I received a little booklet once, I don’t know who sent it to be, but what it was was a compact codification of how a writer on a show’s writing staff ought to behave in order to maximize their helpfulness to the show runner. What it boiled down to was one simple rule:
“Write like the show runner.”
This instruction is cold, but it’s accurate. If you want to be of maximum service to the show you’re working on, imitate the style of that show’s head writer, (who is invariably also its creator and show runner).
More than anything, when a show runner receives a script written by a member of their writing staff, they are praying that when they read the script, they will think, “This sounds like I wrote it.”
They’re praying that, because if the script doesn’t sound like they wrote it, the show runner will be stuck having to rewrite it, so that it does. Show runners hate that. (They also love that, because it makes them feel indispensable.)
When I started writing half hour comedies, I would find myself writing like the people who hired me. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It wasn’t like, “If I don’t write like the people who hired me, I’ll get fired.” It was more, “I like this show. I know what they’re doing. I’m going to write like they do.”
It felt good when my bosses liked what I did. It meant I had done a good job, the ”good job” being defined by how successfully I had mimicked the writing of the people who were praising me.
It’s not just pragmatic for a writer to write like the people who hired them, it’s a natural step in their growth as writers. When you’re just starting out, your “writer’s voice” is not fully developed. Copying someone else’s style helps you hone your craft, and strengthen your confidence. Think of as it the writing equivalent of “training wheels.” Once you get your sea legs under you (sorry about mixing transportational metaphors), you have the muscles and the self-assurance to strike out on your own.
Not that everything I wrote sounded like somebody else. Though each episode’s beats were meticulously worked out in lengthy story meetings, there were always gaps in the narrative, where something undiscussed needed to be injected. It was there that the scriptwriter’s originality got its moment to shine.
I recall a Taxi episode called “The Great Line” in which, “John”, a wide-eyed Midwesterner (subsequently dropped from the series), was given a sure-fire line to pick up a girl in a bar, and he used it. The “Great Line” – and it didn’t come from me; I never picked up anyone – was this:
“Forget the preliminaries. Let’s get married.”
In the episode, the line worked too well. John actually wound up married.
The next day, John returned to the taxi garage, shell shocked and distressed. He didn’t want to be married. And he spelled out his reason:
“I always thought they were connected: You get married, you have kids, you get old, and you die. Somehow, I believed if you didn’t get married, you wouldn’t die.”
That line was me. For better or worse. It reflected a number of my core characteristics – innocence, anxiety, deep thinking and ridiculousness. I was proud of that line, especially when it got a big laugh from the studio audience. For me, the laugh was a vindication. I could not only successfully imitate others. I could also succeed as myself.
(My bosses seemed to appreciate my contribution. At least at the time. It seems noteworthy, however, that when “The Great Line” aired in a slightly shortened version in off-network reruns, John’s fear-of-marriage speech had been edited out of the show.)
Though they’re naturally hungry to write in their own voice, writers need to patiently bide their time until they create the show. (At which point they can insist that other writers write like them.) I finally did that, most significantly, with Best of the West. It was really fun. And highly satisfying.
Well, sir, as I mentioned last week, I’ve been invited to contribute a commentary on a website called PoliticsDaily.com. My first potential submission, which I shared with you in April 15th’s Self-Inflicted (Writing) Wounds, didn’t feel right. Despite the setback, however, I am determined to try again.
It’s a different venue. It’s like starting over. Once again, I need to discover my own voice.
More on that next time.
(I have chosen to wrestle with this problem in public. I hope watching me work my way through the process may appeal to aspiring writers, as well to people who simply enjoy watching somebody struggle.)