It seems like every time I rewatch Arrested Development, I catch some new reference to a future or past episode. There are so many gags (some quite complex) that are reused, reimagined, or gradually built up across many episodes and even many seasons. If you were to only watch the entire series once you would probably not realize that the show started to set up many of the later episodes' gags and plot points long before those episodes. Often they also combine gags in ways that seem like they had to have been set up long ahead of time. How do writers do this?

Arrested Development is just one exceptional example. Other shows sometimes have these complex, long-running multi-plotline interactions, too, but to a much lesser degree.

Do writers typically write an entire season or more all at once? Do they have a list of plot elements for each episode, or multiple parallel or intertwined plot lines, and just write a new story around a little of this and a little of that whenever it comes time to write a new episode? How does someone even begin to write something with so many complex interactions, and how do they keep it straight?

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    Hmm, this question might be quite a bit too broad to even answer. While it is an interesting question, you seem to largely be asking "how do writers write a TV show?". The methods employed are probably completely diverse, as is the definition of what actually makes for a "complex interaction". That being said, I know what you're talking about in regard to Arrested Development, as their jokes are often referential across episodes/seasons, but also keep in mind that when some joke references an incident from 2 seasons ago, it doesn't automatically mean they planned ahead for this joke.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 16:26
  • Any suggestions on how to narrow the scope? As for the referential jokes, it seems like practically every line is either a punchline or a setup for a later joke...I've also wondered if the writers would go back and rewatch old episodes to see if they could squeeze another joke out of some line that perhaps was only a filler or perhaps part of the setup for a different joke.
    – rob
    Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 16:31
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    Hmm, not sure at the moment either. Maybe one could concentrate a bit more on Arrested Development only and to which degree the plot was pre-planned multiple episodes/seasons ahead or not. Just an idea, though.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 16:34
  • The problem is that that writers rarely get to talk about their work. Even Entertainment Weekly's "The Writers Room" is frustratingly superficial. One of the rare cases where we know a lot about the writing is Deadwood, and even though that show seems well-planned, it's astonishing to learn that David Milch often wrote elaborate scenes just by being inspired on the set.
    – BCdotWEB
    Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 17:58
  • Perhaps for the answer consult the Bob Loblaw Law Blog. Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 19:12

1 Answer 1


In most cases tv shows are written week by week so in most cases you nor does the actors know what will happen next week until its completely shot. In the case of Arrested development it is a mix of pre-planning and happy accidents. Example: S01 Buster says "wow never thought i would miss a hand so much. In S02 Buster gets his hand bit off while swimming in the ocean" (Happy accident)

Example: through out the show they mention the Homefills in fact they are mentioned in S01E01. through out the show you get running homefill gags like at the end when they find the fake bomb which is a recording device which is a homefill. (Pre-planned running gag)

The truth about writing is that it is different for every case. Take David Milch... he wrote the first ten episodes had all the characters, setting, plots, motives for a show to be set in Rome. He pitched his idea to HBO who said "I can't believe, this is the best, only thing is we just bought a show like this." Today you know it as ROME by HBO . David walked away and a month later came back with the same characters, plots, and motives, all he did was change the setting and everything else to reflect the settings change. Today you know the show as Deadwood.

Pay attention to the writing in T.V, a great example is Rescue Me and Sirens. Both shows are written by the the same two people and if you throw away the actors they are the same show, from the pace of the dialogue, to what is talked about, the mood and atmosphere, what they stand for, if you take away the fact that they are firefighters from N.Y. (Rescue Me) and paramedics from Chicago (Sirens), there is very little difference.

To continue some shows have multiple writers for one show. Meaning this weeks episode is written by Sally and she understands that Michael B. is a selfless person so he will do selfless acts for his family. Well next weeks episode is written by Joe and he doesn't know a thing so Michael will do whatever is necessary for himself. - that is bad writing leading us to believe 2 things, the show should be written by the same people and that they should be written at the same time.

Now you need to take into fact that the actors maybe filming a movie soon or run into unexpected problems as they can't be on set.(remember even though they are stuck up, selfcenterd, rich actors, they work long hours everyday just like you and me) Now if I wrote 10 episodes and my actor is in all ten and he will start shooting a film over seas next week, I now have to either A. rewrite the episode, B. write a hole new episode excluding that character.

T.V writing is a very fast and unpredictable job (forget the fact it's nearly impossible to get a writing job)

Matt Stone and Trey Parker (South Park) - say when writing always remember if a character does something then something else has to happen, in order to push the story forward.

Check out - "South Parks 6 Days To Air" They go inside South Parks Studios and watch Matt and Trey as they come up with an episode on the fly... You get one again ONE way of writing T.V.

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