by Marla White
Every writer needs a great spec script to get on staff/a rep/noticed by execs. Having a sample spec with the pacing, dialog and complex characters that are the earmarks of great TV brings you one step closer to getting the job. But what should that spec be? It needs to be BAD.
Bold – push all the boundaries of the story you’re writing. Maybe the hero is a jerk (House) or seems like a nice guy who has deceived us (Mad Men).
About something – this is your big chance to make a statement. If you tackle a moral or political issue in a SUBTLE, not over the top ham-fisted way, it will get noticed. People will remember it – “hey, did you read that script about women’s rights set in a dystopian world” is more likely to make an impact then, “hey, did you read one of the 500 scripts about the kid who graduated from college and couldn’t get a job so they live in their parents’ basement? Me neither.”
Defy expectations- if the average TV cop is smooth, make yours bumbling (Columbo). If the typical heroine is slim, make yours a feisty plus size. If doctors are usually compassionate, make yours unable to feel emotions (Good Doctor). If most plots turn left have yours turn right. Surprise is essential.
Easy, right? Just kidding, it’s not. You need to show you know the rules by breaking them just a little. Your sample needs to show your voice but in my opinion if it isn’t easy for the average reader to see how it’s a sustainable series - or at the very least is structured like a series with an impactful opening and a killer closer that makes them want to know more - you’ve seriously wasted an important asset. It’s not about getting a series on the air. At least not right away. Rather, you sample needs to fulfill its purpose and tell the reader you understand what makes a successful TV series.
Follow the structure of the type of show you want to make, and then do something unexpected to shake it up. Make the dialog loud, you can always dial it back. Make the characters complicated; have them do both good and bad things because that’s what humans do.
What you don’t want to do with your spec is write the show no one has ever asked for. Know that you aren't the first person to think that a series about a ghost detective would be cool. You aren't, it's just that nobody bought it. If you’re asking an agent to spend their valuable time representing you, make it clear you’re going to make both of you money with a successful career selling to a network or digital outlet. This is not the time to write that series about a mime who solves crimes or a comedy set in the 1600’s as your calling card. Unless, of course, they’re undeniably damn good.
Need help making sure your idea or finished spec hits all the right marks? Take advantage of my consultation or script note service! If you mention you read this blog I’ll give you 10% off!