Diversity is critical to running a successful writer’s room. This was the message delivered by Zak Garriss, narrative director at Deck Nine and lead writer on Life Is Strange: Before the Storm a prequel to the BAFTA-award winning Life Is Strange at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco this afternoon.
“I have never been a sixteen-year-old girl,” joked Garriss of the challenge of writing a game that features a teenage female protagonist. “But half of my team have been."
"Having a plurality of voices protects your script from any one person’s blind spots.”
Garriss borrowed the model of a writer’s room from the television industry, in which he has previously worked, specifically on the series Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. “We basically take a room and we bring a bunch of writers into a room where no writing takes place, but we discuss story, arcs and the constituent beats of a story," he explained.
This process is termed 'The Break', Garriss explained. “We spend months creating a break that writers can take to develop whether scene they’re working on. Writer’s write alone, but we break together. That way each individual writer can write alone, while being simultaneously mindful of the other’ work.”
Why do this, Garriss asked? “I admit that sometimes working in a writer’s room is frustrating and difficult,” he said. “A healthy room is one that has multiple voices and perspectives, but inherent to that is conflict. You want to be critical of each other’s perspectives because at the end of the day it about making the work as good as it can be.”
To ensure what he describes as “productive dissension”, Garriss said that it’s imperative to hire writers who have self-evident kindness and humility. A sensitive writer -- that is, someone who “hears criticism of an idea and takes it as criticism of themselves” -- is not the best candidate for a writer’s room,” he said.
“Kindness and humility needs to be active in the discourse, especially in a project like Life Is Strange that is trying to speak to sensitive social issues." The lead writer has a responsibility to set the tone and boundaries. "There is no shame in calling someone out in doing something they didn’t know they shouldn’t do.”
To build a great writer’s room you need three things, Garriss argued. Firstly, an ‘etiquette of exchange’, in which the lead writer establishes a problem that needs to be solved, and then curates a specific kind of discussion designed to find a solution.
Then, a culture of transparency, whereby every member of the room can speak freely, and know that their ideas and suggestion will be listened to. Finally, and crucially, there needs to be a mechanism in place to make decisions. “It’s easy to spend a lot of time speaking about story without making any decisions,” he said.