• Panel Writeup: The Writer's Room

    (ETA: Much as I wish I could be perfect with these things, I gotta thank the folks in the comment section and the reddit highlight post for catching stuff I missed. Hopefully I won't have anything to add after this last sweep!)

    Greetings from Las Pegasus! CouchCrusader here with the Equestria Daily team. We're looking to try something new here at Unicon and bring you guys some tips and hits from some of the headliner panels here. This afternoon, we got to listen to Meghan McCarthy, Cindy Morrow, M. A. Larson, and Amy Keating Rogers explain how writing for the show all goes down, including this as-of-yet "alleged" Season 4.

    The following are pretty much verbatim quotes from Meghan or someone else from the panel:
    1. The evil corporate overlords summon the writers together with a list of demands for advertising next year's toyline.
    2. So instructed, the writers pitch ideas at each other until they give up and start talking about hairstyles and daughters.
    3. Premises are generated through copious amounts of Starbucks support. Any episodes concerning issues of race, politics, or religion go to Polsky. (Swear to Celestia, she said this.)
    4. A new season of Friendship is Magic premieres on The Hub.
    All of this was said, more or less.

    If you're still reading this because you haven't holed your monitor by now, just hit the break and don't look back.

    Back in March of last year, we posted an interview with AKR concerning her experiences with writing the show. It doesn't look like the process has changed much: when it comes time to start writing a new season, Meghan gathers the writers together for a one-or-two day powwow in which they toss around ideas until they think they can fill a season out with them. The idea here is volume: no one gets attached to any particular idea because they are simply so underdeveloped at that point, and the ones that stick around get written up into a paragraph or so and sent off to corporate. Changes are suggested and sent back from there.

    From the start, every episode has the kernel of a moral or lesson from which the rest of the story grows. According to Cindy, it's fairly rare that the writers wind up panicking late in production and going, "Hold this plot! We need to jam a letter in here somehow!" ("Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000" was a rare exception; M.A. was surprised to learn his "lesson" was approved) Someone asked about the show as a serial production, with each episode building on each other. But the writers seem happy with the ad-hoc sitcom feel of the show, as that still lets them build bits of continuity with every new story.

    The way Meghan develops these episodes with her writers is significantly structured and pretty similar to how Rob Renzetti did it for Seasons 1 & 2: they split a whiteboard into three acts and start filling in the events or "beats" (thanks, Amy!). Naturally, special attention goes to the closing moments of Acts 1 and 2 to keep the viewers wanting to come back.

    These beats expand into a 10-page album (?) (the words became hard to make out from our skybox way in the back of the room) for a 22-minute episode that serves as a detailed synopsis. At this point, it's time to begin writing the actual script, editing it, and sending it off to DHX for storyboarding.

    Repeat as needed to fill out the season.

    At this point, the floor opened to public questions. This fandom came through with some pretty interesting ones! Here's what we learned:

    • Amy's back! She's left Care Bears and has been writing Season 4 episodes for Friendship is Magic for a while. She just couldn't say she was working on ponies while the new season wasn't outed.
    • A typical episode takes about nine weeks to go from premise to polish.
    • Songs are generally planned in the premise or story meeting stage.
    • The Season 3 finale was originally written in November 2011. Twilicorn was a while in coming, folks. plus, the writers knew they wanted to make it a musical fairly early on.
    • No one's sure what Star Swirl's spell was trying to accomplish.
    • The Season 4 opener will focus on Twilight's fears and questions after becoming a princess. As an editorial note, I have every faith in Meghan and the crew that they'll lay our own questions to rest.
    • Why didn't we have a Rarity episode this season? Meghan admitted her initial tweet about the episode was premature. The internet does not forget! Anyway, Rarity turned out to be pretty mean to Spike in the initial treatment, so the episode went to Applejack instead. And so we got "Spike at Your Service."
    • Rarity episodes in Season 4 have been confirmed.
    • While we're speaking about our story editor, Meghan enjoys leaving "Applejack pregnancy scares" on the whiteboards for whoever comes in to use them next. Don't worry: AJ won't be foaling next season.
    • When asked about difficult episodes to write for, Amy cited "MMMMystery on the Friendship Express" because she hadn't written a mystery before, and the early episodes of Season 1 were a struggle for her to work out each characters' voices.
    • M.A. Larson has trouble writing Fluttershy every now and then, Meghan can't get Applejack into trouble, Rarity's colloquialisms challenge Cindy, and Amy found herself discovering characters she hadn't written much before in Season 4.
    • Hasbro isn't soulless. Meghan feels the stories she and the writers want to tell are the ones that get told despite what others believe, and the studio Hasbro built up has animators and other folks who care about making a good TV show in its executive positions. M.A. went out of his way to point out that dealing with the highers-up isn't a black/white process, but has nuances. At the end of the day, Friendship is Magic is there to advertise toys of brightly colored ponies, but the writers are pretty happy with how much control they have over their episodes.
    • About episodes that didn't make it: Amy had one she wanted to write where Pinkie would spend the day walking around "lollygabbing", but the premise didn't go through. Other premises fail to stay around when they tread similar ground to older episodes.
    • Reforming Discord was a good thing in Meghan's eyes. It allows him to still be himself while not confining him to his expected role as a villain and expands his story opportunities. Will he show up in Season 4? Who knows?
    • It looks unlikely that IDW and Hasbro are going to maintain one coherent continuity between the comic and the show. The comic goes to lengths to honor events in the show at least from Season 2 and before, though.
    • Are we getting a Star Swirl episode? The abject looks of confused dismay on everyones' faces don't point to anything in the works at press time.
    • Why didn't Trixie trust wheels in "Magic Duel?" She's continuing her slow slide into egocentric insanity by that point in the episode.
    • Why send Peewee back in "Just for Sidekicks?" This was a storyboarding decision, actually, put in especially to appease those who were gonna ask where that little bird was.
    • Meghan got to ride a horse in a circle when she was around eight or so, while her father and older sibling got to ride into the sunset. She hates horses now.
    • MS Paint is a poor program for writing stories, as Mic suggested.
    • Meghan would cross MLP over with Breaking Bad, Cindy would add Depeche Mode to the show's soundtrack.
    • We might see Trixie again. Oh, Seth. You just had to ask.

    And the last question of the panel came from our very own Phoe, woman of words! When she asked Meghan about developing antagonists that live up to those who came before and raising the stakes, Meghan was very gracious and acknowledged King Sombra's lukewarm reception in the fandom. She confirmed he was Killed Off for Real, and admitted he was her least favorite character she'd written, saying he didn't come across in the episode as formed as she had him in her head (though not for a lack of trying!). He was always meant to be more of an evil presence (think Sauron) who doesn't share the same in-your-face persona as Discord and Chrysalis, a sentiment Phoe identified accurately in her thematic analysis of the premiere back in November.

    To be editorial for a moment here, I believe taking risks like this in terms of character and structure is good for the show's growth, and the discussion that inevitably pops up over these risks are quite instructive for everyone.

    We're all super stoked to be here, and hopefully we'll have one or two more of these panel digests coming down the pipe for you guys as the days go on. For the moment, though, we're gonna head off for some pizza. Catch y'all later!