A good friend of mine writes for One Tree Hill on the WB. I don't know many writers, so it is a pleasure reading anything from her – even her emails. I get the same contentment reading a few paragraphs from Stacy as reading a software book by Joel Spolsky (even when I disagree with him). I don't watch One Tree Hill, but when Stacy wises up and moves towards a more Space Opera – Firefly/SG1/Star Trek/Galactica – show, I will be in heaven. That said, I thought those wondering how the inner workings of writing for TV would enjoy her last email. So with her permission, viola!
Finally! Now that every new show has premiered and every returning show has returned, One Tree Hill season three premieres this Wednesday at 8pm on the WB. Yes, that's a new night and time — for those of you who don't just have it on your TiVo season pass. And I'd love for you to watch.
The most common question I am asked — aside from “Why do the kids all look so old while the parents look so young?” and “Who's who and what the hell is going on?” — is “What does it mean that you're a writer on the show and why should I watch when it's not your episode?” Good question. And here's the answer…
When I say it's “my episode” that means it says “Written by Stacy Rukeyser” in the opening credits — and that I got paid a bunch of extra money and am probably popping open a bottle of something at home the night it airs. But when it says “Written by Mark Schwahn” or any of the other writers, I still have a big hand in each episode.
I spend the majority of each day in the writers room, pitching ideas for storylines, scenes, and even dialogue. For example — okay, this is the episode where Keith and Karen get together. Well, what does that mean? How does it happen? What's the story? What are the scenes? And how do we structure those scenes so the audience laughs, cries, and thinks it's better than “Cats”? As most of you know, I am the only girl in a sea of eleven boys. That alone is a challenge, but also imagine a room full of 12 people trying to agree on the one way to tell a story. Good thing I'm not afraid of letting my voice be heard. Once we come to some sort of agreement, we put the scenes up on a white board, and once the whole episode is filled in on the white board, we go off and write an outline. Then we give copious notes on that outline — what we think is missing, what needs to be changed, and what really works. Finally, my boss, Mark Schwahn, the only one with veto power, gives his notes, and then the outline goes to the studio and network for more notes. At long last, after the outline is approved, the writer goes “off to script.” That means you have two weeks to write from the comfort of your own home — or from that bungalow in Tahiti if you so desire. While the outline is a big help in terms of knowing what the story is, inevitably you find things in the outline that don't work or don't make sense. But also, you are expected to turn in a script that is more than just a polite regurgitation of the outline — you must find those special moments, that scintillating dialogue, the magic of TV. And then you've got to produce the damn thing. Thus, the bottle popping when it's your episode.
But what of those special moments you pitched in the writers room? That scintillating dialogue you suggested in your notes on the outline? The restructuring you recommended that really worked? Yes, a lot of that ends up on screen too. I'd like to think One Tree Hill is different for having me on board, that my voice is heard, and that it's reflected in the final product on screen.
So, that said — anything that is romantic, insightful, touching, or even just funny — that's mine. Anything that's ridiculous, cheesy, lame, or even offensive — that's from one of the eleven boys.
I know it can be hard to get into a character-driven show when it's going into its third season, but I think this one is worth the effort. I'm a big believer in “Oh my God” moments, and in the ability of good TV to give us goose bumps. And even after all that time in the writers room, knowing exactly what's in each script — I still get goose bumps when I watch the final cut of our episodes. Maybe that's the fourteen year-old girl inside me. But it's a great feeling. And I wish it on each of you.