There are a few no-no’s that you want to pay attention to when writing a spec script. If you ignore the following pieces of advice, chances are your script won’t make it very far up the ladder. That said, sometimes the phrase, “the only rules are, there are no rules” is perfect for writing a spec. But unless your writing is unbelievably stellar and you’re already known for your quirkiness, just avoid the following what-not-to-dos to enhance your chance of success:
- Do Not Create New Main Characters – In a spec, you never want to create a new MAIN character for a show. It doesn’t matter how funny or inventive you think the new character is, by inventing a new MAIN character, you change the dynamics of the show and some potential employers will find that arrogant. Keep in mind that I’m referring to the creation of characters that will go beyond the episode you’re writing. You can create as many characters as you need for a single episode.
- Stay Away From The “Cabin” Show – The “cabin” show refers to those episodes of sit-coms that have the group trapped together in some way – for example in a mountain cabin in a snow storm. Whatever show you choose already has well established dynamics. And since you’re writing a sample episode of the show you’ve chosen to convince others that you can in fact write within the pre-established parameters, be sure to do so.
- Follow The Format – Again, it’s crucial that you follow the pre-existing format of the show. Do not waver from this even slightly, because your creation could quickly become unrecognizable.
- Stay on Voice – Each character has a unique “voice” in the show and the show itself has its own unique tone. You want to be 100% sure you nail these elements.
- Rewrite Until it’s Ready – Don’t be in a hurry to get your spec out to an agent. You want to be sure it’s ready to be read as chances are, you’ll have one shot and one shot only. So, take the time to get your first draft ready – get good notes and do appropriate rewrites before you show off your work.
Now that you’ve written your first draft, you need to get some feedback in the form of “notes”. Preferably from people who know how to give notes. Notes refers to a collection of valuable suggestions that will help improve the overall quality of your spec script.
Keep in mind, there is a huge difference between notes and opinions. Opinions are things like, “I liked it”, “It was funny”, “It was scary” – and the like. Frankly, opinions are useless. You need more “actionable” notes that will allow you to fix what’s broken.
Try to give your script to friends who are either writers or in the industry – or at least have a thorough understanding of the type of constructive criticism that you’re looking for. You want to pass it out to at least 3-4 people. This will give you a wide enough variance of opinions, but you’ll also start to see numerous similarities in the notes that are given. By the way, when you receive the same note from three or four different people, that’s a note to address.
A Note on Notes: Getting notes on your script can be a painful experience. But if you can teach yourself to remove any emotional element from what’s being said, you’ll find the experience quite valuable. You need to detach yourself from the script, stay very quiet and listen to what the note-giver is trying to tell you. It doesn’t matter if you think the scene you wrote is brilliant if three of your readers can’t make sense of it, you need to hear what the problems are and figure out how to address them.
Take the time to get the feedback your script needs and deserves. Once you have all of your notes in hand, start rewriting. Address the notes you agree with and ignore the ones you don’t. It’s your script after all.
A rewrite can take it’s time as well. Give it the time it needs. You will often find as many writers do that the “perfection” you thought existed in the first draft got a lot more perfect as you did a rewrite.
Tip: Learn to lose what’s not working and never marry yourself to a scene, joke, line or character. If something is weighing down the quality of your script, it will ruin your chances for success.
The more you’re willing to change the better your script can become. That said, you might have certain elements that you feel quite strongly about. Assuming your note-givers didn’t all give you the same note to fix it, then you might decide to keep that piece. Just be sure to open yourself to the possibility that a rewrite might dramatically improve what’s already there.
You’ve done it! You now have the perfect spec script ready to show off to anyone who might be willing to read it. So, now you have to go out and meet people that might be willing to read it! You can do this by networking at various events, by taking classes, working as an assistant to an agent or executive and any number of other ways that people have managed to break in. (Again, there’s no right or wrong way to do this.)
You may now want to consider repeating the process. Write a spec script of another show so that you have at least two samples someone can read that shows off your skills as a writer. You won’t exactly double your chances of success, but the extra spec comes in mighty handy if you’re told a certain agent or executive won’t read the show you’ve written (which happens from time to time).
Writing a spec script can be a long and arduous process. But if you give it the time and preparation it needs to blossom, chances are you will write a spec script that will do more than enthrall the reader – it’ll get you a professional television writing job!