Trainee Writer

Adventures of a screenwriter in training…

Speculate To Accumulate


I know, it’s a cheesy-as-hell title. You’ll get over it, because what I want to talk to all of you about today (and it’s a growing number; I couldn’t have dreamed so many people would be reading my little screenwriting blog – thank you!) is every aspiring television writer’s biggest nightmare: the spec script.

Whilst I am not an expert – and if you’ve mistaken me one, I’m sorry. In this field they rarely exist – I just wanted to give you my point of view on this whole messy area.

Read any book, listen to the advice of any old-school screenwriting guru and they’ll talk about the spec script until the cows come home. They’ll tell you the following almost entirely too vague things:

  • Write an episode of a popular show that’s currently on the air.
  • Never write an episode of a show in its first season.
  • Never write an episode that continues, or makes reference to, a series’ story arc. As an addendum to this, they’ll tell you to (essentially) ‘always put things back where you left them’ – especially when writing a sitcom.
  • Never introduce a major new character.
  • Never try to get too ‘cute’ or ‘clever’ with your script; always write an episode that fits with the tone of the show.

Okay, perhaps not actually all that vague. And, for the most part, solid advice. But that doesn’t tell you what you should be speccing or how to work out what your script should be about. So I’m going to give you the benefit of my $0.02.

First of all, we should assess the aforementioned rules.

Write an episode of a popular show that’s currently on the air is good advice, but should never be taken as gospel when speccing for a show. Sometimes there are no good shows on the air in a particular genre. Trying to find a decent political drama on the air in 2011 is like trying to find Charlie Sheen in rehab – you know it should be easy, but it’s just not happening. So what do you do?

Well, you have two choices: the first is to write an episode of the best show ever made in the genre you’re struggling to find a current example of. If that’s a political show, that means writing an episode of The West Wing. The other is to take what some ‘gurus’ might tell you is a huge risk and write a spec pilot for a show in that genre. If you can pull it off – and, to be honest, if you can write a West Wing then a pilot in that genre should be a cakewalk – you’ve told your potential agent or employer two things: ‘yes, I can write a political show’ and ‘yes, I am capable of creating a show of my own.’

An offshoot of this advice is when there’s only one show on the air in a genre, when a modern show bears similarities to an older one or if the showrunner/production company has a history of predominantly working in the same genre. Under those circumstances, the choice becomes a little harder. The spec pilot is always an option, but if I were trying to get a staff job on Fringe, for example, that would not be the path I’d take.

Fringe, created by JJ Abrams, is basically a science fiction detective show. Each week our heroes go out and solve a case that brings them one step along the myth arc. So if we’re not going to write a spec pilot, which was are we going to go? Well, Fringe, bears striking similarities to one of the greatest sci-fi shows of all time: The X-Files. So one option to get to that writers’ table is to write a really good X-Files spec. Every book you’ll ever read will probably tell you this is a horrible idea; there’s a whole generation of TV execs who’ve never seen the show. But this is my blog, so I’ll give you the advice I think makes sense.

If you also think that’s a risk, I’ll present you with a ‘Plan B’ – JJ Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot, was also the force behind a very similar show, Alias. You can pick up a series box set for peanuts these days, watch it over a couple of weeks and get all fuzzy over unraveling the Rambaldi mystery. Now write an episode of the show (I’d recommend something that slots in mid-second season or late-fourth, to demonstrate you can add to or carry the show’s mythology) that they never did, that works within the boundaries of the show.

Never write an episode of a show in its first season is advice given for the following two reasons:

  1. You don’t know if it’s going to be popular enough to get a second.
  2. You don’t have enough episodes to watch to get to know the characters properly.

The first part is true, and it’s a risk you’d have to knowingly take; understand that, if you do, the show may get cancelled and, if it does, it probably didn’t have the popularity to guarantee that any decision makers saw it. And if they didn’t see your show, they’re not going to understand how brilliant your script is.

The second part, however, is an outright lie. I know people are going to point me to a thousand other blogs where guys who wrote a million episodes of Star Trek say the opposite, so let me counter with this question: when was the last time you saw a show in which all the first-season episodes were written by the same writer? The only shows I can think of, in recent years, that had the same writer throughout the first season were Aaron Sorkin’s masterpieces of television, The West Wing and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip.

So ask riddle me this: if one guy wasn’t writing every episode, that means more than one person must’ve been involved in the writing; how did they get to know the characters so quickly? Exactly – I’m not just picking wholes in the accepted wisdom, I’m also offering a new perspective. It’s perfectly acceptable to write an episode of a show in its first season; the truth is that the producers of that show will never read your script whilst that show is on the air anyway because of the massive legal minefield that puts them in. Which brings me to another point:

Always remember, when writing a spec script, that you’re not writing for the show you’re trying to get a job on. I promise you that David Shore is not reading House specs. I promise you that Al Jean (I’m assuming he’s the head honcho right now, it changes so often it’s hard to keep track)  is not reading Simpsons specs. And I promise you that Kevin Williamson is absolutely not going to read that Vampire Diaries script you’ve poured your heart and soul into. Or lack of soul. I’m not sure how that works with vampire shows.

If you’re speccing, spec for the opposite show. The rival show. Every showrunner has a vague idea of what their nearest rival in the genre is about, what they’re doing, etc. You want to write for House? Write a Grey’s Anatomy or a Castle. Want to write for The Simpsons? Show them a really good Family Guy. Want to write for The Vampire Diaries? Show them a great Pretty Little Liars or Dawson’s Creek. (Why Dawson’s? Remember what I said about ‘unique shows’ and ‘showrunners’ previous work’? KW created Dawson’s Creek.)

Never write an episode that continues, or makes reference to, a series’ story arc is theoretically good advice. And I thoroughly disagree with it. What if the show you’re speccing for often has several story arcs running at once? Dramas and soap operas often do. This is the one area I would absolutely advise not writing for a show in its first season. Why? Because you can always spec that ‘missing’ first season episode, elongating a story arc by 46 pages and showing how neatly you could’ve slipped into that writers’ room and contributed.

As an addendum to this, they’ll tell you to (essentially) ‘always put things back where you left them’ – especially when writing a sitcom. I actually agree, in part, with this addendum; the convention with animated sitcoms dictates that thirty minutes later everything goes back to normal. However, a large number of live action sitcoms do have a continuing storyline (Arrested Development being a prime example) that is constantly called back to but almost all of them do occasionally take a break for a stand-alone, animation-style episode. Frasier was particularly good at this.

Never introduce a major new character. Never, ever do this. Seriously. If you think there should be wiggle room on this, that I should have some counterpoint, you’d be wrong. Imagine reading a Simpsons episode and – boom – in walks Bobby Simpson, Marge and Homer’s 15 year-old eldest son that we’ve never seen before. And he’s still there at the end of the episode. You could get away with it if you write him out by the end (as they did with Herb, Homer’s older brother) but, for the most part, it’s best to stick with the show’s regular characters. Only staff writers can get away with such big moves and, well, sometimes they go wrong. The Cosby family had more grandparents than the average nursing home.

Never try and get too ‘cute’ or ‘clever’ with your script; always write an episode that fits with the tone of the show. This sounds like basic advice, but you’ll be surprised how often people submit things that they think are ‘quirky’ or ‘interesting’ enough to make them stand out in the mind of the reader. That episode of House you’ve written where the good doctor decides he wants to try being a blacksmith for the day and cures some obscure equine illness will stand out ad the reader will remember you – at best, for being an absolute whack job; at worst, for being a terrible writer. Either way, it’ll probably be the last of your screenplays they agree to read.

That said, a trend has begun recently for writing modernized versions or classic shows; 21st century-style episodes of Lucy or Bewitched have been known to capture the attention of readers as a novelty spec. And 21st century-styled episodes of things like Charlie’s Angels and Knight Rider have, terrifyingly, even started to go into production.

Now, having deconstructed the ‘rules’ of the plot, I’m yet t answer the question that I wrote this with the intent of answering. What exactly should you be speccing?

Well, you need to be conscious of two things: the genre you want to be working in and what everybody else is submitting.

So what genre do you want to write for? This is the most important question you’ll ever ask yourself as a writer and, very rarely, is ‘any’ the answer. In addition, what genres are you qualified to write for? You can research your House spec until you go blue in the face and probably produce a great one, but if you don’t have any medical knowledge, that’s going to take you months. But the great script is all that matters, right? The foot in the door? Not necessarily.

Should you be lucky enough to make it onto a top-rated medical drama, you’re going to be expected to turn in a script, at times, in under a month. Sometimes (although rarely) it could be less than a week. You might not have time to research a fantastical medical disease to keep viewers enthralled in that time, and Dr. Gregory House doesn’t deal with cases of the flu, no matter how entertaining your B-story featuring Wilson, Cuddy and Thirteen entering a speedboat race is.

So what should you be writing? Always start with a show or genre you know well. From my point of view, and speaking on a general basis, the genres I know best are teen dramas, police, legal and medical procedurals, sitcoms, reality-based sci-fi and female-oriented dramedy; what I don’t know is alien-based sci-fi, action, horror or soap operas. So I’m going to be very, very uncomfortable speccing a Coronation Street (or General Hospital for my American readers) or an episode of Battlestar Galactica because I don’t watch those shows. I don’t know the characters, the formats nor the genres.

On the flip side, I can very easily write a West Wing, House, Cougar Town or One Tree Hill. The lesson here is to always play to your strengths and, as Mark Twain once said, “write what you know.”

The other piece of advice I’ll give (gleaned from years of reading screenwriting books and other writers’ blogs, I’ll admit) is to be smart about what you spec. Never write for the most popular show in a genre if you can help it. Everyone who wants to do procedurals is speccing House or Law & Order or CSI now. Everybody who wants to do animated comedy is writing a Simpsons, Family Guy or South Park and, frankly, both are best avoided by now just because almost every plot that can be done has been done.

So, to close – and help you out – I’ve compiled a list of the shows for each television genre that I feel are worth speccing. This list is not exhaustive, but intended to provide inspiration. Incidentally, if you’re reading this, now would be a good time to check the date I’ve posted it (May 16th 2011), because these lists only have around a 12-month shelf life. Hopefully I’ll have posted a newer one by then anyway. Click the ‘spec lists’ tag to find out.

  • Action: 24, Sons Of Anarchy, Spec Pilot.
  • Cartoon: You probably still can’t go wrong writing a Tom & Jerry or Scooby-Doo, to be honest.
  • Animated Sitcom: American Dad, Robot Chicken, King Of The Hill, anything [Adult Swim].
  • Teens: Just take a look at the Disney or Nick listings; personally, I’d recommend Victorious, Big Time Rush or Wizards Of  Waverly Place. Spec pilots can be strong here.
  • Historical: The Tudors, Spartacus or Boardwalk Empire. Also a strong spec pilot genre.
  • Science fiction: Battlestar Galactica, Fringe and V seem to be popular. Flashforward and Jericho make great novelty pilots. If you want to go retro go X-Files or take a risk with a Dark Angel or Mutant X.
  • Fantasy: True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Buffy/Angel, Spec pilot.
  • Dramedy: So much scope here. Glee fits. Otherwise, Desperate Housewives, Ally McBeal, spec pilot.
  • Legal: The Good Wife.
  • Western: You have a choice here: Go retro with a Lone Ranger, modern-ish with a Deadwood or go post-modern with a Firefly. To be honest, this is a genre crying out for a good spec pilot.
  • Serial Drama: To be honest, you can throw s stone and hit one. Still stuck? Brothers & Sisters or maybe Treme.
  • Teen Drama: Hellcats, Pretty Little Liars, The Secret Life Of The American Teenager, 90210, Gossip Girl, The O.C. or Dawson’s Creek. If you feel super-ballsy, you could write a Veronica Mars or Life UneXpected, but definitely avoid writing a One Tree Hill. It’s just going into its ninth (and probably last) season, and people have been reading them for the last nine years.
  • Sitcom: So many to pick from, I’ll tell you which ones nobody wants to see another of for a while: Friends, Earl, Will & Grace. Only submit a Frasier if it’s exceptionally funny. Otherwise, go wild.
  • Soap opera: To be honest, they’re all the same and they’re only going to be read by soap opera producers. Best avoided, but if you must, be very careful on character usage. Watch a few weeks’ worth, you’ll see what I mean. And if you don’t, ask.
  • Police procedural: Rookie Blue is supposed to be the best thing to pilot in this genre at the moment. Though, if you get desperate, swing for a spec pilot and mid-season episode combo.
  • Medical: Everyone is sick of reading House and Grey’s now. Write a spec pilot, maybe write an ER or an episode of Mental. Not a wide choice in the medical genre in today’s market.

On that note, one last, all-encompassing pilot secret. One I shouldn’t be telling you because I’m going to dump one on the market myself soon: Get writing Castle specs. It covers three genres (police procedural, serial drama and dramedy), has strong characters and masses of unexplored potential. And, actually, the best spec I’ve ever read was a Castle that I reviewed recently by my friend Jennifer Zinone. Maybe, if I ask her nicely, she’ll let me upload it for you to read. Either way, definitely remember her name, she’s gonna be huge.

Until next time,

Peace x

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May 16, 2011 - Posted by | lessons, screenwriting, specs, writing | , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. Great post, yet again. And I can’t thank you enough for the compliment on my spec! I have to admit, I felt myself blush a bit. 🙂

    I stopped by to see what new goodies you’ve put up. You’re sort of mia for a bit.

    Comment by Jennifer Zinone | June 26, 2011 | Reply

    • Hey Jen,

      Glad you liked it – I’ve got good reasons for being MIA: I had knee surgery last week and I’ve not been able to do much more than eat and sleep. This is the first time I’ve been online in what feels like months!

      Comment by Kriss Sprules | June 28, 2011 | Reply


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