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How Joss Whedon and the Buffy writers’ room broke episodes

A couple weeks ago was Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s 20th anniversary of its series premiere, so now seems a good time to talk about the behind-the-scenes writing process.
Most Joss Whedon-run rooms, especially Buffy, are kind of iconic. They’ve brought us a huge amount of talented showrunners and A-list writers, rivaled only by the Star Trek writers rooms.

In 2003, back in the days when Firefly was still airing on FOX Fridays, the amazing Jane Espenson wrote a blog post on the show’s official website. She detailed how Joss Whedon was running the Buffy and Firefly writers rooms, and how they were brainstorming/outlining their episodes.
The website is now long gone, but I found the original post thanks to the Internet archive’s Wayback Machine. Here it is uncut:

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 style.

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 this joke.”

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!

And that’s how Buffy worked.