Tales from the Writers’ Room

An actual whiteboard from an actual TV series.
Actual whiteboard from FARSCAPE “Season of Death”

Picture, if you will, perky young Mary Sue, an aspiring TV writer who’s celebrating her first sale. But her enthusiasm will soon be tested, for she has no idea what terrors await in… The Writers’ Room.

Mary Sue had pitched a dozen ideas to veteran genre-TV producer Sam Showrunner for his new series Space Slayers, in which a ragtag team of teenage misfits travels the galaxy and battles alien mutants. Her successful pitch: “Griff and Angela [the series leads] must mind-link with K’Vax [their sentient, female, wisecracking spaceship] after a radioactive nebula erases K’Vax’s memories.”

There was more to her pitch – such as the mind-link forcing the aloof Griff and Angela to confront their true feelings about one another – but Mary Sue never got that far; Sam had interrupted. “Good hook, but amnesia’s soft. Needs more jeopardy. Hey! What if the nebula turns K’Vax evil? And she tries to kill everybody on board! So it’s dangerous for Griff and Angela to go into her mind; they might never come out. Terrific pitch! Sold!”

Mary Sue was ecstatic. “Great! I’ll write up an outline –”

“We don’t do outlines. We – me and the writing staff – break all our stories in the room. Once we get the structure down, you go off and write the script. Come in Tuesday at nine. Bring in a beat sheet. Not an outline, just the big moves. Some rough act breaks. Keep it simple. One page, tops, just to get things started.”

And so it begins…

9:00 am Tuesday. A punctual Mary Sue happily looks around her first Writers’ Room. Cheap, mismatched “executive” chairs surround a coffee-stained table strewn with old magazines, food wrappers, a Slinky, a broken water pistol, various Rubik’s-type puzzles, and other toys. The walls are a crazy quilt of actors’ headshots, set blueprints, costume design sketches, test photos of alien prosthetics… and three large whiteboards.

Two are covered with multicolored scrawls, circles, arrows, renumbering, and crossouts – the story beats for Episodes 5 and 6, in impenetrable shorthand: “5. BRIDGE: G + A expo. K ng 10 min no Froonium. H/L payoff? AB: J zapped.” The third is frighteningly blank – a naked canvas awaiting a plot. It continues to await until:

9:40 am. Two writer/producers saunter in: Madman Moe, a cheerful, inexhaustible fount of wild ideas, and Cyndi Cynic, a jaded naysayer who’s great at untangling plot logic. They get coffee and make phone calls until:

10:15 am. Sam Showrunner dashes in. “Sorry. Problem on the set.” To Sam’s surprise, Mary Sue proudly hands him a fifteen-page outline. “Wow. Lot of work here. Good for you.” He glances at the first page, tosses it aside forever, and hands her a marker. “It’s your story; you do the honors. Ready? Teaser’s easy. Fly through nebula, ship sparks, life support screws up. Act One –”

Sam stops. Mary Sue’s still neatly printing “TEASER” on the whiteboard. “Just put a ‘T’,” Cyndi suggests. “Then put ‘Nebula, sparks, life support NG.”

“Act One, Beat One,” Sam continues. “Ramon runs diagnostics. Technobabble. Thinks he’s found the problem. Fixes it. All seems okay. Beat Two. Spooky stuff begins. Suspense. Scary noises. Like a horror movie. So… hmm… Maybe Trixie’s below decks. Alone. What’s she doing?”

“Taking a shower,” Moe offers. “With Angela. And suddenly the lights flicker and the water turns cold.”

“That’s good.” Sam turns to an aghast Mary Sue. “Put that up. T and A, shower, lights.”

“Can’t do that,” says Cyndi, to Mary Sue’s relief. “I’ve got Trixie showering with Ramon in ep 5.”

Moe’s unfazed. “So make it the sauna.”

“What sauna?”

Sam likes it. “The Cargo Bay, redressed and smoked up. That sauna.”

Cyndi considers. “We could do different color smoke because K’Vax is pumping in poisonous coolant gas or something.”

Sam’s enthused. “Great. We’re rolling now. We’ll be done by six, easy.”

6:45 pm. Act One has seven beats on the board, Act Two has five, Three and Four are still blank, and nobody likes any of it. “It’s flat,” says Sam. “Bland and boring.”

“Excuse me,” quavers Mary Sue. “But I, um… have a thought…”

“Jump right in,” says Sam. “It’s your story.”

“Well… maybe Beat Two should be a character scene with Griff and Angela… because we need to set up their unexpressed feelings for each other…”

All stare at her. “We do? Why?”

“Um… because later, when they mind-link with K’Vax, they confront their feelings and realize –”

“In episode seven?” Sam’s incredulous. “Not a chance. Besides, this story’s already way too soft. We need conflict. Drama is conflict.”

Mary Sue’s getting crabby. “Well, what I pitched had lots of conflict. Internal conflict.”

“This is TV, not some romance novel. I want external conflict. Action. Danger.”

Mary Sue snaps. “Well, if K’Vax turning evil isn’t enough danger, why don’t we just throw in some nasty aliens with guns?”

Silence.

“She’s nailed it,” says Cyndi. “Problem is, we’re missing a villain.”

Moe concurs. “Evil K’Vax is great, but our heroes have to cure her, not kill her, which means they don’t get to defeat a bad guy.”

Sam nods. “But if a Gavork spy sneaks on board and brainwashes K’Vax, now we’ve got two problems – and somebody to fight in Act Four.” He slaps the table. “That’s it. Solved. Okay, everybody go home and think about it and we’ll finish this tomorrow. Nine o’clock sharp.”

It’ll take four more days of this to break Mary Sue’s story. Ultimately, Ramon, not Angela, will join Trixie in the sauna, to follow up on their shower scene in ep 5. Oh, and the mind-link with K’Vax will indeed force Griff and Angela to confront their feelings for each other – but once the mind-link’s over, they’ll forget it ever happened.

Mary Sue will grudgingly concede it’s a cleaner, punchier story than the meandering fifteen pages she came up with on her own.

And then she’ll have two short weeks to turn it into a script that makes it all work… but that’s another tale.

Comments 46

  • I’m going to go out on a limb and say the whiteboard is from Farscape. But I have no clue what episode. If the picture was bigger and I could read it I’d get it for sure. So I’ll hazard a guess and say… Season 2, Crackers Don’t Matter. Either that or Season 1 Jeremiah Crichton, the best episode of Farscape EVER.

    Oh and I can’t wait for the continuing adventures of Mary Sue and the Writer’s Room.

  • Okay, I can confirm it is Farscape. The characters listed give that one away. As to which episode, I would love for it to be Crackers don’t mater, but I don’t thin k that is it. If I am reading the abbreviations correctly, the the recap starts with Scorpius joining Braca and Grayza.

    I am going to say Into the Lions Den part II: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.

    I would be able to say better with a larger image of the white board.

    Looking forward to seeing you next weekend.

    -Adam

    • Another swing and another miss. (And you’re gonna kick yourself when the correct answer is eventually revealed. If it’s eventually revealed.)

      Off to Not!Burbank…

  • Gosh, the resolution on that picture is too low for me to be able to read anything on that board. I can make out the characters’ names in the upper right hand corner, which means it’s for an episode of Farscape. But that’s all I’m able to read.

    • “You say you want more resolution
      Well, you know,
      We all want to win the prize.
      You need to find the right solution
      Well, you know,
      You need to sharpen up your eyes…”

      — FrooniumLennon

  • I’m a sucker for a puzzle.

    Based on the character names, it’s not only Farscape, but happens within a specific time frame because it looks like Jothee, Stark, and Zhaan are all in it (and Talyn and the Scorpy clone are definitely in it).

    In the bottom right hand corner, there’s a comment about someone “Dying?!” in the tag of the episode.

    I’m inclined to say it’s end of s2/beginning of s3. If I had to pick something, I’d probably go with DMD, but hell if I can remember how that episode starts.

  • I’ve got it. Season 3 premiere… Season of Death. I wanted to say Die, Me, Dichotomy but the parts I can read suggest its the next episode. So, Season of Death. Final answer. Now what did I win?

    • Oh, sure, on your third guess. My bad for not making a “one-guess-to-a-customer” rule, but… okay, you get a PRIZE! Which is, um, lessee here… how about a GENUINE RARE MAMBO LOUD SHIRT tag? That, and a Signed! Copy of a Season of Death script. Take your pick. Are you going to the (Formerly Burbank) Farscape Con next weekend?

      • Yes sir, I shall be at the convention next weekend. How could I pass up the opportunity to break in a whole new hotel staff Scaper style? I trust I’ll see you there?

  • i believe it is the season of death. because it says crichtons surgery and talyns fight at the end. trying to kill scorpious. if im not right i swear lol..i just looked at this picture in like 40 different ways trying to get some info out of it.

    • WE HAVE A(nother) WINNER! (I should’ve disqualified Mysterious Stranger for multiple guesses, or for being a Froonium impersonator, but what the hey.) Yes, indeed, you got it, and for the right reasons, so choose your prize (same as above, and I’ll also throw in some more miscellaneous Farscape crud if I can access the Sekrit Archives)… I see you’re on Twitter, so send me a private tweet there with a name & mailing address, and Thanks For Playing!

  • Yup, I’d say SoD too…Jothee was only in 7 eps, and the only two heavily featuring a surgery, Tocot, and Grunch’lk are DMD and SoD…

    • Right you are, but a tad too late for a prize. You have, however, my undying admiration.

      • [flattery]Ooh, wow. That’s worth more to me than any physical prize![/flattery]
        Hey, if there’s a third prize though, I’ll happily accept it. Just fyi, not griping, but when I sent in my guess, Courtney’s hadn’t appeard yet on my screen… :-p

        • …well, yes, but Mysterious Stranger’s had, elsewise why did you say “SoD too“? 😉

          • *shrug* Well yeah, his had when I refreshed, but hers appeared a lot later. My answer got stuck in cyberspace! 😉
            Nevermind, it was fun trying to decipher the scribbling- you should do this more often! 🙂

  • man i seriously didnt see that mysterious stranger had said that already. ughhh all that work for nothing.

    • Not for nothing. I believe you. Farscape fans are utterly trustworthy (well, except the Brits and the French, of course. And the Kiwis. And the Western Australians. Other than that…)

      • I typed my reply, went to have a beer, then came back and hit submit. Don’t ask me why I didn’t hit submit first, but that beer issue really needed to be addressed.

        • So evidently D’Argo was wrong, and there is not always time for beer!

          • The problem was the beer had friends and they all ganged up on me. Since I’m a winner (clearly I’m the only person here that’s taking care of the beer surplus problem), can I ask for a prize?

            I’d like hear the *prequel* to the Writers’ Room tale. Can you read us the story about how Little Mary Sue met and impressed big scary Sam Showrunner and was able to pitch 12 (eeep! is that normal?) story ideas?

            For the next contest, I’ll keep an eye on things better, refresh my screen, floss, etc.

            • Well, you can ask… (But hold not thy breath…)

              Yeah, sometime (notice I don’t say “sometime soon“) I’ll have to relate the prequels in the Mary Sue saga… how she wrote several spec scripts on her own for all sorts of series, got good enough to land an agent with ’em and catch the eye of someone on Space Slayers who then said “sure, we’re looking for new talent, let her come in and pitch,” etc.

              She came in with a dozen ideas — some fleshed out in detail, some just “arenas” (story hooks) — and didn’t actually pitch all 12. The first two got shot down quickly because Sam and the staff already had something(s) similar in the works (happens all the time); the third just didn’t turn Sam on (“A time travel paradox? I hate time travel paradoxes!”), but the fourth hit the jackpot. (And even though the first three didn’t sell, they were developed well enough so that Sam & Co. could see that Mary Sue truly knew the series, so they were already favorably inclined to hire Mary Sue by the time she got to a pitch Sam liked.

              • That’s a happy story, thanks! Lee Newbee is following in Mary Sue’s footsteps, writing award-winning spec scripts and looking for a chance to get his foot in the door.

                My new writing goal: 10 spec scrips in 2010!

  • Clearly it’s Farscape, not so clearly it’s the first episode of Season 3? I’m just guessing based on the last line, looks like the tag is Zhaan dying? Seems that happened when she saved Aeryn.

  • OHHHHH I WOULD LOVE THE SCRIPT!!!!!

  • i seriously just died that i got this right!!!!! i stared at that picture ever since you sent that tweet about no one getting it yet. i wrote down everything i could think of that i could read. and since my farscape was deleted when my computer crashed i had some friends help remind me when ppl died. and then i looked up episode guides. i seriously went crazy over this lol. i tried to explain it to my mom and she said you might as well be speaking japanese to me cause i dont know what your talking about xDD

  • YES anything else farscape you want to send my way DOOOO IT!!! cause of school i cant go to the frelling farscape con. i wish i could but i have friends on twitter going and they are going to keep me updated the whole entire time. 😀 im so happy!!!

  • I’ve been staring at that white board for far too long…..is it Farscape S2- Liars, Guns and Money, Part 3: “Plan B”?

  • Ugh….clearly I should have bothered to hit “refresh” before typing. *face palm*

    • No worries. Next time I throw a contest, I’ll actually think it through first. Maybe moderate all comments so nobody sees anyone else’s responses so everybody can play, and then I’ll pick the prizewinner either by first correct post, or by random drawing from all correct posts, or by utterly arbitrary whim…

      • Ooh, and mention it on twitter sooner! I only knew about it when you mentioned it on your twitterfeed. 🙂

  • thank you for still letting me be a winner. because i didnt refresh my page so i didnt see what he had said before until i refreshed my page to see if i had posted it correctly. thanks for the contest 😀

  • Heyyyy…why is it now from ‘Mind the Baby’? It was Season of Death! That’s wrong! :-p

  • I REALLY need to check your site more often. But I’m only 11 days late.

  • Sorry you weren’t at the con more, you got pretty swamped on Sunday by longtime fans and cast members from what I saw. Oh, and the wife told me you tried to make off with my daughter in a Mombo bag … Bad Ricky … 😛

    -Adam

  • Not have any big idea write now.

  • Well, this has just put me off going near any kind of writers room for a few years!

    Fantastic insight into how it all works though 🙂

    RitziCx

    ps, (apols for the cliche but I’m going to say it anyway) Frickin love your work Ricky x

    • Oh, come on in. The writers room is a Friendly place. Really. Honest. Mary Sue is almost completely healed. In fact, she’s now running a writers room of her own (and constantly beating up her staff about Not Having Enough Conflict). (sings) Cir-cle of liiiiife…

      Thanks for the comment and the cliche!

C'mon, say something, you know you want to

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