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How to Write a Spec Script

The Only Resume a Television Writer Will Ever Need

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If you’re hoping to one day find yourself working as a writer for television, then you need to quickly become familiar with how to write a “spec” script.

What is a Spec Script?

What is a “spec?” Spec is short for speculative script. It technically refers to something you wrote on speculation (sometimes referred to as “wrote on spec”) – which really means that you wrote the script for free. You hope that you might later sell it or get hired for a writing job because of it, but to have the chance of either possibility, your only choice was to write the script. After all, much in the same way an artist or photographer has a portfolio, the television writer has a collection of sample scripts that show the Hollywood community that they can in fact write for television. Unlike a spec script for movies where your skills can sell a script, a television spec script is meant to sell your skills.

A spec script for television is typically one of two things. It’s either an episode of an existing television show or it’s an original piece of work such as a television pilot. Sometimes a movie script or play can be used if it shows a truly unique voice or talent that might not be evident in a typical television script. But usually it’s either an original pilot or a sample episode of a popular TV series.

How to Write a Spec Script

Let’s break down the how to into two separate categories:

Sample Episode: To write a sample episode of a comedy or drama series, here’s the easiest way to go about it.
  • Step 1:

    First, decide what type of TV writer you wish to become. Are you more passionate about comedy or drama? What type of shows do you enjoy as a viewer? Make a list of your favorite TV shows. Start asking yourself which of those shows would be the most fun to write on. If you’re a CSI or LOST junkie, then becoming a comedy writer is probably not for you. But on the other hand, if you love The Office and popular drama-dies (mix of comedy and drama) like Desperate Housewives or Ugly Betty then becoming a TV comedy writer might be the career path of choice.

    TIP: You might be multi-talented and able to write for both comedies and dramas. Eventually, you might have the opportunity to do so. But when you’re first starting out, it’s extremely important that you focus your efforts on one or the other. It comes off as both arrogant and ignorant when a newbie TV writer states they can write in every genre imaginable.

  • Step 2:

    Now that you’ve determined whether you are a comedy writer or a drama writer, your next order of business is to decide which show you’re going to write a sample episode of. To do this, take a look at your list of favorite shows. Which of those shows are the most popular? Which ones have the most “buzz” around them?

    What you’re looking to do here is eliminate the shows that few people (other than you) are watching or even aware of. Consider who your audience is – prospective agents, managers and other writers. So, choose the show that you both have a passion for and that is popular or “buzzworthy.” Tip: A “buzzworthy” show might be a television show that might not be exceptionally popular with the viewers or even with the critics, but for whatever reason, draws a lot of attention to it. For example, the comedy ”Two and a Half Men” is quite popular, but The Office is more buzzworthy. For dramas, ”Gray’s Anatomy” is extremely popular, but ”Dexter” has a lot of buzz around it.

    Sometimes writing a high quality episode of a buzzworthy show will get you noticed faster than writing what’s popular.

  • Step 3: Study The Show’s Format.

    Begin to study the format of the show. You want to understand how the show is created from a writer’s perspective. Ideally, you’ll want to not only watch as many episodes as you can, but you’ll also want to track down a few scripts of the show if possible. If you live in Los Angeles, there are a number of local book sellers that offer up episodes of numerous television shows. The Samuel French Book Store is one such example. If you live outside Los Angeles, simply type in the show you’re considering writing into Google with the word, “scripts” and more than likely, you’ll locate someone who (for a modest fee) will send you as many episode scripts as you need.

    Tip: Be sure NOT to get a “transcript” of a given show. A transcript is nothing more than the dialogue as it’s heard when it plays on television. You want an actual script that includes all dialogue, stage direction and descriptions.

    Once you have a number of scripts in hand, begin to track how the show is structured. Is it a two, three or four act structure? Does it have an “A” story (main story) along with a “B” story (another story that’s usually less significant) or maybe even a “runner” or “C” story (a small storyline that unfolds in the background of a given episode). What are the voices of each character like? What makes them unique? Do they have particular words they say or gestures they make or specific likes and dislikes? Make notes of anything you think might be helpful as you go to write your own sample episode of the show you’ve chosen.

  • Step 4: Start Writing

    You’re now ready to begin the fun (and terrifying) process of writing your spec script. Now, unlike every writing handbook on the planet, I will tell you there is no right way or wrong way to write a script. You have to do whatever works for you. I often recommend to new writers to start with an outline first of the basic elements of the story and then slowly “flesh out” (adding material and dialogue) each scene until it starts to take shape. An outline will help you keep your story on track and point out any holes that might be there before you jump into dialogue.

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