The requirements for TV writers to secure their next writing gig are generally either an original TV pilot or a spec script of an existing TV show. These are cyclical, so it’s advisable to have one of each type in your arsenal. Be strategic with which TV show you choose to write. Don’t go for overly obscure shows despite the low possibility of them not being specced very often. Conversely, the opposite is also true for shows like Rick & Morty, The Simpsons and Family Guy.
Avoid writing spec scripts for cancelled or “on the bubble” (about to be cancelled) TV shows. Write a reasonably popular show that’s in its second or maybe third season, because it’s still fresh and you have many new stories to explore. A show in its fifth or sixth season is generally “on the bubble” and most likely will have one or two more season left. This is not always the case as “The Big Bang Theory” attests, with strong ratings in season 11, with at least another season scheduled.
The purpose of a spec script are for you as a TV writer to capture the show’s feel, while infusing your creative flair within its parameters. Your job is to color (or write) within the lines according to the TV show creator’s vision. You must capture that vision and not try to reinvent the show to your tastes.
Here are some things you should know to make your TV spec script really stand out from the pack:
Understand the format of the show. Is it a single camera or a multi-camera TV show? Half-hour dramas tend to be single camera while half-hour comedies and dramedies can be either.
Read as many produced scripts as you can to learn how the acts are structured, as well as typical page, scene and location counts. Work out the main recurring locations (standing sets) versus the episodic locations which are used for one or several episodes. Ensure you have the right ratio of each types of location. Limit night and outdoor scenes as best you can. Use the standing sets for the majority of the scenes and the episodic locations sparingly. It demonstrates you understand budgetary concerns.
How many characters populate each scene and storyline? Where do they intersect?
Nothing screams “amateur writer” more than a TV show written in feature screenplay format, unless that’s how it’s always been written.
This might sound obvious, but do your research into the world of the show. Where it’s set, who it’s about and what themes it explores. Don’t write a CSI episode set in outer space; unless there’s a spinoff I don’t know about.
Could the concept of your TV spec script be a typical TV show? Watch as many episodes as you can to ensure that your story fits in to the existing TV show. Make sure your premise hasn’t been written before and is congruent.
Familiarize yourself with the story structure of the TV show. Does it have an A and B plot and what are the relative weightings to each? Is there a “runner” or C storyline that spans the entire episode? Where does your episode fit into the arc of your TV show across several seasons, not just the current one?
Who are the main characters, the recurring support characters, and the guesswork characters? Understand their individual traits, inter-relationships and their conflicts.
Research their character arcs, their backstories and their goals. Make sure the characters you write mimic the actual characters. Ensure their decisions drive their actions. Don’t force your personal storyline onto a character because you like it. Your job is to ensure that each existing character stays in character.
Learn the characters’ speech patterns and match them to your writing. Are they formal or casual? Eloquent or colloquial? Do they swear? You really should be able to tell who is speaking without looking at the character heading.
Limit or exclude guest characters as much as possible. This is especially true for TV shows with large casts that must be serviced in each episode.
So there you have it, folks.
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