Capturing the Workplace in your Writing
What do you do to make ends meet? A question that invigorates some and worries others. Most people need to work to earn a living. They go into an office daily like Pam from The Office or Tess McGill in Working Girl. Chances are you’ve experienced a workplace or two in your life. So here are some tips on drawing from your own experiences to infuse your script with some authentic workplace drama.
Although the industries and career paths may be different, most workplaces share similarities: vastly different people, various levels of the corporate ladder, and the proverbial water cooler – maybe it’s your office kitchen, lounge area, or one particular co-worker’s desk.
In a script that portrays a workplace, you can create characters that have very different personalities because in a typical workplace, not everyone is the same. In fact, often personalities are vastly different causing clashes as in Parks and Recreation. Leslie is endlessly upbeat compared to Ron’s constant pessimism. Since these characters encompass two different extremes, it creates the conflict needed to move episodes forward. The rest of the cast is rounded out by even more distinct personalities, like Andy: maybe not the sharpest tool in the shed but always excited to be there.
In Madam Secretary, Elizabeth has a team of diverse voices including her speechwriter Matt, who butts heads with her PR specialist Daisy, specifically because they used to date. He’s usually a bit of an awkward nerd and she’s a calm-under-pressure fashionista.
In the original Lethal Weapon, Martin and Roger couldn’t be more different, but are forced to work together. The differences in their personalities and backgrounds furthers the narrative and highlights the conflict found in a typical workplace, albiet on a bit more stressful a level.
Another aspect of a typical workplace is the corporate ladder. Everyone has a boss until we meet the top dog. If we meet them. Allowing for characters to be upper management, management, or worker bees. This is another way to fill out your story and mimic a real life work environment to which your reader or viewer can relate.
In Superstore, Dina is the Assistant Store Manager and holds her position over the other employees’ heads, especially Amy and Jonah. Dina over-exercises her power creating conflict with the other Superstore employees. It’s a dynamic that continues to foster content for further episodes.
In Battlestar Galactica, Admiral William Adama is the head of the military, but then a character is introduced who questions his tactics. Captains question Lieutenants and so on down the line. Even if you have never served, you can still infuse the rank you’ve experienced in a story like this one.
Lastly, most workplaces have a water cooler or a common area where employees gather. Here, people talk about work, their personal lives, etc. This is a good set to utilize for that inter-office secret romance or to ignite an office feud. In The Office, they had an actual water cooler for the employees to gather around. While in Blindspot, the characters have a changing room to discuss their emotions. In Working Girl, they had their designated office spaces. Cubicles mostly.
Writing a workplace into your script can be a fun excercise. Creating diverse characters can add to the momentum and relatability of your story, as real workplaces run the gamut on personalities. Not to mention race, gender, sexual preference, sexual orientation, religion and much more. Adding in different levels of the corporate ladder can continue to create conflict and help push your story forward. Think about it. Have you always agreed with your co-workers? Finally, having a water cooler or a place where your characters gather to discuss more intimate story beats helps to deepen your story and your characters which in turn, creates a world that audiences want to see. Again and again.
Jen Troy is a writer living in Los Angeles. She worked in feature film development and later was an Associate Producer on the indie comic strip documentary Stripped (2014). She has most recently worked with the writers and executive producers for VH1’s Hit The Floor and Lifetime’s Devious Maids.