So, I’ve talked about mentors and discipline – now, I’ll get down to the nitty-gritty as far as the stuff you need to be writing. The first order of business? The “spec script.” A spec is a script that no one’s waiting for or paying you for that you write as a sample of your work with which you hope to catch the attention of a writing fellowship judge or an agent (or anyone else with the power to connect you to a writing opportunity). Most commonly, you hear about specs for episodes of existing shows, and that’s what I’m going to be talking about this month. However, if you’re currently writing a pilot of your own (which I’ll talk about here another time) and no one’s paying you to, you’re writing a spec pilot.
Rather than tell you what TO do in order to write a successful spec, I thought I’d tell you what NOT to do – the stuff I’ve already done, and regret now that I know better – in the hopes that you can learn from my mistakes. As I’ve mentioned, I started seriously considering television as a career option in 2009, and after reading somewhere that I needed to have a spec script, I picked one of my favorite shows (ABC’s Castle) and started writing. Any writer can give you a GOOD script to try and emulate, but I’m providing you with a crappy example to stay as far away from as possible! Because I care. Here it is, for your viewing and learning pleasure. (Try not to laugh too hard. I was young and stupid.)
Never mind that I hadn’t really done any solid research about how to write a spec script. I just figured I can write, and I know this show inside and out. Of COURSE I can write a Castle spec!
LESSON # 1 – DO YOUR RESEARCH
Being a fan of a show isn’t enough. If you’ve never written a television script, don’t assume that you’ll know how to put a show on a page just because you know the show really well. Your job in writing a spec is to prove that you can get on an established writing staff and emulate the already-existing voice and tone of the show. An important way to do that is to know how that show is structured on the page! Every show has its own rhythm, and that rhythm is determined by how the story is broken down. How many scenes does the protagonist get per episode vs. ensemble or guest stars? Is there a teaser, and how long is it? What is the average length of scenes in a standard episode? If you can’t answer these questions (and many others), you shouldn’t write a spec.
The good news is that there’s plenty you can do to study up! A book that’s been really helpful to me as I’ve been learning (and was written by a prominent “Ms.” in the biz) is The TV Writer’s Workbook by Ellen Sandler, Emmy-nominated writer on Everyone Loves Raymond among other things. When I was looking for books on TV writing, most seemed to cater to film. The books that did exist for TV were not only boring, but contained already outdated advice. This book is still current, gives lots of practical information, and reads as if someone is in the room with you walking you through your script. Another great place to go for spec writing advice is Jane Espenson’s blog, Jane In Progress. It hasn’t been updated since 2010, and exists as an archive of her posts, but it’s worth starting at the beginning and reading it all the way through. She talks not only about the ins-and-outs of writing a spec, but also the business side of being a writer. Great stuff. Lastly, if you’re in L.A, and you want to read scripts from existing shows to get to know them better, you can visit the Writers Guild Foundation Library on 3rd and Fairfax. No, you don’t have to be a WGA member to use it! Just bring a photo ID. You can’t make copies of scripts or check any out, but they pretty much have scripts for every show ever that you can look at legally, so long as you read them on-site. Such an awesome resource!
LESSON #2 – THE CHARACTER’S NAME IS IN THE TITLE FOR A REASON
Very often, there’s a character on a show with whom we strongly identify who may or may not be the protagonist. On Castle, that character for me was Alexis, Richard Castle’s daughter. You see, I was totally a nerd girl growing up, so watching her be so smart and keep her father on her toes while still maintaining an A average was enjoyable for me. I wanted to write an “Alexis-centric” spec, to give the character her due.
What I didn’t realize is that, even if an episode is focused on a supporting character, the action still has to be driven by the protagonist’s wants and needs. I wish I’d known that before I accidentally made Richard Castle a supporting player on his own show! If you break down a couple of episodes of a show, and get a feel for how many scenes each character gets, you can take a supporting character who usually gets two scenes an episode and make them pop simply by adding a third scene. It takes less than you think to move a character to the foreground.
Also, even if you want to make a supporting character pop, what ends up resolving the episode – indeed, the thing that causes the supporting character to pop in the first place – has to come from, and be resolved by, the protagonist, whatever it is has to do with their over-arching journey on the show. In the case of my Castle spec, I could’ve fixed this by tying Alexis’ problems more closely to Castle’s desire to balance his work life with being a good father. This might have made him more active, and allowed him to push the story forward in a more effective way. As it stands now….stuff happens. Then Castle sort of reacts to it. There’s very little tension in the mystery.
LESSON #3 – STAY AWAY FROM GIMMICKS
The first thing that may pop out at you in my spec is that I decided to pay homage to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off by giving Alexis a “day off” of her own, even going so far as to use the same talking-to-the-camera narrative device from the movie. It ends up being hugely distracting, and hard as it might be to believe, not everyone gets it! I showed it to a couple of people who had no idea I was referencing Ferris Bueller. If your spec relies on references to pop culture, it’s probably best to find an alternative, because you never know who’s going to read your script, or if they’ll care about the movies you’ve seen.
The thing is, your spec is not about showing how you can change the show up. Your spec exists to show that you can write a standard episode of the show, that you’ll be able to blend seamlessly into their writing staff next time they start hiring. They don’t need someone to set an episode of The New Girl in space. They need someone who’s able to write a regular episode of The New Girl.
Does this “stifle your creativity?” Depends on how you look at it. One of the things I love most about something like structured poetry is that there’s a form, but the talent comes from being brilliant within that form. A villanelle has a very specific format, but if you put the right words in the right places, it can BLOW PEOPLE’S MINDS. It’s the same with TV scripts. Anyone can make things “interesting” by including something totally different that has nothing to do with the characters or the world of the show they’re writing, but it takes skill to make an episode sing within guidelines. That’s where the talent is. The word “formulaic” doesn’t have to be a negative one. It just means there’s a form. It’s your job to be brilliant within that form. If you can do that, you’ve got it made!
LESSON #3.5 – STICK TO THE FOUR-LINE DIALOGUE RULE
My characters in this spec talked too damn much! Seriously, if you find that someone’s dialogue is longer than 4 lines on the page, break that shit up. Unless it’s the most genius monologue in the history of all-time – or at least the most important monologue of the episode, meaning you do it ONCE – it can be cut.
THE WRITERS’ ROOM
July’s Question is a two-parter!
1) If you had to give a new writer one piece of advice re: writing a spec script, what would it be?
2) What is one piece of advice that you WISH someone would’ve told you when you were first working on your specs, but that you learned the hard way?
KewlPanda’s Advice: Hook the reader as soon as possible in your spec. Assistants, execs and showrunners have A LOT of scripts to read during staffing season. One assistant told me they read something like 250 script submissions for her boss this year. I’ll say it again: TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY. It’s her job to whittle them down for her boss, so he doesn’t have to read that many. Time is of the essence and few people will waste it on boring (or badly written) scripts. You’ve got 10 pages at best to hook a reader or else your spec is getting a “pass” without a second thought. Don’t dick around in your initial pages thinking someone will read all the way to your big reveal at the end.
What KewlPanda Wishes She’d Been Told: When picking an existing show to spec, or writing a spec pilot, pick something that you not only know, but that you LOVE. Your passion will come through on the page and make your writing life easier. I wasted months on a spec that wasn’t something I enjoyed and it came out a mess.
The Comic Geek’s Advice: My advice is to find a story you can tell that stands on its own – something especially difficult in today’s increasingly serialized world – a short story with a beginning, middle and an end where the protagonist just happens to be Jack Bauer or Dexter or Walter White, and don’t try to change, fanwank, or Mary-Sue the what’s already there. Being a TV writer is essentially, an exercise in pastiche, and the spec script is your way of proving that you can master that art before creating a world of your own for others to emulate.
What The Comics Geek Wishes He’d Been Told: I wish someone had told me that I was not a very special snowflake and that my job as a staff writer was not to tell MY truth, but to enable the showrunners to tell THEIRS. You earn the right to create a universe by being an apprentice in countless other people’s shared realities. I wish I had been humbler and more willing to accept the truth that my time would come if I put in the work for others.
The Fairy Godmother’s Advice: I would say the best advice is to write a spec that goes to the heart of the show. Look at the main character, and identify what their central issue is – what is it in their character that drives them through the series? Find a story that pokes at that character trait. If the story in your spec presents the character with the opportunity (whether they take it or not) to make some small progress relative to their central issue, then it’ll probably be a great, resonant, emotional script. This works for a spec of an existing show or a spec pilot. If you’re writing a spec of an existing show, don’t skip the step of studying the show to the point of recreating beat sheets of produced episodes.
What The Fairy Godmother Wishes She’d Been Told: The thing I wish I’d known? Don’t rely on sight gags. Funny on film, very hard to convey on the page.
Clever Girl’s Advice: DO NOT SEND your spec to the show you spec’ed. So if you write a Breaking Bad spec, send it to ANYONE OTHER than Breaking Bad. They can’t legally read it, so don’t waste your time.
What Clever Girl Wishes She’d Been Told: Your specs need to be producible – no million new sets, new characters, or any radical change of the show’s format. They aren’t looking for genius innovation. They want you to tell a “normal” story well.
See you next month! And keep writing!