How Beau Willimon writes House of Cards

Beau Willimon. Photo by Yuki Kho

‘Don’t write. Instead, go do something that will make you happy.’

‘You’re still here? Congratulations, you’re a writer. You’d crawl through the desert to tell a story’.

Beau Willimon wrote for theatre for twenty years. Four years ago he had his big break when Netflix purchased two seasons of House of Cards. At SxSW 2015, he gave us some insight on how he writes the episodes. Moreover, he encouraged everyone to keep writing, even though your work isn’t recognized yet. “The important dramatists from a hundred years ago are forgotten. So will you, hundred years from now. But remember, we’re standing on their shoulders. Future writers will be standing on yours.”

Writing House of Cards

Willimon’s team members come from different backgrounds. “I need people around me who have different ideas than me”, he said. “I have a diverse team for a different voice, a unique voice. I want the diversity of imagination.”

Willimon’s team consists of  six writers, a writing assistant and a script coördinator. He works with them in an apartment with high ceilings and natural light. On the first day of writing a season, Willimon uses the first two hours to tell his team where the new season should head.

Beau Willimon at SxSW 2015, photo by Yuki Kho.
Beau Willimon at SxSW 2015, photo by Yuki Kho.

The Bible

After Willimon shared the big idea, he and his team spend six weeks on writing ‘the bible’. That’s a 60 to 70 page document which contains the most important storylines – the heart of the series  –  to which they’ll continuously refer while writing the episodes. There’s a grid in the bible in which every main character and subject – like ‘America Works’ or ‘Russia’ in season 3 – has its own row. Every column reflects an important step in the storyline. When filling the grid, they start with filling the last column. In other words: they start with the end.

After running the bible past Netflix, Willimon and his team write the complete season episode by episode. Every episode gets its own theme, like ‘good statecraft’ or ‘betrayal’. Willimon calls it a ‘trial and error game’. “It’s like throwing pasta against the wall and see what sticks. Of a 1.000 ideas, 990 are bad, eight are mediocre and only two are great. Most of the time in the room is spent failing’.

‘I’m going to die’

Not that Willimon let’s the failing take him down. “Every morning I think: ‘I’m going to die. That’s actually a comforting thought, since the day can only get better after that. Moreover, failure is a sign you’re taking a risk.  It’s what makes the process rich and valuable.”

So now you now how Willimon writes House of Cards. But actually, he considers this knowledge quite useless. “There’s no schematic approach to writing. You can’t reproduce the process. Even I don’t want to know how to write the next House of Cards season. You have to figure it out for yourself. That’s the beauty of the process.”

Author: Ernst-Jan Pfauth

Ernst-Jan Pfauth (1986) is the cofounder and CEO of The Correspondent, an ad-free journalism platform that has over 60,000 paying members. He lives in New York with his family.

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