The Spectacular Spec
By Martie Cook
WRITING FOR EXISTING SHOWS IS YOUR FIRST STEP
It’s important to understand that no one is going to hire you as a TV writer simply because you want to be one. As with any business, in order to get work, you have to prove that you can actually handle the job. Hollywood is heavily unionized, which makes production outrageously expensive. To cut down on costs, production schedules are usually tight, allowing little, if any, room for error. If a script isn’t ready for shooting when it is supposed to be, the cost to delay production can be astronomical. Therefore, most producers will not give out writing assignments to unproven writers without being fairly certain that the writer will not only turn in a decent script, but will turn it in on time. So if you are a new writer without a track record, how do you prove to producers that you can in fact step up to the plate and do a professional job? The answer is you write what is known as a “spec” script. In scripted television, writing a spec is the first step to getting work as a writer.
WHAT IS A SPEC SCRIPT?
Simply put, a spec script is a writing sample. You don’t get paid to write it; however, if done well, your spec could open doors and generate work for you down the road. Think of a spec script as your calling card. The same way actors and models send out headshots in hopes of gaining future employment, you will use your spec scripts to find work as a TV writer.
Your first order of business is to come up with a story idea for an existing show. The reason you should write a spec for an existing show rather than write a pilot is twofold. First, it will be easier than writing a pilot, as the premise, characters, character voices, and character relationships are already established. Second, you need to prove to producers that you have the ability to write for existing characters, because that is what you will ultimately be doing. Ideally, the story you come up with should use all of that show’s main characters, and should utilize as many of the show’s regular sets as possible. Once you have the story, you will write a sample teleplay from beginning to end. The goal is to have an end product that mirrors the actual scripts that are produced on that particular show.
CHOOSING A SPEC SCRIPT THAT WILL WORK FOR YOU
Before you jump into the saddle and choose which show to spec, it is advisable to take a big-picture look at your long-term career goals. Where and how do you see yourself fitting in within the TV industry? To help establish where your sensibilities lie, you might want to think about who you are as a person. Are you someone who is exceptional at making people laugh — or do you possess more of a flair for drama? You may also want to look at the kind of TV shows you are most attracted to. If you tend to watch more drama than comedy, you will probably be more comfortable scripting a one-hour drama than a joke-heavy sitcom. But what kind of drama do you find most appealing? Smart procedurals like Criminal Minds or softer, more character driven vehicles like Downton Abbey ? By writing the kind of show that you really have an affinity for, you will probably struggle less, and in the end produce a stronger writing sample.
In series television, there are comedy writers and there are drama writers. Most writers don’t bounce back and forth between the two. Therefore, you must declare yourself as one or the other. This is how your agent will generally sell you. It is also how you will be seen in the industry once you are up and running.
After you have decided between comedy and drama, it’s time to choose which show you want to spec. There are certain criteria that should be considered in order to choose a show that will work best for you. To begin with, the show must be currently on the air in prime time. Don’t mix this up with shows that have been canceled and are rerunning in syndication. I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, “The only show I watch is Seinfeld. So that’s what I want to write.” Here is my stock response. First of all, if you want to work as a TV writer, you have to be constantly watching television — and yes, that means more than one show. Second, writing a spec for a canceled show is a colossal waste of time. Once a show goes off the air, it quickly becomes yesterday’s news. Producers generally won’t read these scripts and agents won’t sign you on them. You must write a spec for an existing program to show that you are current with what is on the air today.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. If you have an amazingly unique idea for a show that has gone off the air, you might consider writing that, as it could get you attention. Let me give you an example. Not long ago, Max Mutchnick, who co-created the ground-breaking hit series, Will & Grace , gave a talk at his alma mater, Emerson College. The subject of spec scripts came up, and Max said he would love to see someone write a spec of I Love Lucy …only set in present day rather than in the 1950s. That’s — not surprisingly — a brilliant idea. Think of all the trouble Lucy and Ethel could get into if they had things like smart phones, and computers. They’d be able to text, tweet, follow celebs, make YouTube videos, shop online… the list goes on. So, imagine you’re an agent or a producer and that kind of a spec script came across your desk. It would definitely stand out — and if written well, you’d probably want to meet that writer. Why? Because the writer thought outside of the box and wrote something fun and original. Keep in mind though, that I am not advocating that you write a show that’s off the air. What I am saying is that if you have a real creative twist on a canceled show, then definitely go ahead. And, by the way…don’t go write an updated version of I Love Lucy . That idea belongs to Max. You need to come up with a unique idea that’s all your own. And while we are on that subject, know that whatever show you ultimately choose to write, you’re going to need to come up with a big idea that will carry your spec and make it stand out. (We’ll delve into that part later.)
After you make up your mind about what show you want to spec, you need to research it carefully before you start writing. Look closely at how well it is doing in the ratings. While you won’t always know for sure if a show is going to be picked up for another season, you can usually make an educated guess. If its ratings are at all iffy, I would steer clear of it. As you are about to find out, writing a solid spec script takes an enormous amount of time and energy. The last thing you want to have happen is to work as hard as you are going to have to work, only to find out that once you have finished, the show has been canceled and you have to start all over again at square one. If you can find a show that looks like it will be around for a few years, all the better. As long as a show is on the air, you will have a current spec script that can continue to be sent out. Though it happens infrequently, there are shows — usually those that are doing extremely well in the ratings — that networks make commitments to a year or more in advance. These shows tend to be a good bet to spec because it is likely that by choosing one, you will have a writing sample that is current for at least a few seasons.
If you’re considering writing a spec for a brand new show, you should know that this can also be risky. In the first season, shows often struggle to find their voice and identity. Things change as the writers and producers get a feel for who the characters are and where they are going. Also, if the show isn’t an instant mega-hit, there may be some producers on other shows who won’t be as familiar with it, which can be problematic when it comes to getting your script read. Beware of shows that are too obscure for the same reason. Producers have to have a general idea of what the show is and who the characters are in order to evaluate your writing and your script.
Each season a few breakout shows quickly become hits. I commonly refer to these as “the flavor of the month.” They are the shows that every writer wants to spec. While there is technically nothing wrong with writing one of these shows, I think it can put you at a slight disadvantage. Let’s say you decide to spec a Modern Family , which happens to be one of the specs that everyone is writing. When you send it out to an agent, that agent will likely take it home to read over the weekend with ten other scripts. If six of the ten are Modern Family specs, how well do you think the agent will remember your script by Monday morning? The answer is probably not that well. If, however, there were six Modern Family specs, but you wrote a dynamite episode of Bob’s Burgers your script would have a much better chance of standing out among the pack.
The same thing is true when your agent sends your spec to producers to read. Producers grow tired of reading specs for the same show over and over again. Often the scripts that aren’t “the flavor of the month” end up getting writers noticed.
Be aware that, whatever kind of spec script you choose, it’s no guarantee of the kind of show you will eventually end up writing for. The spec that got me the most attention was a Married with Children. It was deliciously raunchy and extremely fun to write. Ironically, in the sitcom arena it only got me work on squeaky-clean family shows. Go figure.
Excerpt from Write to TV: Out of Your Head and onto the Screen, 2nd Edition by Martie Cook © 2014 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.