Chapter 6: Preparing to be a TV Writer


The Spec Script

The front door in to the television business is the “spec” script. A spec script is a sample episode for a TV series, almost always a current hit TV series. It’s a “spec” script because it’s written “on speculation,” that is, no one’s guaranteeing you anything for writing it.

When you write a spec script, you are not writing it to sell it to the show of which it is an example. You’re trying to prove that you know how to write someone else’s show. It’s one thing to make up your own show, or write an original feature. But can you watch a series, understand it, come up with a perfect couple of stories for it, and write a script that feels like a lost episode of this season of that show?

Again, you are not trying to sell it to the show itself. They already have their staff. They already have their preferred freelancers. The scripts are all assigned already. They don’t want to read any more episodes of their own show, and they have a much more precise idea of what their show is or isn’t than anyone watching it. CSI won’t like your CSI spec. But Law & Order might. And CSI will read your Law & Order.

Agents will generally tell you to have two specs. One’s a procedural, one’s character based. Even if you want to write procedurals, execs and showrunners want to read the character based script to see what you can do when there are no dead bodies driving the story.

Some execs may look at a spec feature or a spec pilot, but when you’re just starting out, you really have to prove that you can absorb the hidden rules of any show and write a script within them. You need to show that you can catch the voices of characters who are not your own, and make them sing. The greater difference there is between the two shows you’re speccing, the more range you’re showing. They want to know, can you write anything they give you?

Not every show is worth speccing. You may love Trailer Park Boys (a hysterical, faux-documentary comedy that’s huge in Canada, eh?), but almost no one has seen it in the States. If they haven’t seen it, they won’t read your spec; they wouldn’t be able to make sense of it if they did. The whole point of a spec is to demonstrate that you can nail the template for a show; if they haven’t watched the show, they can’t tell if you’ve nailed it.

You want to avoid freshman shows unless they’re massive hits, because if the show isn’t renewed, your spec is dead. Firefly was an awesome show, and probably fun to spec, but the moment the network pulled the plug, any Firefly spec was dead. “Never, ever spec a show that’s struggling,” says agent Liz Wise.

You also may want to avoid shows that have been successful so long that everyone is sick of reading their specs. Not everyone wants to read another Law & Order spec. Agent Jeff Alpern: “We usually think it is better to write a hot but established show. In other words, a show that has been on the air for two years or less.”

But “if it’s well written, the reader will be engaged,” says Moira Kirland (Medium). And a truly brilliant spec keeps its value for a while. Agent Liz Wise:

3-4 years is the lifespan, but with a great spec you can usually squeeze out a bit more. It helps if the show is still on the air. A brilliant X-Files could last the entire run of the show, plus a few years afterwards. This was because (a) a brilliant spec means it's not tied too closely into the particular arc of a particular season — instead it uses the rules and characters as a launching pad of inspiration — and (b) successful shows spawn copycats and have far reaching influence, so tonally an X-Files could be a great spec years after X-Files was cancelled, simply because other shows are trying to capture the X-Files vibe.

A great spec is a great spec. They might sit on the shelf, but they're solid writing samples. The only real killer I've had is a client who wrote a drop-dead Sports Night. It was useless after only a year of cancellation, because tonally, nothing was similar. AND because the trend moved back to multi-camera after single cam. Ironically, I just sent it out again for a couple of HBO shows like Entourage. It's so good it just kills me that I can't pull it out more.

Bear in mind, though, if your specs are all dated, it suggests that you take an awfully long time to write a spec. That suggests that you will take an awfully long time to write an episode for hire. Even when she’s already working on a show, Melinda Hsu likes to write a new spec every season, making sure it’s up to date on the latest story developments in that series, because then it’s clear she can whip up something good in a few weeks. If it is too much effort to write a new spec every year — and that’s not because you’re already so busy with paid work that you don’t have time to write for free — then you are in the wrong business.

If you have an agent, she’ll tell you which shows you should spec, based on what shows are hot, what she sees as your own strengths, and the kind of shows you want to work on. I’m a science fiction and fantasy fan, so at one point my specs were a Buffy and an X-Files. I wouldn’t spec two SF&F shows at the same time again, because it makes it hard to get on anything else. If you want to write in a certain genre, you want to spec one hot show in that genre, and one mainstream character-based show. Agent Jeff Alpern:

Assuming the writer wants to focus on SF, he or she should have an SF spec and a character based show. Some SF shows look for writers that have character skills and you would want to be able to show that.

If you don’t have an agent yet, you can still easily find out what shows people are speccing. Get the names of a couple of TV agents at the major agencies: CAA, ICM, William Morris, UTA. Don’t bug the agents; just ask to talk to their assistants. Call early in the morning (before 10 AM) or late in the afternoon (after 5). Politely ask,” What shows are you recommending your clients spec this year?” They’ll usually tell you.

Don’t spec a show you don’t like, even if it’s hot. Not just because to spec it, you’re going to have to watch a lot of it. If you don’t love the series, it will show in your writing. It is almost impossible to nail a show that you don’t like.

Pick a show that showcases your strengths. Your spec is most likely to get you on shows with a similar tone, structure, and demographic. If you’re good at dry wit, spec a show with dry wit. It will get you on another show with dry wit before it gets you on a broad comedy. “For example,” says Alpern, “if the hot show is CSI, but our writer concentrates on deep character, then we would suggest a more character-intensive show such as Gilmore Girls.”

Before you start coming up with story springboards, revisit the show; only now, examine it with more concentration. You want to have the best possible sense of the show. You want to look at it from all angles and really absorb what makes it special, and how it delivers its goods.

Record as many episodes as you can.

Watch three episodes in a row. How do the episodes advance the overall story?

Watch the same episode three times in a row. How does the episode tell its story?

Check out the commercials. Who do advertisers think watches this show?

Check out the title sequence. What does it tell you about the show’s focus? Its tone?

Read the fan sites on the Net. What do the fans seem to like about the show? (Don’t trust this too much; people who populate fan sites are, after all, fanatics.)

Some writers go so far as to transcribe an episode themselves. I’ve never done this, but it would give you a very hands-on feel for the show’s dialogue style. Just bear in mind that how the dialogue comes out of the actor is not necessarily how it appears on the page. Writers program some of the delivery into the lines, but the actor adds his or her own style, and may do the line convincingly in a way that you’d be hard pressed to capture on the page. When actors boast about how they ad-libbed some brilliant line, they’re usually fibbing, but they can take a flatly written line and make it memorable (“I’ll be back.”)

Your spec script should be a perfect, typical episode of the series you’re writing, with two exceptions.

a. Try to avoid stories that center on new characters. You want to show that you can write the core cast. The episode where long-lost Aunt Millie shows up and turns everyone’s life upside down is a great vehicle for whoever plays Aunt Millie, and a fun episode. But Aunt Millie isn’t on the actual show. Putting the core cast in an interesting predicament makes a better spec, because you can spend more of the script showing how well you write them, rather than some character no one but you has ever imagined before.

b. Because it’s not going on television, you can deal with slightly edgier material than the show does. You probably have a little more freedom to show homosexuality, for example. But be careful. You still have to keep the tone of the show. You probably wouldn’t want to spec an O.C. episode involving incest because The O.C., for all its angst, stays away from “ick factor” stories. If you are going to push the envelope, it should be in a direction that that show would naturally take if the network censors were all on holiday that week. You could, for example, do an incest story for an Arrested Development spec. (Or, you could until they did an incest episode themselves, “Top Banana,” earning “Worst Family Show of the Week” from a parental organization. Go team!)

Try to avoid any story line that will get dated, or violate the already-established chronology, e.g. episodes in which couples break up. Try to find a story line that would work equally well no matter where it appears along the show’s timeline.

You do hear about the occasional stunt spec. The writer who wrote a Mary Tyler Moore spec not long ago where Mary Richards came out as a lesbian. The writing team who specced an I Love Lucy, just to show they could nail it. The crossover Sex & the City episode where Carrie is dating one of Tony Soprano’s wise guys.

I wouldn’t recommend this unless you’re at the top of your game. Yes, your spec will get pulled off the pile first. And if you nail a beloved old show, it’s the sort of spec that people pass around for fun. But get this sort of thing even slightly wrong, and your spec is worthless. As Moira Kirland (Medium) says, “A big move can backfire big.”

If you do risk a crossover episode, you still have to nail the template of the show you’re writing. You also have to nail how the show you’re writing would see the characters of the other show. If Carrie Bradshaw is dating one of Tony’s guys in a Sex & the City spec, then we have to see him the way Sex & the City would see him — not necessarily how The Sopranos sees him. Likewise, if it’s a Sopranos spec, we have to see Carrie the way Carrie, the character, would come across in the Sopranos world. The Sopranos might not see her as an adorable, impulsive, if decisive girl; it might bust her for being a selfish, self-indulgent woman who’s reckless with other people’s hearts. Likewise, Tony Soprano on Sex & the City might just come across as a psychopath.

Without writing a stunt spec, you do want to come up with a memorable hook. “We know that readers read hundreds of scripts and most kind of blur into one another. If a spec has some catchy hook, then it may stand out better,” says Jeff Alpern. Push the envelope on the show a little bit. If the show is gritty, you probably want to write an extra-gritty episode. If the show has crimes, your crime should be shocking. If the show has angst, your episode should be wrenching. You want readers to remember you, “Oh, yeah, sure, that was the one with the...”

Once you’ve written your spec, get as much feedback as you can. You want to polish it till it shines. I usually start with civilians first, before showing my work to anyone in the business. I want the people I know in the business to think my work is professional and polished, so I try never to show them anything less. Show your wife; show your boyfriend. Show your college buddies. Show your office buddies.

Show the members of your writing group, if you’re lucky or clever enough to have one. (In a writing group, everyone shows unpolished work.)

Almost every television show has fan newsgroups. Note who seem to be the most intelligent and knowledgeable fans. Email them to ask if they’d be willing to give you feedback on a script. Most of them will feel flattered. The less well people know you, the more likely they are to tell you what they hate about your work.

As with all amateur feedback, the criticisms are more trustworthy than the suggestions. People are often right about what’s wrong; they’re usually wrong about how to fix it. It’s up to you to decide what’s the best way to fix things.

Try to avoid the impulse to defend your script from criticism. Don’t explain to your reader (or yourself) why what you did is right and not wrong. It will render you deaf to the criticisms. The only outlet you should allow yourself is the script. Make it so good those criticisms go away, and people say, “I don’t know. It reads just like a real episode. Can’t you sell it to the show?” And then you can shrug sadly and say, “That’s not how it works with spec scripts.”

Don’t feel bad about getting criticism. You’ll always get more criticism than praise. You’re writing TV, and most people know what a great TV episode is. If you don’t measure up in some way, they’ll tell you. You’ll know you’re getting to be a crafted writer when someone tells you they don’t think anything’s wrong with your script, and you get frustrated because you know they’re wrong. They must not be reading it carefully enough!

Take all the criticism to heart. If something’s wrong, fix it. If there’s something structurally wrong, rework and rewrite the entire script so that it’s right, don’t just gloss over it. Melinda Hsu:

I usually won’t let anyone, not even my agent or my close friends, read anything before the third draft. People will eagerly ask you if they can read a first draft or an early draft, but you have to say no, no matter how welcoming and supportive they sound – because they’ll judge you by what they read. Usually you only get one shot with people, and while they’re reading your first draft they’re reading someone else’s seventh draft and using the same standards to compare the two. Don’t squander the opportunity to show someone your best work, even if it makes them wait a few more weeks to see it.

The standard for spec scripts is quite high. Your CSI spec is going into a pile of twenty other scripts in which there are four other CSI specs. The guy reading your script did his own CSI spec two years ago. You really have to write something great to get a meeting.