TV writer Ross Brown (The Cosby Show) shares 10 must-know tips on how to write a TV spec script to get you noticed by an agent or showrunner.
Ross Brown is the Program Director for the MFA in Writing & Contemporary Media at Antioch University, Santa Barbara. He began his writing career on NBC’s award-winning comedy The Cosby Show and went on to write, produce and create comedies for ABC, CBS and The WB. He is the author of the book Create Your Own TV Series for the Internet.
KNOW YOUR SHOW INSIDE AND OUT
Step One to writing a great spec is doing your homework. Watch every episode of your series. Rent DVDs, record or stream new episodes and take notes. How many acts is your show? Two? Three? Six? Do they typically have one storyline per episode or three? Your spec must duplicate the conventions of your series - while still bringing fresh storylines and situations to it.
Step Two, go online and find scripts. Note the proper spelling of each character’s name and the names of their sets. Do they call it INT. MORGUE or INT. AUTOPSY LAB? How do they distinguish Randall the grown man from Randall the boy on This is Us? Don’t just guess – find out and get it right.
MAKE YOUR STORY MEMORABLE
Agents, showrunners, and executives read brain-numbing sludge piles of specs – hundreds of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidts, thousands of Walking Deads, a trillion specs of The Simpsons and South Park. Your story – especially your logline – must grab their attention and stick firmly in their mind. Don’t write a “typical” premise – write one that would generate water cooler buzz the next day.
WRITE A GREAT EPISODE, NOT AN OKAY ONE
If the high point of your spec for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is Kimmy saying a slightly different version of the fake cursing you heard her say on an earlier episode, then all you’ve done is imitate the show, not write a spec. Duplicating an average episode is never enough. You have to wow people, make them leap up and say, “This is a GREAT episode of X.”
DIG DEEP WITHIN THE CHARACTERS
One of the best ways to make your spec shine is to explore a character in a new or deeper way. You can’t change the character – but you can present them with fresh challenges that reveal unexpected but believable character traits. The Cheers spec (I know – I just dated myself) that landed me an agent and my first staff job had a woman come into the bar and say Sam was the father of her six-year-old son (a memorable premise, btw.) Rather than denying it or paying her off, Sam decides he loves the notion of molding a son in his own image. Unfortunately, the woman only wants money and refuses to let Sam become a regular part of the boy’s life. Though Sam insists he has rights, she says he can’t prove the boy is his (this was pre-DNA testing.) Sam must say a difficult good-bye and let the boy go. A new emotional side of womanizer Sam Malone – but a believable one.
YOU CAN’T REMAKE THE SHOW
Being a bold, creative person, you might ask, “Wouldn’t it be great if Bosch was totally different one week – say mostly about his personal life instead of solving a crime?” No, it wouldn’t be great, it would mean instant rejection. A spec must demonstrate you understand the show, its conventions, and can write within its framework.
THE SERIES MUST HAVE A FUTURE
Once a series is cancelled, all spec scripts for it are officially yesterday’s tuna. Using a cancelled series as a writing sample is like putting big bold print on the cover page that reads I HAVEN’T WRITTEN ANYTHING NEW IN A WHILE. Even if you love a show, don’t write a spec for it unless it’s still going strong in the ratings.
DON’T SEND IT OUT UNTIL IT’S READY
Writing is lonely. We all want praise – now. But there’s nothing worse than giving someone a script only to realize a day or two later there are typos, jokes that could be improved, and it needs a new subplot. Actually, there is one thing worse: calling the agent who agreed to read your script and saying, “Don’t bother with that one, it’s bad. I’m sending you a new draft.” She will never read it, I promise.
IT’S TRICKY WRITING A SPEC FOR A SERIES THAT IS HEAVILY SERIALIZED
I used to recommend avoiding shows that were heavily serialized because trying to jump onto the moving train that is a serialized story and write a spec for it is a death leap. The show will inevitably move beyond your story idea before you can finish writing your script, making your spec seem like you haven’t been paying attention to the show. One strategy is to write Episode 1 of “next season,” starting a totally new serialized storyline for the characters. Another might be to find a “stand-alone” premise that is somehow connected to one of the show’s ongoing storylines without specifically chasing it.
A student of mine some years ago did this with a spec for The Sopranos. At that point in the series, Tony was separated from Carmella. A.J., their son, was about seventeen. So the writer created a premise where A.J. moved in with Tony, then stole one of Tony’s guns to hold up a bodega to impress a girl. The robbery went horribly wrong. A.J. shot and killed the store owner, and had to beg Tony for help. It fit the series, used the characters in an interesting way, and was compelling without pursuing the actual serialized storyline.
AVOID MAJOR MISTAKES
Making the story about the supporting player or guest star instead of the star. Killing off a series regular. Cliched, overdone premises like the trapped in the office/elevator/mountain cabin episode. Never number your scenes – that’s a production draft, not a writer’s draft, and it makes you look amateurish, not professional. Same goes for putting the show’s logo or artwork on the cover – don’t do it, no matter how cool you think it looks.
ONE SPEC IS NEVER ENOUGH
Always have more than one spec to show. Maybe you’ve got a great procedural, but the producer whose life you just saved by pulling him out of a flaming car wreck is doing a family drama. Or you’ve got a killer Veep, but the agent who owes your cousin a favor says she’s tired of that show or has an ex-wife who looked just like Julia-Louis Dreyfus and can’t read a Veep script without breaking out in hives. You’ve got to be able to say, “No problem, I also have a great Silicon Valley and a brand new Master of None. Which one can I send you?”