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…
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
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.
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.