One of the best practices for writing for TV, I’ve been led to believe, is writing spec scripts. What’s a spec script? It’s a ‘speculative script’, and in the context of the television industry it’s typically a speculative episode of a television series that you’re not affiliated with. Writing one proves that you can take on another person’s format and characters and pull them off flawlessly, and also typically showcases your work in a specific genre. I’ve only written a couple myself, but I’ve read and been told plenty on the subject. So, where do you begin writing one?
Choose the Show(s): Choosing a show you’d like to spec is a mix of a few considerations. One of the biggest: write a show you like, and would enjoy writing. I will never attempt a Two and a Half Men, despite its popularity. Why?
A show you like will excite you about writing it, giving you easier access to energy. You’ll have a tighter grasp of the characters’ dialogues and rhythms, and a great line will feel more like a success than if you didn’t like the show. And, also, consider the functionality of the spec: you use a spec to showcase the kind of jobs you want to get, so why would you showcase a show that you dislike? The choice of show is key to the spec.
For example, when doing my Comedy Writing course last year, not a single person voted for Two and a Half Men to be included as a category. I myself could have chosen a more prominent show, but I fought for Community, because I knew I’d deeply enjoy plotting and writing it. And, thus, the writing of that spec came fast and furious. However, if I were writing a career spec, it would be a mistake for me to choose Community.
Why? Because even if you like the show, you have to keep in mind that this is a calling card for the type of show you want to write. In this case, it would be a mistake because my preference, writing-wise, is for hour-long drama and dramedy; a Community spec might suit my sense of humour, but it would also confuse those who I’m applying for jobs at hour-long shows. Don’t apply to Grey’s Anatomy with a How I Met Your Mother, even if they have some similarities, because a half-hour spec won’t show them your ability to write in the one-hour format. They’d suspect you’re submitting a half-hour because, in fact, you’re hiding those very weaknesses. Similarly, you might want to avoid hopping between pay cable and network in your spec choices, because network and premium cable have different rules.
Study the Show(s): Submitting a spec, you’re caught between two hard-to-please groups: those who know they show you’re speccing (and thus will be able to note inaccuracies or off-tone moments), and those who’ve never seen it (and thus might have trouble following it without help). So it almost has to work as a pilot without boring the pants off of someone who knows the show, or compromising your killer story idea. Your writing can’t just be winning: you have to have a grasp on the show’s formatting, pacing, voices, sometimes even budget. Watch every episode more than once, and study the shooting scripts of them if you can. Spend some time marinating in the show before even putting pen to paper. It will help.
Practice: Though you may laugh at this suggestion, try writing a fanfiction for the show. Fanfiction is a brilliant way of getting into a show’s head without focusing on the structure or the holes that exist between a script and an audience. It also allows you to explore the headspace of your cast in much greater detail than script format. After all, what is fanfiction beyond taking someone else’s characters and telling a great story with them? That’s not just what a spec isl that’s what staff writing is, for anyone below the creator!
Don’t Rush the Skeleton: If the bones of your story are nonsense, thet will see it. These are writers who know how to read scripts, and can smell bullshit immediately. Make sure everything adds up when you prepare it, because otherwise it could merely leave the reader scratching their heads.
Enjoy the Process: Though it should be a really strong script, you should want to keep writing. While you can’t necessarily force yourself to enjoy the process, and perhaps occasionally you’ll just write for practice and have to push through, the best specs come from really getting into the characters and the story. Boredom from you will reflect in the writing.
Develop a Speed: Though it won’t happen at first, the more specs you write, the faster you’ll get and the better work you’ll produce. Just keep fighting and moving forward with it, and don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t quite come out, even after plenty of drafts. Writing for practice is investing time in yourself and your skills, after all.
Ultimately, though, just keep going. Just keep going.