told my students that if they worked really hard, they would never get failing grades. There was always a skewed bell-shaped curve in my class of over-achievers--lots of A's and B's and not many C's. I was somewhat of a hard taskmaster. A few of my students became teachers, I know, but their career choices probably didn't have anything to do with my teaching. One of the finest high schoolteachers that I ever knew was a football coach and a great English teacher (unusual combination). The boys always worked hard in his English classes because they respected him.
Comment by I. J. Parker on March 8, 2009 at 4:30am
Interesting way to work. Multiple input is great for plotting, but the deadlines mean that you cannot make changes later. I'm like you: I write myself into a plot and make changes all the way through.
Comment by Grant McKenzie on March 8, 2009 at 4:01am
Very, very, cool, John. I'm envious of the experience. When my thriller screenplay won a fellowship at Praxis, I definitely enjoyed the camaraderie of working/sharing with other writers, etc., although because this was an original work, I found the sheer number of people who wanted to jump in with their WTF ideas rather off putting. I think I would have enjoyed what you're doing more. In that, because it's not your own original material and is already set up as a group effort, you're not so attached and can focus on the writing of the scenes you're assigned. Great stuff.

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