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Writing the TV Spec Script

by Laura Brennan

Television is no longer the ugly stepsister of the entertainment industry. Of writers making money in show biz, the Writers Guild of America reports that 30% more earn their income from television than from features. With expanding markets in network, cable, and syndication, the trend is likely to continue. But while television may look like film shoe-horned into a small, black box, in reality it's a unique medium with rules of its own.

Unlike features, television spec scripts are not written to be sold, they're written to sell you. Every spring, network TV shows find out whether they've been renewed, and new pilots are ordered. The Powers That Be on each series then have a feeding frenzy, reading spec scripts from writers as they decide whom to hire for staff and freelance jobs. The process is the same for cable and syndicated shows, at slightly different times of the year. If you want to break in, the first thing you have to master is the art of the TV spec.

Rule #1 - Design your calling card.

Choosing a series to spec is critical. You should pick a show you love to watch, one that's critically acclaimed and popular as well. Liking the show makes it easier to write, critical accolades encourage others to read it, and the longer it stays on the air, the longer you can use it as a sample of your writing. Television doesn't have the same shelf life as film; your spec becomes stale within a year after the show goes off the air.

The biggest decision you'll make is genre. First, of course, is whether to write for a sitcom or a drama. But even within sitcoms, there are the "brainy" shows, like Frasier, and the zany ones, like 3rd Rock From The Sun. A good spec for one won't get you in the door at the other. As for dramas, it's a smorgasbord: sword and sorcery, medical dramas, soft series like Providence, rough-edged stories like NYPD Blue. The narrower your focus, the better; most producers want to read a spec that's in the same ballpark as their show. So if you want to be hired on, say, Charmed, don't write a Law & Order script. But don't write a Charmed script, either: legally, producers can't read a spec for their own series.

Rule #2 - Learn the structure.

Besides being shorter than feature films, television shows structured around commercial breaks. For hour-long dramas or action-adventures, the stories are built in four acts, often with a teaser and tag. Each act needs to go out on a strong hook, especially at the half-hour mark, when viewers are most likely to change the channel. Most hour-long shows weave together three plotlines: the A story, which drives the bulk of the episode; a B story, featuring supporting characters; and a C story or "runner," usually lighter in tone, that serves as comic relief.

Sitcoms have two acts, usually with a laugh-out-loud teaser to draw the audience in. Tragedy is easy; comedy's always been tough. Structurally, there's more variety: Friends, for instance, uses the A-B-C formula, while Everybody Loves Raymond generally involves all the characters in one central story per episode. The only way to know is to watch and analyze the show you're writing for. Standard television format can be learned from books -- The Screenwriter's Bible by David Trottier is the most complete -- but the best way is to get a copy of a produced episode and follow it exactly. You can purchase actual scripts online at Hollywood Bookcity. You may also find scripts downloadable from the Internet, but these are usually transcripts, not shooting scripts, so don't trust the format.

Rule #3 - Capture the vision.

Writing for television is always about fulfilling someone else's vision. The trick is deciphering what that vision really is. Joss Whedon developed Buffy, The Vampire Slayer not to showcase a "monster-of-the-week," but to explore the high school (and now young adult) experience; emotional traumas are as important as vampires. Do the research; watch the show; read everything you can find on it. Avoid common "first script" mistakes, like focusing on supporting or guest characters. If your "Ed" isn't about Ed, you're in trouble.

Rule #4 - Learn to take notes.

In addition to death and taxes, TV writers face one more certainty: notes. Television is a collaborative medium, so start now by joining a writers group and sharing your work. If you make an honest effort to correct the flaws in your own scripts and to be constructive when critiquing others, you'll find the training invaluable. Plus, like every business, the entertainment industry is about who you know. Developing a circle of friends now means you'll have a network of contacts later.

Rule #5 -- Do it again.

The moment someone -- agent, development executive, or head writer -- reads your spec script and likes it, their first question will be "What else have you got?" If you don't have a second script, or even a third, you've missed your shot. Besides, with every script you get better. Soon you'll be taking the television world by storm.

Research and Resources:

Writer's Guild of America
http://www.wga.org
The Writers Guild of America site offers info on registering your work as well as invaluable research links -- everything from autopsies to WeatherNet. They even link to Inkspot!

Hollywood Reporter
http://www.hollywoodreporter.com

Hollywood Variety
http://www.variety.com
Access the trades online. Some areas are fee-based, but you can read the major stories daily for free.

Script Writer's Network
http://www.scriptwritersnetwork.org
One of the few organizations to focus on television as well as feature writers. Offers contests, writers groups, guest speakers.

Hollywood Bookcity
http://www.hollywoodbookcity.com
Buy TV scripts here.

Copyright © 2001 Laura Brennan
This article is not available for reprint.


Laura Brennan has written for a number of television shows, including The Invisible Man for the Sci-Fi Channel. She also co-created the children's series, Queen Augusta's Heroes.

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