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Advice for New TV Writers: Don’t Know How to Get Started? Write a Spec!

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If you’re a brand new writer – perhaps you have yet to attempt your first script, or you have an idea of how a script is structured but feel completely lost as to how people come up with interesting characters and story ideas – my suggestion would be to first write a spec script.

(NOTE: In the entertainment industry, a spec script can mean two different things. It can either mean an original script that you wrote on speculation ie without being paid for it, or as I intend to mean it here, a script you write of an existing show. A spec in this sense of the word is usually required to apply to the Network TV Writing programs.)

I have found writing spec scripts to be one of the most educational things I can do for my writing career. There are so many different types of shows with different tones, structures, and elements, and writing a spec allows you to take a deep dive into one particular show.

So, how do you go about writing a spec script? Here is my process:

First – choose a show that you know and love. You’re going to be living with these characters, so you want to choose something you’ll enjoy working on. Even if you have yet to write your first script, you probably have some inkling of the types of stories you’re drawn to or that may be a natural fit for you. You could even think of a spec as fan fiction – you already know and love the world and characters of the show and can probably speak/write in each character’s unique voice. Great! That’s exactly what you’ll need to move forward.

If your goal is to use your spec to apply to network writing programs, make sure you choose a show that is currently on the air. I would look at the “accept shows” lists just to make your spec would qualify. If you’re just doing this for practice, choose any show you’d like!

Second – Look online for an example of that show’s script. Often, especially if it is a popular show, the pilot script is available on any number of online databases and can be found with a simple Google search. Sometimes you can find scripts from several episodes. Make sure what you find isn’t a transcript, but is an actual script from production so you can see how that particular show is structured. How many acts do they use? How quick are the scenes?  If it’s a comedy, how frequently are the lines jokes? How much description do they use in their action lines?

Third – Re-watch whichever episode(s) you found scripts for WHILE reading along. This really gives you an idea of how often they use their a/b/c storylines, if there are any patterns that show follows, what kinds of things they use as their act outs, etc. You’ll really get a sense of how they structure their show, and get a clear idea of how the page translates to the screen.

Fourth – Write your spec! This part I can’t advise you on as much, because writers have very different processes that work for them. Perhaps you found a pattern over several episodes that made it clear how that show is structured, so you can start with an outline of that structure and fill it in with your own story. Or maybe you’re someone who has to simply start at the beginning and find the story as you go along. Whatever feels best to you, the fact remains that you need to write the thing.

If you’re writing this spec to get some practice, simply think of a situation you haven’t seen on that show (or maybe something you had always wished had happened?) and write your spec! If this is intended as a submission for network programs, I’d recommend thinking of a topic that is uniquely YOU and that can be squeezed into the current season of that show. It doesn’t matter if the show deviates from your script – this isn’t about you trying to anticipate where the show is going. It is about finding your own unique voice and storytelling ability WITHIN the context of this world and utilizing these characters.

And I have an optional fifth step – Get some feedback and make adjustments. Here’s the thing – if this is the very first script you’re writing, the odds are that it isn’t going to be fantastic. And that’s okay! Writing is a skill that definitely improves with practice. So if this is an exercise for yourself alone, it is perfectly acceptable to tuck the completed script away in a desktop folder and only look at it again years from now as an example of how far you’ve come. You still wrote a spec! And that’s great.

If you’re planning to submit to the network programs, I HIGHLY suggest that you give the script to a few folks for some feedback. Ideally, choose people who are familiar with the show AND who have some knowledge of screenwriting. Choose someone who will give honest and constructive feedback. I like letting my parents read my writing, but let’s be honest, they love almost anything I do 😉 Over time, you’ll find which friends give great feedback that strengthens your writing, and which friends read something and say, “it’s good!” It’ll take time, but I’ve found those sounding boards to be incredibly valuable. That isn’t to say that you need to incorporate all feedback you get – likely, you’ll develop a muscle for knowing when suggestions are in line with what you were trying to do with the script and when suggestions just don’t work for your story.

And, voila! You’ve become intimately knowledgeable about how that particular show writes their scripts. I have done some form of this process for several scripts, because as you can imagine, specing a multi-cam comedy is very different from writing a procedural drama, etc. There is so much to be learned from studying different writer’s styles, and in the end, you’ll find a style of your own. Just get started! Happy writing 🙂

Are you in the process of writing a spec script? I’d love to hear from you! Connect with me on twitter and let me know what show you’re writing.

Sarah J Eagen

About Sarah J Eagen

A Writer, Actor, and Choreographer, Sarah is currently a staff writer on the sci fi audio drama The Veil from Voxx Studios. She co-wrote/produced/acted in the short Soledad, which screened on the Disney lot as part of the Alliance of Women Directors/Shoot Em Up collaboration. She wrote/starred in the webseries Magic for Muggles based on Harry Potter, and the scientific short "The Interview", based on her graduate school research in Genetics and Virology. Sarah was a finalist for the Women in Film/Blacklist Episodic lab in the fall of 2017 & the NYTVF Script Comp in 2018. One of her scripts was performed live by the Parsec award-nominated podcast Once Upon a Wine. Sarah was seen as the helpful paralegal Carol in CBS's action comedy Rush Hour, and had the pleasure of sharing the screen with funny lady Kristen Schaal in the feature film Austin Found.