Who Needs a Writing Staff?

THE WALKING DEAD showrunner Frank Darabont stirred up a lot of talk among TV writers today by firing his writing staff and announcing that he would rely on himself and just a couple of freelancers to write the second season's 13 episodes.

This is not a new idea. In fact, many drama series from the 1950s and into the early 70s relied on a headwriter/freelancer model…at most, there was a head-writer and a story editor. Everything else was freelance. Shows like GUNSMOKE, STAR TREK, CANNON, VEGA$, etc. ran on this model. In those days, journeyman writers like Stephen Kandel, Robert Dennis, Mark Rodgers, Frank Telford and Shimon Wincelberg, to name a few, could make a good living writing two or three episodes for five or six different series each season.

Then again, in those days, the "head writer" concentrated mostly on writing while someone else handled most of the actual producing functions that the "showrunner" does today.

And while most series today rely on writing staffs (though the size of those staffs is shrinking), there have been a few shows that have primarily been written by one writer… Linda Bloodworth's DESIGNING WOMEN, Aaron Sorkin's era of THE WEST WING and Joe Straczynski's BABYLON 5, are a few prominent examples.

 TV writer Kay Reindl does a great job putting the Darabont decision into perspective, and discussing what writing staffs bring to a series,  over on her blog today. She says, in part:

It still astonishes me that people do not understand that the writing of the script comes at the END of the writing process. Just because you are not typing "Fade In," that doesn't mean you are not writing. Writing is preparation. Writing is construction. Destruction. Composition. It's editing. Storytelling visually, emotionally, humorously, logically. Critical thinking. Letting go of great ideas in service of the story. Character arcs, planned over an episode and a season and the life of the show. It's inspiration, the testing of that inspiration, the honing and fine-tuning of that inspiration. It's collaboration, for the love of God. It's a group of experienced brains tackling a blank white board and breaking a fucking story in two days.

[…]you will need to collaborate with your fellow writers. You will be facing that empty white board at least 13 times, and as you face each new episode, you will have previous episodes with story and character development to consider. You will have upcoming episodes as well, especially if your show is serialized. You will have budgets to consider in your story breaks. Actors. Production. Crew. Studio and network executives. You will have to become a serial killer of your story children and let your great ideas go. And all of THAT is before you even get to the script.

[…]A good showrunner depends on his (or rarely her) writing staff. These people have the showrunner's back, and he has theirs. [..]I don't know why Darabont decided this (if he has), or why his experience with his staff was apparently so wretched that he doesn't want anyone around anymore. Sometimes, showrunners are just lousy communicators and aren't able to impart what they want to the writing staff. And sometimes it's just not a good fit. But again, it's up to the showrunner to use his experience and if someone doesn't actually HAVE experience, then THIS happens.

By "this," she means firing your writing staff and deciding to go it alone… with an occasional assist from freelancers. My instinct is that she's probably right. It could also be that he hired the wrong writers, that he didn't know how to staff a room. There could be any number of explanations.

He may not understand that it's part of a showrunner's job to take a final pass at each script — and he may be deluding himself into believing its the equivalent of writing every script himself, so why not cut out the extra step. If that's the case, he's in for a rude awakening.

I tend to think that shows with writing staffs are better written than those where the showrunner tries to go it alone (I'm talking about series with more than five or six episodes). The stories are more consistent, there's less repetition and cliche, and there's more energy to the story-telling.

It's all about limited resources. A man can only do so much… and do it well…and deliver a new episode every seven or eight days. There's simply too much for a showrunner to do beyond writing the script. It's a taxing job, and something has to give.

If you're trying to run a show, and write every single word, the scripts are bound to suffer. Come to think of it, everything is bound to suffer.

It will be interesting to see how long Darabont sticks to his plan once production begins and he finds himself falling behind…

10 thoughts on “Who Needs a Writing Staff?”

  1. Hmmm. I don’t know. I’m British and we’ve been using the freelancer model for a good long time and it doesn’t seem to have worked out too badly. Generally because the Producer/Director has a vested interest in the show or because they have access to better writers, who knows. I’m pretty sure Darabont has a lot of interest in this show, it certainly comes through to the screen, but will he keep that interest up? Once again…who knows?
    Nice site, now bookmarked.

  2. Alistair,
    There’s are many big differences between British TV and the U.S. model on just about every level. For one thing, a typical production order in the UK is six episodes. The typical order here is 13 to 22. In addition, our production schedules are much tighter than the UK’s. The big broadcast networks order their series in May, expect them to be shooting in July, and start airing episodes in September. But in the UK, a studio can get an order for six episodes and spend a year or longer making them…plenty of time for one writer to bang out all the scripts. A writing staff is all but necessary here in order to meet the production demands of most series.

  3. And I’ll remind you that you and I have actually had the no-staff experience as showrunners — and it nearly killed us. We took over She-Wolf of London (which was already running on that basis with a non-writer in charge) and had to write or rewrite every script. Granted, part of that was because there had been a bunch of scripts assigned before we got there and of course they were written not to our tastes but to those of the previous EP. But even the scripts we commissioned ended up getting largely rewritten.
    All this was nearly impossible when the production was in England and most of the day-to-day decisions were, for better or worse, out of our hands. Once the show was moved back here and we were responsible for everything, I don’t think we slept more than two hours a night…

  4. It seems to me that there must be more to the story, because why would a knowledgeable and experienced writer set himself the seemingly gruelling task of writing 13 eps in a relatively short period of time, when he or she could still try to do it, but maintain a back-up of staff writers in case something went wrong?
    The writer would, I guess, have to have some other kind of backup, such as, say, 13 really good story outlines, and maybe ten detailed outlines, and maybe four scripts already written, and praised by the actors, and approved by the studio and net.
    If the showrunner has this kind of backup, and a lot of confidence, and just wants to stretch his or her horizons, the move might make sense. To go into it without any backup — staff writers or outlines — just doesn’t make sense. How many times does a person get to be a showrunner? Why commit career-suicide when the room could be ready and available to help carry the load?

  5. Has Walking been following the comic pretty closely? Maybe the guy in charge figured character arcs and stories were already there and just need to put put into script?

  6. There’s always the off-chance that Frank Darabont knows what the hell he is doing.
    Just because he doesn’t want to do things the way most American television is done doesn’t mean he “doesn’t understand” how the process works. He’s a feature guy and a very talented writer/director. It’s possible that his staff was actually slowing down his process instead of enhancing it. Not everyone likes to live their lives in meetings. And not everyone needs a support team to get the job done.
    His move sounds like it’s very threatening to the citizens of TV land. Don’t worry folks, I doubt it will become a trend. He’s going to be one tired puppy when the second season of his show is over, with or without a ton of help from other writers.

  7. From what I’ve heard, the series has been following the comic very closely so far. If Darabont plans to continue sticking to the comic (which has 79 issues out to date), at least some of the work is already done for him in terms of story development. Production is set to begin next February, with a target date of October 2011 for airing the first episode of season 2. I’m hoping that gives him enough time to get the scripts done without a loss quality. Time will tell, I guess.

  8. Yes, as John D says, there’s the comic-book stories to follow, so the showrunner is not writing scripts from scratch but adapting completed comic-book stories already fully-fledged, so that must be the necessary backup he has going for him.
    He wants to wing it, I guess, without the further backup of a staffed writing room he can look to for help if he gets into some unforeseen trouble.
    It’s just my personal preference, but I’d rather have as many things going for me as possible, because up here in Canada, with our weather, you just never know WHEN it’s going to get tough out there, you just know that it very CERTAINLY will. It’s better, I’d argue, to have a success that you share than to have a failure that you don’t.

  9. Interesting that you would mention Robert C. Dennis and the other freelancers. He was a very good writer who authored two very entertaining novels in the ’70s as well as a number of good short stories that I wish someone would collect and publish. I’ve always wanted to know more about his biography but apparently nobody knows much about him (maybe someone at Bear Manor could be interested in writing more about him).

  10. Just saw this and find it of interest. Since I worked for Linda Bloodworth I can confirm that she indeed wrote something like the first 55 episodes of Designing Women alone. On yellow legal pads. Many episodes written on Sunday for the Monday table read. An incredible achievement considering how damn good they are.
    I believe the whole fixed staff notion came about because of pressure from the Guild. I can understand how the freelance system of old might have been abused, but I often fantasize what it would have been like to write different shows all in one season. It must have been so refreshing to be able to go from show to show, from genre to genre, not locked into a staff.
    It also must have been difficult financially.


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