TV Writing Master Class from HELIX Showrunner

Well, not really a class. More like a series of tweets. But great tweets. Terrific tweets. Helpful as hell tweets.

You’ll see:

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by Kate O’Hare

Last week, TV writer and showrunner (and graphic-novel and comic-book writer) Javi Grillo-Marxuach, currently of Syfy’s “Helix,” posted a string of tweets that every aspiring TV writer should read and take to heart.

Edited for punctuation and clarity, here they are:

A staff writer’s first script is literally a spec for the show they’re on (it’s counted against pay), so they’d better know how to write one. Pilots, short stories, plays, are nice ways to get TV writing jobs, but you KEEP the job by successfully mimicking your showrunners’ style. That most agents/managers don’t encourage beginning writers to write specs feels short-sighted. Write a spec, even if just for practice.

Showrunners who say they want only “distinctive” voices are amateurs/posers. By ep. 13, all a showrunner wants is to not have to rewrite. It’s cruel: entry level TV writers are told they get jobs for being “a very special snowflake” when the real work is mimicry and pastiche.

Agents want original pilots because they can sell if you don’t staff. Write one, but better be ready to play in someone else’s sandbox. But know that you need to know how to write a show you didn’t create, in another writer’s style. Write the specs for your own education. Even if your agent won’t read your spec or go out with it, write it! Showrunners want people who UNDERSTAND their job… and the job is this: write ideas your showrunner didn’t have but liked, and write them in the way the showrunner would have if s/he had!

There is nothing more insulting to a staff than an entry level writer who thinks they are only slumming in television so they can “fix” it. Finally: being a staff writer is about surrendering your ego, knowing it is NEVER about you, good or bad. Make peace with that early, often. The two worst personalities in the room, the “Dr. No” (I don’t like that) who hates it but doesn’t have a pitch on how to fix it, ever.

As a staff writer, you may think you understand what’s gone horribly wrong and want to lead the charge to fix it for the sake of the show. Resist that urge at all costs. Your job – and that of most staff positions – is sometimes to produce “proof of lack of concept.” Sometimes you have to give a showrunner’s bad idea the best college try in good faith. It’s not bullets; it’s dry erase ink. Acting like it’s beneath you to take an idea out for a test drive pisses off your boss and is the fast road to being labeled “difficult.” If the room decides an idea doesn’t work, let the co-ep break the news, they get paid very well to take that hit: they are your flak jacket.

Your job on a TV staff is to express your showrunner’s vision, not to insist on your own. Your showrunner’s job is to articulate what Maya Lin called “a strong clear vision” that the staff can follow… but here’s the bummer. Even if a showrunner can’t articulate a clear vision, it’s still your job to find out what you can about it and try to do express it. That’s the Sisyphean task of a TV writer who is not a showrunner: it’s their show for better or worse, there’s no work around for that.

And finally, if you don’t like what your showrunner does, DON’T VISIT IT ON YOUR STAFF WHEN YOU BECOME A SHOWRUNNER. The bad ones teach you more than that good ones sometimes. Our business is legendary for enabling abusers, that’s not a blank check for you to “get yours.” When you get to the top. If you were abused or experienced shitty management on the way up, but don’t stop the cycle, you are every bit as bad as they were to you. Staffs work in harmony when everyone knows their part clearly and plays it to the best of their ability.

In short: whether you’re at the bottom or the top, don’t be a dick.