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Writers' Room 101: Don't Get Married

So there’s this thing that happens to just about every TV writer at some point: we fall in love and get married.

If it hasn’t happened to you yet, trust me. It will. There’s no getting around it. In fact, especially early in your writing career, it’ll probably happen more than once.

But I’m here to warn you: don’t do it.

Don’t get married. It will only cause you lots of stress and heartache.

That probably sounds like terrible advice, and seems like it has nothing to do with television writing. But it does. Because I’m not talking about getting married to a person…I’m talking about getting married to an idea.

Wedding RIngs

When writers talk about being “married” to an idea, it means becoming so strongly attached to that idea that it becomes extremely difficult to alter our course of thinking if the idea has to be revised or cut. You’ll often hear your fellow writers say things like, “Are we married to that?” or, “I like that scene, but I’m not married to it.”

Obviously, it’s a bit of a clunky metaphor, but there’s something to be said for finding yourself so deeply connected to an idea, so fired up to make it a part of your script, that the attachment feels like an unbreakable bond. And you want this feeling. You pursue it, because who doesn’t love the idea of breaking stories and writing scripts that we’re passionate about? Sometimes we become so attached to a specific idea, or scene, or overall storyline that we find ourselves bursting at the seams with excitement, barely able to wait to crack open our screenwriting software and begin writing it. But this can be a risky road to go down, and I’m going to tell you why.

At some point, sometimes even before a single story idea has been pitched, you’ll be informed (either by the showrunner or head writer), which episode of the season will be assigned to you. And as pitches get bounced around the writers’ room and the scenes for your episode begin to take shape, you’ll hopefully respond very strongly to the vast majority of them, and there’ll be some ideas that you immediately see so clearly in your head that they cause you to burst with excitement that you’re the lucky writer who gets to put them onto the page. You’ll feel a sense of pride of ownership and personal responsibility for making that script as awesome as you possibly can. This is all perfectly natural.

You might latch onto a particular scene or a super-clever line of dialogue that you (or maybe one of the other writers on the staff) came up with. Or it could be an entire storyline for that episode (“I get to write the episode where the main character’s archenemy finally gets eaten by a shark! And then comes back to life! Awesome!”) Whatever it is, it’s managed to light your imagination on fire, and before you know it, you’ve spent days – possibly even weeks – crafting the perfect version of that scene/storyline/line of dialogue in your head. All you need is the go-ahead from the showrunner, and you’ll be off to the races to finally start the actual, physical writing process.

And then a funny thing happens: the idea goes away.

By “goes away,” I mean the story suddenly changes. Through no fault of your own, instructions come down the pipeline that your story needs to be adjusted. And that thing you were so looking forward to writing is now DOA.

This can happen for any number of reasons: the network or studio might’ve chimed in with some changes to the previous episode that automatically trigger changes to your episode. Or maybe the showrunner had an epiphany one night and came into the room the next morning and now wants a 180-degree reversal on some aspect of your story. Maybe another writer (or even you yourself) suddenly discovered a logic flaw in your story and mentioned it in the room. That sparked a round of discussions about how to fix the flaw, and at the end of the day, the agreed-upon solution requires removing Your Favorite Scene or Your Favorite Line from the story and replacing it with something else that’s a better fit.

It happens. All the time.

And this is why you shouldn’t get married. Not to an idea, not to a character, not to a line of dialogue.

Because when you're on staff, you’re a craftsperson. Not some free-spirited artist who only answers to your muse. If a change is required, you’re expected to execute that change with just as much enthusiasm and creativity as you had in mind for the original idea. You can never, under any circumstances, say to your bosses, “Well, I wrote the scene, and it’s pretty okay. But man, it could’ve been so much better if you’d have let me write it the other way!”

Nope. Don’t do that. It’s terribly unprofessional, and now you’ve exposed yourself as a writer who can only do your best when allowed to write what inspires you. And unfortunately, you won’t always be tasked with writing only the things that move your spirit (upside: that’s why they have to pay you!). What your showrunner wants is someone who can roll with the punches and make the new idea just as great as the old one. But how will you do that if you’ve invested all your emotional energy in an idea that’s no longer on the table?

Can you push back against these changes? Fight to keep the original idea in your story? Sometimes. But always proceed down this road with caution, and definitely keep in mind that until it's your show, someone else is ultimately calling the shots. Often, the change will clearly be a mandate, allowing you no "wiggle room" to offer much resistance at all. It'll be up to you to determine how much freedom you have to fight for the original idea; in many cases, there won't be any at all.

If there isn't? Suck it up. Be a pro. Do your job.

These sudden changes can happen at any point in the process: while you’re breaking the stories, when you’re writing your outline, even after you’ve turned in your first draft. But no matter when it happens, be prepared to let go of whatever you were in so in love with, dig deep, and find something about the new idea that you can love just as much. And then write the hell out of it. Accept it as a creative challenge, a test of your abilities as a writer. Because being able to change course at a moment’s notice and still deliver is a critical part of your skill set.

It always will be.

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