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.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been obsessively binge-listening to the soundtrack from the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. To call both the play and the album an extraordinary artistic achievement would be a colossal understatement, but that’s a discussion for another time. For our purposes as television writers, I reference Hamilton in order to highlight a scene early in the story, in which the eponymous protagonist, Alexander Hamilton, introduces himself to the man who will later become his friend, then nemesis, then murderer: future U.S. Vice-President Aaron Burr. When they first meet, both men are young and have bright futures ahead of them, but Hamilton is as energetic and chatty as Burr is cautious and cagey.
And so, in response to Hamilton’s tendency to blurt out every word that pops into his head, Burr volunteers some “free advice” on how to succeed in life:
Talk less, smile more
Don’t let them know
What you’re against
Or what you’re for
And thus, a sharp contrast between the two characters is immediately drawn. They are cast as polar opposites, determined to achieve greatness through drastically different means.
Okay. So. What’s all that got to do with writing for television? It’s simple: there is great value in Burr’s advice for those of us trying to navigate the (sometimes) politically risky environment of the writers’ room. Long story short – and this holds especially true for the early years of your career – sometimes it’s far better to listen and learn than to be the most vocal member of a writing staff…even if your ideas are good.
If that sounds counterintuitive, well, that’s because it is. As I mentioned several blog posts ago, the show you’re working on is the showrunner’s, not yours. No matter how collaborative an environment they’ve managed to create for their writers, the show reflects their vision and always will. Therefore, for all practical purposes, the showrunner is always right…even when they’re wrong.
Here’s one thing I didn’t mention in that previous post: the show you’re working on is not only the showrunner’s, it also belongs to the network and the studio, each of which has an obvious vested interest in keeping the show on the air and, like the showrunner’s, their word will overrule yours every time. Even when they’re wrong.
To be fair, terms like “right” vs. “wrong” and “good” vs. “bad” are completely subjective, so take my usage of them here with a grain of salt. The larger point is, you can expect decisions to be handed down to the writing staff that have been made far above your pay grade, and you won’t always be granted the benefit of having the showrunner’s/network’s/studio’s logic explained to you. From time to time, they can (and will) insist on a certain scene, or storyline, or guest star for reasons that might seem totally illogical and even counterproductive to you. Conversely, they might shoot down a particular story idea or cut a scene that you’re convinced is essential to making an episode work. And for those of us whose only concern is telling what we feel is the best story possible, this can get a little frustrating.
So what do you do? Again, it mostly depends upon the atmosphere your showrunner has created. More often than not, the writing staff is encouraged to voice any concerns or questions about these decisions. In those cases, you can certainly feel free to speak up. Other times, it’ll be made clear that a given decision is not subject to debate, and the staff is tasked with accepting it and figuring out how to turn those lemons into lemonade. But even when feedback is welcomed, you have to remember that it must be done with caution and, obviously, a healthy dose of tact. State your concern or question, ALWAYS make sure you have a good idea ready to pitch as a possible alternative, but if the final decision doesn’t go your way, let it go. You’re not there to keep reminding the showrunner “Man, I really wish we’d gone with that other idea instead” like some sort of disgruntled backseat driver.
In other words, when you find things aren’t going your way, consider taking Aaron Burr’s advice:
Talk less. Smile more.
I’m certainly not suggesting that you transform yourself into a massive suck-up in order to curry favor with the boss. I’m simply saying that winning some battles and losing others is inevitable. The trick is to not alienate your co-workers (especially your boss) when every creative impulse in your body is telling you to take a principled stand and keep fighting the good fight even after it’s clear that a final decision has been made. The bottom-line: no matter how friendly your showrunner is, you simply don’t get to tell them what’s what. It’s better to say nothing than to risk shooting your mouth off because you’re overly-passionate about story and character and all those other things writers are supposed to care about.
So when you find yourself in such a situation – and you will – your goal should be figuring out how to make the best of it. The fact of the matter is, you’re simply not going to agree with every single idea for your show that comes rolling down the pipeline. You won’t laugh at every joke or marvel at every line of dialogue. But there’s no reason why everyone else in the room has to know that. You don’t have to lie and say you love it, but you’re also not required to inform everyone that you hate it. Sometimes all you can do is take a deep breath, commit to the idea, and roll with the punches.
Over time, you’ll become practiced in the art of knowing when it’s appropriate to speak up and when you should bite your tongue. In the meantime?
Talk less. Smile more.