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Posts tagged as “Readers’ Mail”

When should your TV spec script be placed? (Readers’ Mail)

Where can you fit your TV script in the overall narrative of the show you picked?
For this Readers’ Mail, we have not one but two people asking a variation of the query.

First off, Alex (not me!) wonders —

I joined TV Calling because I am pursuing a career in TV writing and am working on specs. I specifically have problems with knowing where to fit my spec into the overall narrative (if there is one, it’s a bit easier for comedy).
Sometimes it’s hard to have the confidence to know what the actual writers of the show are planning/setting up with their plot.

And Nick (not Watson) adds —

Hi Alex, been listening to your podcast & find it extremely helpful and informative!
I’m wondering, when it comes to speccing a show, am I supposed to write the episode into a particular season? Following other episodes and one that will be followed by other episodes? Or are you really just using their world and parameters to create an episode you think is great.
Would appreciate if you could give me some advice on this.

Awesome questions all around.
Essentially, it’s about figuring out: when should your spec be placed?

That’s kind of up to you and the show you choose. Both approaches are totally acceptable. You can write an “in-between” episode that would fit between episodes 10 and 11. Or you could write something disconnected from the main through-line of your season.
It’s hard to be prescriptive without details, but the advice I usually give is to follow whatever is the strongest story/character arc you want to write about, and will showcase your writing. Trite advice, but true advice.

I know you didn’t come all this way for a generic reply.
So let’s dig in to see which approach is better for your spec.

If you’re writing a story based on knowledge of existing plotlines, you can hone in on “missing threads” to enhance the already-existing episodes.
For example, if the show had loose threads or dropped existing plotlines for some reason — these are narratives you could potentially pick back up and ones that will enrich the existing show.
Having a clear idea of where that episode falls in the timeline is obviously critical to making the narrative and characters’ journey matter.
And if that is your approach, then I would strongly suggests adding a “Previously On” page to your spec. (In fact, most fellowships request one now.)

On the flip side, many people also write an “evergreen” episode that could generally fit whenever in that season. For instance, an episode of a DC/CW show featuring a villain of the week.
In that case, it’s more about using the characters and the mechanic of that world to merge your voice with what exists, while writing a compelling story.
If you’re attempting to do an “evergreen” spec (which usually works best for formulaic or procedural-type shows), then you’d want to write something that could be placed anywhere in the timeline.

That said, even serialized shows (like How to Get Away With Murder) have a degree of “formula” that should help you figure out some form of self-contained episode.
It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tackle any of the serialized narratives in the original show, just that you still need to provide a satisfying experience within the span of your spec.
For comedies, it’s a bit easier to do an “evergreen” episode. Something like Brooklyn Nine-Nine may have callbacks to past storylines, but by-and-large they have self-contained stories.

The bottom line is that where you place that episode in the timeline doesn’t matter that much, as long as what you create a compelling/entertaining script that can stand on its own merits.
Regardless of the angle you pick, the idea is to make your narrative count. The spec reader should go through a journey with the characters from point A to point Z. Whether that start/end is between two existing episodes or it exists in a vacuum — it doesn’t really matter as much as what is in between .

If you (reading this) have questions, feel free to send me a message!

Write on.

Writing an original TV pilot similar to a show vs. speccing it directly (Readers’ Mail)

On this edition of Readers’ Mail, BettySpinks asks:

Hi Alex– Congratulations on the Paper Team podcast! Gonna listen to the Spec v. Pilot episode after I ask you this question…
I’ve written an outline for a pilot with similar bones to Preacher. Should I write my pilot? Or should I funnel the ideas into a spec for Preacher?

This is a great question that can really only be answered on a case-by-case basis.
I’ve definitely been through similar “parallel thinking” moments, and there are steps I do to gauge whether to continue or not with a project (or transform it) —

One of the first things I’d ask is: What is the purpose of this new sample?

On the Paper Team episode you mention, I do bring up that (IMO) writing spec should be done primarily for the exercise of TV writing (akin to being a staff writer), rather than purely having it as a usable sample (beyond fellowships and contests).
If you create a Preacher spec out of your outline, it could be an awesome episode, but it would still be “limited” to the reach of, well, a spec.

Flash-forwarding to something you’ll be asking yourself six months from now–
Are there any other shows that you would be interested in speccing? If Preacher is the only one worth it to you, maybe it could be good to consider it.

A pilot would be the way to go if you’re primarily trying to showcase your writing style, your “voice”, and overall building a portfolio for representation/staffing.
If your story is unique enough to you that you need to get it out and puts your own stamp on the world, then the choice should be simple.

Another important question would be: How close is the pilot/outline to the existing show?

In this case, this is something only you would know based on:
1) The pilot/season 1 of Preacher;
2) Your own script and plot beyond the pilot;
3) Future stories of Preacher (based on published comics/educated guesses).

Is your pilot, literally, about a preacher in a small southern town seeped in supernatural elements?
An interesting litmus test could be to pitch your story to friends familiar with Preacher and see what they think of the similarities (and if they’re dealbreakers).
Maybe even pitch both shows to people unfamiliar with Preacher, and see if they feel they’re distinctive enough on their own.

Keep in mind this isn’t just about the concept itself, but the execution of it (we’re still talking about an original pilot).
How many shows did we have about people coming back to life a couple seasons ago? What about the amount of cop procedurals still on the air?

You shouldn’t sell your pilot short just because it has similar ideas to something produced.
Go back to your perspective and the themes you’re trying to explore.
The battle between faith, superstition, and the fantastic can be approached in vastly different ways through so vastly different characters.

Last (but not least), I would wonder: How much of a sacrifice is it if I’m never writing this pilot?

You have already done the work of outlining your pilot.
That means (hopefully), you’ve already gone through the mindbend of figuring out your characters, your structure, your acts, your scenes, your world.
This is so much of what goes into a pilot script that it could be a huge loss if you simply discard it.

Also, are you saying something unique to you in that pilot/story which cannot be done through another script?
When making those important binary decisions, remember why you were writing this pilot in the first place. Probably something evocative that you wanted to tell through these characters, or that world, or that setting.

On the flip side, if it’s already extremely easy to replace your characters in the outline with those of Preacher, maybe you were already subconsciously writing a Preacher spec over a truly original piece.

Most times, a unique execution of a pilot, even within an ambiance similar to your existing show, would still make it worth the write. In fact, it could be a powerful sample to be staffed on that very show (over a spec of it).
It all depends on the goals of your script, and similarities to what you’re going to be compared against.

If you’re a reader with a question of your own, feel free to send me a message!

Write on.

How to write TV specs for adapted series? (Readers’ Mail)

On this week’s Readers’ Mail, Jason wonders:

I wanted to ask about writing a spec script for an existing series that is itself an adaptation.
Let’s say I want to write a spec for a TV series based on a comic book – Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Arrow, The Flash, etc – or one based on a series of novels – Hannibal, Game of Thrones, etc. What would be your advice on how to utilize the source material in the spec script?
Say there’s a particular story from the source material that I’d love to adapt for one of these series – would that be fair game for a spec? Or would you recommend avoiding any use of the source material, and creating something completely original – as though the TV series existed in a vacuum?

This is an interesting and complicated question that ties into several factors: faithfulness of the adaptation, faithfulness from your own spec, and originality.

Let’s start off with…

Is it fair game to use inspiration from the source material when you’re speccing an adapted show?

A spec is in of itself an adaptation of a show (the same could be said of fan-fiction).
The real issue behind the question is where “inspiration” ends, and where “plagiarism” begins.

If you are using the source as only a jumping-off point, then that’s probably fair game.
There’s really nothing wrong with being inspired by something. It’s all about how you use that inspiration.

That’s why we also need to look at how the show you’re speccing uses its own material. Ask yourself: how closely (or not) does the series tie to its original format?
Does it actively seek out to copy narrative arcs? Or does it only bear the names of characters, but without any of their attributes?

Daredevil and Jessica Jones have very serialized arcs that relate to particular comic arcs and villains. The same could be said of The Walking Dead (just look at who’s coming in).
On the other hand, Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl are inspired by the comics, but they really make the various DC villains and characters “their own”. Even some iconic comic elements present in the series (e.g. in Flash, characters like Zoom, Vibe, Jay Garrick, Reverse Flash) are truly infused with the personality of their TV adaptations.

The number one “spec rule of thumb” dictates you should strive to mimic the style of the original show; meaning also its faithfulness to the original work.
But if a show is too faithful to its original source, where does your own originality come in?
Well, this brings us to another question…

Should you avoid using the source material altogether?

I’d argue it is downright impossible to write a great spec of an adapted series AND be like Jon Snow (i.e. know nothing) about the original source.

Game of Thrones has a complex mythology and populated world because of George R.R. Martin.
The Walking Dead has emotional baggage behind Negan because of Robert Kirkman/Charlie Adlard.
The Flash has its iconic Rogues gallery because of all the talent behind DC comics.

You simply cannot bury your head in the sand and ignore the source material. Because that is not how the shows you’re trying to spec operate.
If anything, you need to understand all the rules of the world, and those of its adaptation.

That usually means you shouldn’t transpose a complete story arc and just add some TV dialogue on top of it.
Greg Berlanti shows are notorious for first looking at their central character’s episodic conflict before even glancing at the DC roster. The writers want to nail what the characters are going to go through first, which will then dictate what villain is the best antithesis to that problem.

In fact, there are several issues at play with copying something beat-for-beat for a spec:
1) It defeats the point of a spec. As is oft-repeated, a spec is here to show you can blend in with the source, which in this case is the show not the comic/book it originated from.
2) You run the risk of the series doing a similar run of storylines down the road. And they’ll probably do it better than you could (since they know their own show better).
3) Depending on how major the story arc is, there’s a strong chance someone out there is already speccing it.
4) You risk being branded a copycat, especially if a reader is very familiar with the material and sees you copied it. Do you really want that reputation?

To summarize:
Will you be penalized for using an existing DC Comic villain in a Flash spec? Probably not.
Will you run into trouble for copying an entire issue of said DC villain? It’s a definite possibility.

Since all adaptations have their own degrees of faithfulness, and people tend to imitate that same for their specs, it’s therefore not surprising that Game of Thrones (a close adaptation of its novels) is not accepted by the Warner Bros. program.

So, if you want to have some inspiration without copying it…

How do you utilize the original source material?

The answer is clear: do your research on how the show compares to the OG book or comic. Read, learn, and more importantly look at the differences.
Don’t just look at the contrasts in story, or how characters are portrayed on the show, but understand why the writers decided to diverge from the books.

There always are specific idiosyncrasies of adaptations; thematic ideas that they focus on over others (vis-à-vis the original).
How central was Catholicism in Netflix’s Daredevil compared to some classic Daredevil comic runs?
How different was Tyrion’s portrayal in the books versus a show where he’s played by a popular actor?
How important is Cisco’s character journey to becoming Vibe/Reverb in the Flash comics?

Once you have answered that, you’re a step closer to figuring out what makes the show “the show” and the book “the book”.

If you’re drawn to a particular story, then you’ll need to find your own take of the material, all within the tone of the show.
Although you may run the risk of someone using that villain in the future, if you really made that character your own, then you may still be able to use the sample.

Infusing that original creation with your own personal take, and the spirit of the TV show, is ultimately what will separate stealing from adapting.

If you’re a reader with a question of your own, feel free to send me a message!

Write on.