How to Write a Good Spec TV Script

by on Nov.26, 2010, under television

I worked this summer as a reader for one of the network television writing fellowship programs. I was one of four readers who together read about 1100 scripts. Last year, when my writing partner and I did the same program, we had written one of 8 scripts admitted from a pile of 900; this year the number of slots were the same, so the odds were even lower. After talking to someone at Thanksgiving about the process of applying to another one of the fellowships, I decided to write up some tips I gleaned from reading such a big pile.

The trend right now for hiring in television is towards original material (“pilots”) rather than sample episodes of existing shows (“specs”). However, most of the writers’ fellowships still require specs. I think this is a good thing; I think it’s important to master a spec episode of an existing show before attempting a pilot, even if agents, managers and showrunners are less interested in reading specs right now. Even if you’re not planning to enter a script in one of the fellowships, I still recommend writing a spec of a show you love. Hopefully this advice will be helpful.

Generally, my scores broke down like this:

1 – 1.5: wildly long or short, incorrectly formatted, poor command of structure or dialogue.

2: Adequate but not special.

2.5: If a comedy, made me laugh; if a drama, didn’t bore me. Dialogue was crisp and right for the characters, conflict was present.

3: An enjoyable episode of television. Conflict came from characters and wasn’t too clichéd.

3.5-4: Made me laugh, kept me riveted, most of all, made me care.

Note that starting with scores of 2, I’m not listing deficits. You may have written a spec that does everything technically right — may even be as good as a sample episode of that show. You may have written clear, believable dialogue and internalized important rules about structure, but to get a second reading from a stack of 1100, you’ll need to go a step beyond. Here’s my advice:

The basics. Your script is formatted correctly and in Courier. You’ve not only used spell-check, but you’ve read your dialogue out loud and double-checked your they’re/their/theres. Your Final Draft revisions aren’t showing. Your cover page is attached. Your action writing is active: “Jane chops potatoes” is always superior to “Jane is chopping potatoes,” even if she’s in the middle of it when we enter the scene. Your script is of the correct length. (Note on length: the page-per-minute dictum shouldn’t be taken too literally. A 22-page half-hour single-cam will usually be short a turn in the plot. Keep single-cam 1/2-hours around 30 and hours under 60.)

Use guest stars sparingly. Guest stars are necessary in some shows, especially procedurals, but use them sparingly or not at all. The best use of a guest star is to reveal something about the regular characters. Have your guest star generate a conflict — say, two regular cast members fighting over a common romantic object, or taking opposite sides in a case. I know you can invent a neat character; I’ll be more impressed if your character draws out something I know about the regular cast that I haven’t seen before, and most impressed if you can create a new situation without using a new character at all.

Skin in the game. This is especially important for procedurals. I read many episodes where the case was interesting and the mystery wasn’t obvious, but that alone wouldn’t earn more than a 2.5, even if it was totally in keeping with a typical episode. But you don’t want to write a typical episode — you want to write a standout episode that shows us how deep you can go. Why is this case important to this detective (or fiction novelist, serial killer with a code, human lie detector, etc. etc.)? Is his family at risk? Are his most cherished beliefs challenged? Show me something more.

Funny isn’t enough. Jokes need to be rooted in the characters, how they understand the world, and how this puts them into conflict with those around them.

Use theme. It’s better to be heavy on this than light: have your A- and B- (and C- and D-) plots echo each other on the level of  theme. The episode will feel more substantial.

Since I started drafting this entry, I had the pleasure of meeting the new class. I had read two of the scripts by program participants, and had given both scores of 3.5. The comedy script was notable for converging plotlines in which the interaction between the A- and B-plot resulted in steadily heightened emotional stakes, and created high-tension humor rooted in the characters’ conflicts. The drama that got in stood out because the protagonist had “skin in the game” — solving the case required him to face aspects of his past that were brought to light realistically and painfully. Good luck!

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1 Comment for this entry

  • JBC

    I didn’t realize that courier was still standard for anyone, anywhere. That warms the cockles of my cold, Times New Romanized heart.

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