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Writing the Spec Script- Pre-work

I just typed ‘The End’ for my first spec script. It’s a first draft, a very messy one (I did the actual writing in just four days), but it is a draft. So I thought it might be nice, for those of you who are thinking about writing your first spec script, to hear the process!

First Things First, What is a Spec Script?

A spec script for television is an episode written for a show already on the air. This script will almost certainly never be bought or produced—so why do it? Specs show you can write. You submit these types of scripts to fellowship programs, competitions, and agents. Sometimes people will write a spec script for a show that is similar to the one they wish to write for and use it kind of like an audition to get onto the show. So while they won’t be produced, these are still important in the writing world of television.

What Steps are There in Writing the Spec?

1. Choose a show

2. Study said show

3. Find a minor detail that you can spin into a plot

4. Outline your episode

5. Write that first draft!

6. Edit it!

Over the next three posts I will break into the six steps, so let’s get started!

1. Choose a Show

You will need to decide genre first. Television has strict rules because for most of its existence television revolved around advertisements. Comedies are a 1/2 hour and dramas are an hour. There isn’t really anything else. But what if you want to write both in the same tv show? Then that is a dramady, and it will most likely fall under the one hour time limit of a traditional drama.

After you have chosen your genre, you need to look at shows that are like what you would like to write. There are lots of different comedies and the same applies to drama, so narrow down your search. For me, WB narrowed my search down for me because they have a list of shows you must choose from for their fellowship. That helped a ton, but there still were so many options I was interested in! I narrowed it down further by trying to ‘double dip’ so to speak. I knew a mystery series will be my next original, so I looked only at shows that had elements of mystery to them. That way I would study for both scripts at once. Win, win!

Tip: If you want to use your spec to show you can write like your favorite show, don’t choose your favorite show to write. There’s so much we can’t know about a show that the writers do. You don’t want to make a silly mistake, one you don’t even know you are making, and ruin your chance!

2. Study Said Show

After selecting Nancy Drew, I watched every episode of the first season. This is a bit of a given. As I was watching I took notes, a lot of notes, 38 pages of notes! I made a table to help me organize important information while I watched. It looked like this:

You want to make sure you take special note of what happens at the act breaks. These are the big moments of the show and will help you figure out the pattern. Because that is what you are looking for, the pattern that you can duplicate for your episode. After taking notes on season one, I came up with the following pattern for Nancy Drew:

Teaser- Hint at both the lesson and the major mystery of the episode

Act I- Fully introduce the mystery. Right before the act break, give the characters a goal.

Act II- The characters do some sort of research. Before the act break, they get a big clue.

Act III- Build up to the big fight. Before the act break, things take a turn for the worse.

Act IV- The big final fight with the monster of the episode—human or otherwise.

Act V- Wraps things up. A life lesson usually told through voice over by Nancy.

I took notes on the timestamps so that I could calculate the rough number of pages every act had. In television and film, each minute is roughly one page of script. So if the teaser was 3:04 I knew I could estimate that it took three minutes of script.

The last thing I did to study the show was to read the pilot script multiple times. This gave me an idea of what they called certain locations, how they listed the character names, and allowed me to discover the unique speech pattern of the major characters. Ideally, I would have liked to see the episodes right before and right after where I am ‘inserting’ my episode, but I couldn’t find them online. If you live in LA, they are at the WGA Library (but it looks like it might be closed for COVID-19).

So that’s it for the pre-work! In my next post, I will get into the creation stage followed by the writing itself!

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