Ever wonder how the Dawson’s Creek writers came up with their best material? Check out a guest post from Dawson’s Creek co-executive producer/writer and author of The Orchard (now available), Jeffrey Stepakoff.
When I was in my early twenties, I moved to Hollywood and began writing TV shows. Many of the waking hours of my adult life were spend sitting in story rooms, looking for the content of next week’s episode. These rooms are the epicenter of creative work in the entertainment industry. In any given season, there are about a hundred story rooms operating in LA. They are remarkably nondescript, sometimes on a studio lot, sometimes in ordinary office buildings, lined with dry erase boards that ultimately hold character arcs, season-long plotlines, and scene-by-scene outlines for individual episodes. Anywhere from five to fifteen writers sit in these rooms, ten months a year, five to six days a week, approximately twelve hours a day – and sometimes much more – brainstorming story to drive the series.
No other kind of writing holds quite the same challenges as working on a TV staff. An average one-hour drama has a $2.5 million budget. It’s a mini-movie, really, that shoots in just seven days, and then the next day another one begins. A series produces twenty-two or more episodes a season. And at the heart of it all is the story room, in which sits the writer.
So from where does all this material come? From the writer’s life, the world directly around him, and, inevitably, from the lives of those he knows – from the lives of those he loves.
Make no mistake about it, living with a writer means being an integral part of the conduit that feeds the work. When I look at the scores of episodes I’ve written and rewritten, along with moments pulled from my childhood and personal experiences, I also see my wife’s life, conversations I heard, adolescent secrets that were shared, hopes and dreams of all kind. Yes, when this material is scripted and performed, filmed and edited, set to score, not many people know from exactly where the idea originated. Those whose lives were a part of what I’m writing about are fairly safe. But my wife knows when I’m writing about her. She knows when I’m writing about us.
After many seasons of writing about life’s most poignant moments for Hollywood dramatization, I think now I’ve actually gained some insight, not only about the storytelling, but about the experiences and emotions themselves.
On television, love is clean, a perfect arc of inciting incident, a cute meeting, a witty date or two, a kiss set to a top forty song, sex – which we must leave for commercial – and a heated conflict which is ultimately resolved with one character running as the clock ticks to have the object of his heart “at hello.” As mentioned, my versions of these scenes and their constituent beats are almost always pulled from what I know and see and have experienced firsthand. I’d like to think that what makes the storytelling fresh and even compelling, this genuine passion.
But real life isn’t quite so clean, is it? Real love is perfect, perhaps, only in its imperfectness. When I first met my wife, when she opened the door of that charming little apartment in Santa Monica, smart witty banter did not sping forth from my mouth. I just stood there, honest and bare and lovestruck like the nervous young man I was. But somehow when that same moment was used to write an episode of Dawson’s Creek, Pacey Witter looked handsome and poised in the perfectly lit doorway, and sounded brilliant and funny saying all the right things – things I wished I’d said and thought of quite some time later.
In television, typically in the third act on one hour dramas when characters are at odds and conflict at its highest, one character will step out of his or her B-story and tell the character in the A-story to take some kind of action, make an apology, declaration of attraction, deliver some perfectly composed speech about the inner churnings of the heart. In real life of course we stumble aimlessly when we make a mistake and others don’t always step out of their storylines to aid in the development of ours. In real life, fixing our mistakes takes time, often more trial and error than can be contained in an hour of TV.
In life, there are no commercials. There are no musical scores. Arguments are interrupted by telephone calls, hot kisses broken by neighbors at the door. In life, we do not cutaway from lovemaking. There is no clean arc to the yearnings of our hearts. Our desires and motivations are circuitous and meandering, and it is the writer’s task to take this, shaping and forming, crafting tidy scenes and acts.
Unlike even the most successful series, real love is everlasting. Yes, Joey and Pacey do live on, in syndication and on DVD. Kevin and Winnie are forever in our souls.
But true love ages. It’s two sets of feet under the covers, touching and comforting, growing old and warm together night after night. It’s children in the next rooms, going from cribs to beds to packing for college and then coming home again with children of their own.
Real love waits up late to talk to you despite the time difference when you’re off on location shooting a TV show. Real love never goes on hiatus because its players want more money or bigger trailers. Real love is never cancelled because its cast has aged. It is the wellspring of inspiration, the source upon which so many television shows are based. And one of the things I love so much about writing fiction, is it provides the time and space and thoughtfulness to render and convey all these remarkable parts of love without ever having to cutaway.
JEFFREY STEPAKOFF has written for more than a dozen different television series, including the Emmy-winning The Wonder Years, Sisters, and Dawson’s Creek, for which he was co-executive producer. Author of the acclaimed novel, Fireworks Over Toccoa, he has also developed and written plays, TV pilots and major motion pictures, including Disney’s Tarzan and Brother Bear. Stepakoff holds a BA in Journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill and an MFA in Playwriting from Carnegie Mellon. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and three young children. His fiction is published in six languages. Visit Jeffrey’s official site at jeffreystepakoff.com.