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WRITERS' ROOM 101: Producing Your TV Episode

TV writer Eric Haywood breaks down what writers do when producing an episode of television.

Eric Haywood has spent over a decade writing for network and premium cable television series including ABC’s Private Practice, Showtime’s Soul Food, NBC’s Hawaii, and the Fox drama Empire. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricHaywood.

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Once a television episode has been written (and rewritten…and rewritten…), soon it’ll be time to rally the troops and actually shoot it. When this happens, one of the show’s writers is dispatched from the writers’ room and sent to participate in the physical production of the episode, working in conjunction with the director, cast, and crew to ensure that the completed episode mirrors the script as closely as possible. If you happen to be the writer of said episode, you can typically – but not always – expect to be the one sent to perform this task. This is known as producing your episode.

WRITERS' ROOM 101: Producing Your TV Episode

I briefly touched on this process a while back in a previous post, but that one mainly dealt with the dangers of divulging too much information about future storylines to the show’s actors while working side-by-side with them. This time, we’re going to drill down a little deeper into what producing an episode is really all about.

The words “producer” and “producing” get thrown around a lot in television, and they can often mean any number of different things. Just like – as I mentioned in another previous post – the job title “executive story editor” doesn’t suddenly transform a mid-level writer into an “executive” by any stretch of the imagination, producing your episode doesn’t literally make you a producer. In other words, you’re not suddenly granted control over the episode’s budget, you can’t hire or fire people, nor will you be performing many of the other cool tasks that we normally associate with quote-unquote real producers. In this instance, “producing” is really just a term that’s used for convenience and ease of identification (as in, Writer A: “Which writer is being sent to produce this episode?” Writer B: “I am!”).

Your primary areas of concern, when producing an episode, are simply these: answering questions and making minor changes to the script. That’s the lion’s share of what you’ll be doing. The director, cast, and crew department heads will invariably have lots and lots of questions, and it helps to have someone from the writers’ room on hand who can answer them because only the writers know where the overall storylines are headed. You might think that the finished script is self-explanatory and contains all the information everyone needs to shoot the episode (and true enough, some people do feel this way), but no matter how clearly you think you conveyed your vision on the page, there are bound to be things that could benefit from a little extra explanation. A line of dialogue that’s clear as a bell to you might totally confuse an actor who interprets it differently. A scene might need to be relocated from one location to another, and someone’s got to make those changes so new pages can be printed up and distributed to the cast and crew. These are just a couple of instances where the writer is needed.

More often than not, the director of an episode will only work on the show for as long as it takes to shoot and edit that episode, then they’re off doing other projects. So if there’s a story arc that’s being played out over several episodes, and it requires a character to react or behave a certain way in this episode, that’s not something the director would necessarily know (again, you usually want to find ways of conveying this information without spilling too much to the actor in question). The showrunner and director will often have what’s called a tone meeting, where a lot of these issues are discussed and the director’s brought up to speed, but again, having a writer on hand during the actual shooting of the episode can save everyone lots of time and headache.

You might also take part in other meetings during the pre-production phase, including casting meetings and the table read, where (as the name implies) the cast gathers around a table and reads the script aloud as a group for the very first time. This allows the actors to ask questions and voice concerns, and tweaks can be made where necessary. Don’t be surprised if the showrunner opts to make these changes instead of you; they may be juggling feedback from lots of other sources (such as the network or studio) at the same time that you’re unaware of.

I’m going to say this again because it bears repeating: when producing an episode, you’re not in full command of the show. Not in any way, shape, or form. You’re there in an advisory capacity only, even if you’re the writer of the episode and think you know it inside-out. And many, if not most, of the decisions you’ll end up making will have to be run by the showrunner first for final approval.

If you’re a lower- or mid-level writer, or if you’re new to a show and it’s your first time producing an episode for that series, you may be required to “shadow” a more experienced writer-producer while they perform all of the above-mentioned duties. This allows you to watch and learn so that you’re prepared to produce an episode on your own the next time around.

Once production begins, your job is primarily to stay out of the way and let the cast and crew do their thing. Hopefully, the show is functioning as a well-oiled machine, and everyone will know what’s expected of them and proceed accordingly. Therefore, you shouldn’t have to make the same mistake I made many years ago while producing an episode I’d written: hovering over the director’s shoulder during filming and giving them detailed notes after every take (pro tip: they hate that). I did that because I thought it was my job, and as the episode’s writer, I felt an obligation to micro-manage and make sure that every little thing was done the way I’d envisioned it when I wrote it. But I learned the hard way that there’s an art to knowing when and how to offer input. Long story short: you should only speak up when a.) asked, or b.) absolutely necessary.

If your showrunner allows it, you may even be asked to give notes on early cuts of the episode during post-production. Here’s where you finally get to see everything come together, and once again, if some minor last-minute tweaks are needed (like coming up with some ADR lines or narration), you’ll end up being asked to write it.

Overall, producing episodes is one of the best ways to witness the words you write come to life. But you won't be there merely as a spectator -- you should view this for what it really is: a major part of your continuing education as you gradually move up the ladder and come closer to one day running your own show. If that’s your long-term career plan, nothing beats the on-the-job training process of producing episodes.

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