Contemplations on the Whiteboard

Recently I re-watched the fascinating documentary Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show which can be found on iTunes here.

It’s a good documentary for TV writers, especially, and TV lovers may also enjoy learning about what goes on behind the scenes.

As I watched, one of the things I couldn’t help notice was that in every writer’s room (where most of the Showrunners were interviewed), there were white boards. They were huge, and they lined the walls. They were covered in neatly scrawled outlines for episodes and for seasons. I would have loved to take a closer look.

The reason I’m so interested in white boards is that it might be the most useful tool I’ve learned so far in graduate school. When I studied at Writers Boot Camp, the curriculum was more movie than TV-oriented, and none of my teachers had a television background. When I started to write TV Pilots, I always ended up with too much content and too many pages. When I cut pages, my pilots would end up story-dense – in other words, too much story for the available page count. Learning to use a whiteboard has helped me to write lighter page-counts, and then I can add the content that will most enrich my characters, rather than having to cut, cut, cut.

Since my grad school program is Writing and Producing for Television, all my teachers have TV backgrounds. And that, I’ve learned, means using a white board. The first semester program included a six-hour class where my cohort wrote an original pilot together. While I could go on about the folly of having 13 strangers write a pilot together, for the purposes of this blog, I’m going to concentrate on the whiteboard.

We started by plotting out the season. We didn’t plot it out in detail, just the broad strokes, including major events at the mid-season mark and the season finale, and how to get from here to there. Once that was complete, we turned to the pilot episode. That’s where it got interesting.

The teacher divided the board into four sections (one for each act) and numbered from one to six in each of the four sections. We had a good idea of the A story line by then. We started with the broad strokes, again filling in the set-up event, the act-outs and the end, until we had two or three scenes per act fleshing out the story. Using different colors, we proceeded to fill in the other story lines. Soon, had the beginnings of an outline. From there, we wrote the actual outline on the computer, and then scenes, updating the board as we went along. Soon, we had a first draft. This process is known as “breaking story.”

Example of a Whiteboard with a pilot episode mapped out
Example Whiteboard

For me, using a whiteboard has revolutionized TV writing. In my own pilot-writing process, there are a lot more steps to go through before I plot anything out on the whiteboard, including making sure each story line stands on its own. Before consolidating my story lines into a script, however, the whiteboard helps me to make sure I’m ending the acts on the strongest moments, spreading out the story lines in a way that works for the story, the timeline, and the overall balance, so there’s not too much of any one story line back-to-back. Whenever I’m planning a rewrite, I can see at a glance where changes will be made and how to make room for new content.

While there are many facets to writing an original pilot that using a whiteboard won’t help with, such as characters, relationships, theme, symbolism, and plot development, this was the missing tool in my arsenal and I’m very happy to have it in my toolbox.

Here’s what I’ve been up to . . . what are you watching?

I guess I really do love TV
I guess I really do love TV

Masters of Sex

Ray Donovan

True Blood

Vicious

Covert Affairs

The 100 (in reruns!)

Suits

Graceland

Rush

Satisfaction – I gave up on this one

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D.

Last Tango in Halifax – I like it but its too heavy for me right now

Series on Netflix and Amazon:

The Killing

House of Cards

Queer as Folk (I could watch this a hundred times – to me, it’s the most romantic and emotionally satisfying show ever to grace the airways)

My So-Called Life

For Research Paper:

Crime dramas from the 1950s through the present: Partial list (on my DVR right now)

Starsky and Hutch

The Blacklist

The Lone Ranger

Mod Squad

CSI: NY

Hawaii Five-O

Knight Rider

Murder in the First

Monk

Walker, Texas Ranger

Matlock

Dragnet

Checking In

I haven’t been blogging as much as I’d like, because I’ve been so busy writing my scripts. Here’s a sneak peek into what I’ve been up to lately, and what I plan to write about in the near future.

  • How many drafts does it take to get to a final product?
  • Writing with a partner – joys and frustrations
  • Getting those applications off and what not to do
  • Nerdist.com
  • What script evaluations teach me

Success

It’s measured in moments. Tiny increments of achievement, over time add up to significant progress. Sometimes you notice them. Once in a while, someone else notices. Most often, they go unrecognized in the daily grind of life, when you struggle at the keyboard to finish a scene, to edit what you wrote yesterday, to elevate the content from the mundane and derivative to something fresh and captivating.

Suddenly, one day, you’ve arrived at a milestone. You didn’t see it or hear it coming, but you felt it gathering. Maybe you weren’t sure what it was, exactly, but you knew things were shifting, you were getting somewhere. In moments of doubt, you wondered if it was your imagination. There’s only one thing to do. Keep writing.

It’s been a few years now, and you are sending out an application, just like the rest of the world of aspiring screenwriters. That most coveted prize of the ABC/Disney Fellowship dangles before you. You know you’re a serious candidate, that you’d be an asset to the staff table, but hardly dare to hope that anyone else will recognize that. There are many gifted people out there. How do you stand out from the crowd?

So, you call on your most trusted teacher/advisor, and ask him to take another look at your spec script, even though he’s already evaluated it several times. And just to be sure, get a fresh pair of eyes to look it over, too. They tell you it’s good, although those words are not usually spoken in the context of the evaluation. Aside from a few suggestions of small edits, they have no notes for me. In fact, they both say they like it better than the show it’s based on. And in that moment you know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that you can really do it. You can achieve your dream and write for TV.

Now you are ready, and you dare to ask for the letters of recommendation you need to include with the application. It seems incredibly audacious, but you ask the friend in the writers’ room who’s too busy to eat if she’ll take a look at your script and write a recommendation. Since she knows how hard you work, and how much you want it, and also because she’s incredibly nice, she says she’ll be honored. You’ve already received another letter from your first teacher, an award-winning filmmaker. You really admire his work, and the praise in the letter is dazzling. He writes as though you are his equal.

You’re calm. Even though you’ve worked years for this recognition, you didn’t expect it. You know you’re ready to move on to the next level. There’s no mania, none of the adrenalin that accompanies forcing the way through things you just have to have. Your brain buzzes with hope and something else. That feeling that you’ve earned your seat and that it’s coming. Maybe you’ll win the fellowship and maybe you won’t, but you deserve it.

That moment is real success. And no achievement will ever feel better.

The Endless Maintenance of Life

Hi all,

When I first started blogging, it was really important to me, and I spent a lot of time making sure I wasn’t putting anything up there that would embarrass me later. In fact, there were times I spent so much time on it, that I stopped working on my screenplays for a while. Inevitably I remembered my priorities, stopped blogging and started screenwriting.

Well, that’s great, but I’ve come to the conclusion that a little balance would make a big difference. I am in the midst of a crunch, working with a writing partner to finish a script by the end of the month, I’m also doing script coverage and meeting with a monthly writers group, and not meeting deadlines on some online articles I promised.

The most positive thing about my screenwriting being at the center of my life, is that my mission and goals are always right before me, ensuring that most of my time is spent working towards them. How awesome is that? The only problem is that I am not just a screenwriter. I’m a wife and mother, a housekeeper (albeit a terrible one), a bill payer, a once-in-a-while administrator for my husbands business, a sister, friend and aunt. Not to mention, I’m a person with a body that needs care after hunching over a computer for six hours a day. Add in sleep, hygiene and meals, along with approximately three hours per day spent watching TV I’m not about to give up, an hour reading and studying, and time for my kids, and two hours for a trip to the gym, plus travel, and it’s no wonder I have no time to do the laundry, or energy to meet a friend.

So how do people find balance, without losing sight of what the real priorities are? If I’m honest, undone tasks get as much in the way of my personal fulfillment as not writing would. Maybe not as much, but close enough. I think the secret is to give a little bit of time to each area habitually, so things don’t smolder into fires that need putting out. 10 minutes of picking up 3 times per day keeps the house reasonably livable, and assuages my conscience enough to delegate some tasks to the kids. My reasoning goes, if I’m not doing it, how can I expect them to? Faulty perhaps, but there it is.

As far as the blogging goes, maybe I don’t have to be so careful. Maybe I’ll put my foot in my mouth and it will come back to haunt me. Maybe it’s not that important and it’s okay to just check in. I’m gonna give that a try.