WRITERS’ ROOM 101: Wait Your Turn

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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One of my all-time favorite screenwriting books isn’t about screenwriting at all. It’s called The Art of Dramatic Writing, by Lajos Egri (available at fine booksellers everywhere), and it’s actually a brilliant how-to book about the craft of playwriting. Still, its guiding principles are so applicable to writing screenplays and teleplays that I find myself referring back to it again and again, year after year. If you’ve never read it, I’d strongly suggest picking up a copy; it’s well worth the cost for the first chapter alone.

Wait Here Sign

Anyway, at one point in the book, Egri discusses the qualities that a story’s protagonist (which he calls the “Pivotal Character”) needs in order to be compelling enough to carry a story forward. Chief among these qualities is patience, and he goes further to say that there are two kinds of patience: positive and negative. From the book:

“There is a kind of patience which is relentless, death defying. Then there is a negative patience which has no resilience, no inner strength to endure hardship.”

To illustrate his point, he goes on to list several examples of such characters, including Hamlet:

“Hamlet had no patience to endure (negative), but he did have patience to persevere (positive).”

Long story short (and I really am paraphrasing here; you’ll have to read the book in order to get the full context), Egri is saying that your main character must be impatient enough to take action right now (thus kicking your story into motion), but patient enough to endure all manner of obstacles, setbacks, and losses without ever giving up on achieving her goal.

Still with me? I hope so. Because this blog post isn’t really about the actual craft of writing; it’s about how you should be approaching your career as a television writer. So let me connect the dots between Egri’s book and you, a real person trying to make it in the real world.

I’ve previously written about how, as television writers, we all have to deal with the fact that the age-old expression “TV is a writers’ medium” stretches the truth a little bit. The reality is, TV is a head writer’s medium. Which means, when you’re on staff, no matter how gifted a writer you may be, everything you do is in service to the showrunner’s (and, in some cases, the network’s) vision of what the show is. That’s the deal. At the end of the day, you really must take it or leave it.

So what’s the connection between that sometimes-harsh reality and all the positive/negative patience stuff I started off talking about? Well, it’s actually pretty simple; all you have to do is think of yourself as the protagonist of your own career as a writer. And that means you must have both types of patience, just like Hamlet.

Whether you’re already on staff or still trying to break into the business, if you’re diligently cranking out pilots, spec scripts, features, short stories, or whatever…guess what? You already possess negative patience. Meaning, you’ve proven yourself motivated enough to get started learning and refining your craft. You didn’t just sit around, staring up at the sky, thinking, “Y’know, I sure would like to write someday…” You did something about it. And even if it hasn’t paid off yet in the form of a staff job, keep at it. Hopefully it will.

And now for the other kid of patience: the positive kind.

Like I said, “positive” patience refers to your ability to suffer setbacks, overcome obstacles, and survive losses without giving up on your ultimate goal – which, I’m assuming, is to one day become a showrunner yourself. And trust me: there will be plenty of obstacles and setbacks, even after you’re staffed. So, just like the protagonist of a movie or play, you’ll have to learn how to deal with them as you begin to move up (and sometimes down) the career ladder.

We’ve all heard stories about the lower- or mid-level writer who wrote an incredible spec pilot, sold it, and with very little actual experience, was suddenly thrust into the coveted position of running their own show. Or the veteran feature writer or playwright who, after selling a pitch or pilot of their own, never set foot inside a writers’ room until the first day they were in charge of a writing staff.

Hearing those stories can be a little frustrating; it’s like finding out someone bought their first lottery ticket and hit the multi-million-dollar jackpot. But let’s not dwell on those instances because, although they tend to get lots of media attention, they’re really far more the exception than the rule. For the vast majority writers, we can and should expect to put in several years (maybe even a decade or more, in some cases) working on various shows before becoming a showrunner.

And that’s okay. Because we’ve got patience.

The upside to taking the long road to finally getting to run your own show is that you’ll have gained a ton of experience in the meantime. You’ll be prepared. If Showrunner A runs her writers’ room one way, and Showrunner B runs her room another way, you get to learn from both and cherry-pick whatever methods work best for you once they day comes when you’re in charge. Until then, for better or worse, you just have to wait your turn.

I get that “wait your turn” might sound a little passive. But it’s really not. It’s that positive form of patience I keep talking about.

The process of creating television shows seems very collaborative. And it is, for the most part. But sometimes we romanticize what we do as writers. We pitch brilliant ideas in the room and then go off and hunch over our computers, writing a script and agonizing over every word until the draft is, in our minds, a freaking work of art. And nothing brings us back to reality faster than seeing one of our best pitch of the day die a quick, painful death in the room or watching our script get rewritten by the upper-level writer-producers while our input is sometimes unasked for and unneeded.

And that sucks. But every DOA pitch and rewritten script is an opportunity for you to learn from people who have (presumably) been doing this a lot longer than you have. And if you’re really paying attention, you’ll notice that even the most experienced writers in the room will have pitches that don’t make it into the episode, and they’ll often get their scripts rewritten, just like you.

So don’t take it personally. Instead, once you’re on staff, be grateful that you’ve been given the opportunity to learn first-hand how to run your own show. Obviously, the show you’re working on should always be your main focus – don’t just sit there in the room daydreaming about how you’ll run things differently someday – but be aware that if an episode suddenly veers off in a direction that you don’t agree with, it might be a blessing (or a lesson) in disguise. Take it and learn from it. Because right now, it’s the showrunner’s turn to be in charge and make those decisions.

One day it’ll be yours.

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