Secrets from inside the TV writer’s room

By Randee Dawn

Sometimes, the words flow like water. And sometimes, there’s a clog in the drain. For whatever reason, TV writers can find themselves stuck on a scene — the death of a character, being pulled between multiple assignments, or just a season finale with a lot of loose ends that need tying up — and that tough scene can make for some serious headaches. The Envelope talked to several show runners about how they got the creative stream flowing again this season.

Julian Fellowes

Downton Abbey”

Jason Katims


Alex Gansa


Terence Winter

Boardwalk Empire”

Kevin Williamson

The Following”

Robert King and Michelle King

"The Good Wife"

Setting the scene: Peter Florrick’s (Chris Noth) election in the final episode of the season comes down to some legal maneuvering, a la the 2000 Bush/Gore decision. After they’re kept up overnight running from courtroom to courtroom, barriers between Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and law partner/love interest Will (Josh Charles) begin to break down.

You call that tough? “There’s a difficulty in writing Alicia and Will because you’re trying to show desire in a way that isn’t clichéd,” says Robert. “They’re trying to express a desire that is adulterous, but something they’re trying to resist.” “It’s easy to overwrite those scenes,” Michelle adds. “Less with those actors is usually more.” “This went through a lot of drafts because it’s the last episode of the year, and you want it to pop, but popping doesn’t always mean talking to the point — it can be talking to less of the point,” Robert says.

Julian Fellowes

"Downton Abbey"

Setting the scene: Sybil develops eclampsia and dies shortly after giving birth — despite her primary care doctor’s urging that she go to a hospital.

You call that tough? “Your child dying is the worst thing that can happen to anyone, and I felt a responsibility to make it as real and truthful as I could,” says Fellowes. “It was also about trying to get the journey of the family through it as truthfully as I could. To make it even more moving to them, it was [actress Jessica Brown Findlay’s] last scene — they’d already shot the rest of her story, so her last scene was that death scene. All of the actors had bonded together over the past three years, and that added a certain punch to it.”

Jason Katims


Setting the scene: Sarah (Lauren Graham) makes a terrible romantic choice: Deciding to commit to Hank (Ray Romano) she lets go of Mark (Jason Ritter). Hank then decides to move to Minnesota. The decision leaves her … single again, naturally.

You call that tough? “It was challenging to write mainly from a logistical standpoint,” says Katims. “I didn’t have much time to write and I was writing the ‘About a Boy’ pilot simultaneously. The breakup between Sarah and Mark was difficult because we’d built this triangle over the whole season. But Jason had become such a part of the family of the show and was so beloved that intellectually we knew this was where the story had to go — but then writing the breakup was difficult because it felt like he was on a comeback with Sarah. I had conflicted feelings about it.”

Pictured: Ray Romano and Lauren Graham.

Alex Gansa


Setting the scene: The CIA’s building has just been bombed, and Carrie (Claire Danes) and Brody (Damian Lewis) survive the blast in a nearby office — but she isn’t sure if he was part of the attack or not.

You call that tough? “I have PTSD from this scene,” Gansa says with a laugh. “The characters had to ask all of these questions — in the first incarnation of the script, we were going to take the audience step-by-step with Carrie through how this was all masterminded. But when you did that, it felt dry and emotionless. What was really going on in the scene was that Carrie felt she’d been betrayed by this man she’d just pledged her troth to. Brody has to talk her off a ledge and convince her he didn’t do it. And then she has to believe him. That’s a long distance to take one character over four or five pages. And then you wanted to keep alive the 5% possibility that Brody is selling her a bill of goods.”

Terence Winter

"Boardwalk Empire"

Setting the scene: The finale featured the (at least temporary) tying up of multiple storylines — including Nucky’s (Steve Buscemi) turf grab that loses him nearly everything, including his stature in Atlantic City and his wife Margaret (Kelly Macdonald).

You call that tough? “We had so many balls in the air going into the finale that it was a massive juggling act,” says Winter. “We had about 14 drafts of this script — it was such a monster. There comes a point in the writing process where you have an ‘a-ha!’ moment and everything falls into place, and more than once in the writers’ room I’d turn and say, ‘Why has this moment not come yet?’ So many storylines, competing storylines, and it all took a while to get them into the right order.”

Kevin Williamson

"The Following"

Setting the scene: An injured Paul (Adan Canto) needs the help of a hospital, but can’t go or he’ll be arrested. Rather than drag his partner-in-crime and friend Jacob (Nico Tortorella) down with him, he persuades Jacob to end his misery.

You call that tough? “Saying goodbye to some characters I love is hard,” says Williamson. “I was really sad to see Paul die. I knew 100% that he would die from the very beginning — it’s a huge emotional arc for Jacob — but when it came around, I was sad. I write to music, so I was probably listening to something, maybe ‘The Mission’ soundtrack.”

Pictured: Sarah Fuller (guest star Maggie Grace, R) finds comfort in her two friends, Jacob (Nico Tortorella, L) and Paul (Adan Canto, C).