THE WRITING PROCESS
By Jane Espenson
Hello Kyle (Editor’s Note: and all you Mutant
Enemy fans around the world)!
I’ve been asked to describe the writing
process on a Joss Whedon show. I am primarily a Buffy writer,
and I’m not in the Firefly writing room that often,
but the general procedure is similar.
Okay, first there is the idea. This is usually something that Joss
brings in, and it always begins with the main character –
in my case, almost always with Buffy. We spend a lot of time discussing
her emotional state, and how we want her to change over the course
of the season. Frequently this in itself will suggest a story area
– we will find a story in which we explore her mental state
metaphorically. The episode “Same Time, Same Place,”
was centered around Willow… we wanted to explore her emotional
distance from the other characters. This turned into a story in
which no one could see or touch Willow and vice versa. The episode
“Conversations with Dead People” dealt in part with
Buffy’s ambivalent feelings about her calling. She explored
the feelings during a mock therapy session with a vampire she was
destined to kill. Notice that the episode ideas *begin* with “what
is she going through” and never with “what would be
a cool Slaying challenge?”.
Once we have the central theme of the episode, and we understand
how the main character will change during it, we begin “breaking”
the story. This is done as a group, with the entire staff participating,
except for anyone who is currently out writing the script for the
previous week’s episode. Breaking the story means organizing
it into acts and scenes. When the break is complete, the white board
in the anteroom to Joss’s office is covered in blue marker,
with a brief ordered description of each scene.
The first step in breaking an episode, once we know what the story
is about, is deciding on the act breaks. These are the moments before
each commercial that introduce danger or unexpected revelations
into the story… the moments that make you come back after
the commercials. Finding these moments in the story help give it
shape: think of them as tentpoles that support the structure.
Selecting the moments that will be the act breaks
is crucial. Writers who are just starting out, writing sample scripts
that they will use to find that first job, often fail to realize
this – I remember changing what the act break would be in
a script because I wanted it to fall on the correct page. This is
a bad sign. The act break moments should be clear and large. In
my Firefly episode, “Shindig,” the third act
ends with Mal stabbed, badly injured, in danger of losing the duel.
It does not end when Mal turns the fight around, when he stands
victorious over his opponent. They’re both big moments, but
one of them leaves you curious and the other doesn’t.
After the act breaks are set, the writers work
together to fill in the surrounding scenes. When this is done, there
is one white board full of material. At this point the work-dynamic
changes completely, and it stops being a group project. At this
point, the single author of the episode takes over. She takes the
broken story and turns it into an outline. (Or possibly a “beat
sheet,” a less detailed version of an outline.)
An outline is usually between nine and fourteen pages of typed material
that fleshes out the broken story. It clarifies the attitudes of
the characters, the order in which events happen within scenes,
and often includes sample dialogue and jokes. A writer usually writes
an outline in a single day.
The complete outline is turned in to the showrunners
--- Joss Whedon and Marti Noxon on Buffy or Joss and Tim
Minear on Firefly. The writer is given notes on the outline
very quickly, usually within the day. These notes are often quite
brief and almost always have to do with the *tone* of the scenes
– “make sure this doesn’t get too silly,”
or “I see this as more genuinely scary.”
At that point, the writer starts work, writing the script itself.
Many of the writers go home to do this. They are excused from story
breaking until their first draft is done. (The rest of the staff,
of course, moves on to breaking the next episode.) The writing of
a first draft takes anywhere from three days to two weeks, depending
on the demands of production. Sometimes the production schedule
requires that more than one writer work on a given episode, splitting
it into halves or even thirds – interestingly, this often
results in very nice episodes and isn’t as jarring as you
might expect, because we’ve all learned to write in the same
The first draft turns a dozen-page outline into approximately 52
pages of action and dialogue. People outside the writing process
are sometimes disappointed to learn that we are following a detailed
outline. They feel that there can be little creative work left to
do in the actual writing, but this is not the case. This is, in
fact, the most exciting and freeing part of the process… every
word spoken, every punch thrown, is spelled out by the writer at
this stage. For me, this, more than during filming, is when the
episode actually becomes *real*.
After the first draft is turned in, the writer
gets another set of notes. These may be light or extensive, but
on a Joss Whedon show, these rarely result in a rethinking of the
episode. The broken story remains the same, although the words expressing
it may change. Even an extensive note session rarely lasts more
than an hour, and usually is much shorter than that. The writer
takes these notes and in the next few days, produces a second draft.
Buffy scripts usually go to a third draft and sometimes
a fourth, but by the end of the process the changes become very
small indeed – “change this word” or “cut
At the end of the process, Joss or Marti or Tim usually take the
script and make a quick rewriting pass of their own. This produces
the SHOOTING DRAFT.
Then it is filmed!
Congratulations – that’s an episode!
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