Spec Script: 6 Ways to Pick a Show

Writing a spec script of an existing TV show is a challenge for new writers. While most screenwriters these days are forgoing writing specs entirely in favor of writing original pilots, if you’re applying for the writing fellowship programs, you have to submit a spec script.

Being on a TV show’s writing staff means being good at not only pitching your own story ideas, but being able to write in the show creator’s voice. If you haven’t already, you should read what Syfy’s Helix showrunner, Javi Grillo-Marxuach, said about the importance of writing spec scripts in terms of being a staff writer on a TV show.

In 2012, I made it into the Top 5% of the WB Writer’s Workshop with a spec script I wrote of the one-hour dramedy Shameless. One of the perks of being in a group of about 50 writers out of thousands of submissions is that the awesome people that run the program pull you into a room on the lot in Burbank and give you some tips on how to spec.

#1 – Know What Shows You’re Allowed to Spec

Obviously, you don’t want to put all of your heart and energy into a “Firefly” spec and realize that you’re only allowed to write shows that are either currently on the air or on the competition’s list. Check the fellowship websites and make sure the shows you’ve shortlisted are on their lists.

#2 – Comedy, Drama, or Dramedy?

When I first started writing TV, people told me I had to choose between writing comedy or drama. They told me to choose wisely because I’d be stuck writing that genre for the rest of my TV writing career. Given that I love both comedy and drama, this was a tough decision. However, I’ve always been a firm believer that life–real life–is neither comedy nor drama. It’s somewhere in between. That’s why I’m so happy that more dramedies have established themselves in the TV world since I wrote that “Shameless” spec script. For the sake of writing fellowship season though, you have to pick one genre. Be decisive!

#3 – Half-Hour or One-Hour?

Once you’ve decided that you want to write a comedy, drama, or dramedy, it’s time to decide if you want to go for a half-hour or one-hour show. Shows like Orange is the New Black, Louie, Transparent, and Girls have blurred the lines of comedy and drama, which means you can now write a half-hour drama or a one-hour comedy. Honestly, I think of them all as dramedies, but until the critics create a dramedy award category, we’ll have to keep judging shows based on their total run time.

#4 – First Season or Veteran Show?

I’m going to give away a little tip here. It is almost always better to write a first season show that has been picked up for a season two, rather than a veteran show. To write a spec script, you need to find storylines for the characters that haven’t been done yet. After I finished working on my Shameless spec script, I toyed around with the idea of writing a Sons of Anarchy spec script. In thematic ways SOA fit my brand, but it was also in its fifth season, meaning there were 65 one-hour episodes that would need to be reviewed. That’s not only five seasons of character backstories to keep straight, but five seasons of storylines that had already been done. If you write a first season show, especially if it’s a cable or Netflix show, you’re only going to have review 13 episodes AND you’ll have an infinite amount of story ideas to play with that the show hasn’t done yet.

#5 – Know Your Brand

If you’ve decided that you want to write TV, you should also know your personal brand. This means knowing what types of shows you want to write. Let’s forget about the half hour/one hour of it all for a moment, and think about themes. I’d start by asking, what are the recurring themes that constantly show up in your writing? What TV shows from the past or present have you watched and wished that you’d written? Do you love serialized shows or procedurals? After making these lists, you’ll have figured out your brand and from there you can match this list to the shows you’re allowed to spec for the fellowships.

#6 – Be Strategic About Your Spec Script

General good advice is to look for a show that’s critically acclaimed that has won/been nominated for awards. Still, many of the shows that get nominated are veteran shows that will be spec’ed by lots of other writers, and you do NOT want to be the 330th Modern Family spec that the fellowship script readers have to read. This is where novelty (first/second season shows) and your own passion and brand come into play. TV Calling published a list of hot and not-so-hot comedy spec scripts and drama spec scripts; it’s great information, but don’t feel limited by it. If your show’s not on the TV Calling list, take a risk!

When it comes down to it, pick a show you know you can write well. A show you’re passionate about. Being that one hilarious You’re The Worst spec might pay off better than being that 330th Modern Family spec.

And if you still feel like you need help with your spec script, check out my free script notes offer or contact me for a free consultation.