Dara Resnick Creasey has some advice for TV staff writers on a new gig:
[Your] first script should as closely mimic the showrunner’s writing style as possible. Of course every script you write will have some of you in it. That’s why you were hired, after all. For your thoughts. Your voice. But your job in these first precious 55 pages is to show the people reading it that you understand the show – that you can write in the voices of its characters, and grasp its unique vernacular.
This is not the time to take a risk, to deviate from the story you collectively broke in the writers’ room because you suddenly think you have a better act-out.
I’ve never written on someone else’s TV show, but I have done feature work where I was only rewriting a small part of the script and needed to match the previous writer’s style and voice. To me, that’s a blast. Just like calculus is higher-level math, this is higher-level writing. How would this writer write this character in this kind of scene?
It can be strangely satisfying to surrender your ego and imagine yourself as a wholly different writer.
Each writer has her own way of arranging words on the page. If you need to match someone else’s style, I’d start by looking at:
- Unfinished end-of-line punctuation. Two dashes? Ellipsis?
- How much uppercase she uses within scene description.
- Parentheticals. Are they for timing (beat), clarity (joking), or how-to-play (“please die in a fire”)?
- Sensible commas, or the Oxford variety?
- Profanity. Is it A SPACESHIP or a GIANT FUCKING SPACESHIP?
- How characters see events within a scene. Do they clock them, spot them, notice them, spy them?
- Transitions. Is it CUT TO every new scene, or do they mostly go away.
- Paragraph length. What’s the upper limit in terms of number of lines?
- Does an interrupted character get a CONT’D?
- Simultaneous dialogue: Side-by-side or (overlapping)?
In each of these cases, there’s no right or wrong answer. Except that in TV, the showrunner reading the script knows what she likes, and it’s how she writes. So as a staff writer, it’s absolutely in your best interest to write exactly like she would.
For a feature rewrite, it ultimately comes down to how much work you’re going to be doing on the script. If it’s nearly a page one rewrite, you’re doing no one any favors by aping the previous writer’s style. Yes, it’s more work to go through otherwise intact scenes and change the punctuation, but you’re trying to create the best experience for the reader. Consistency matters.
Consistency is also why you adapt to the previous writer’s choices when doing surgical work on a script. You’re a craftsman making a repair. Done properly, no one should see the work.