Ten Spec Writing Rules (and why you should care)

Ten Spec Writing Rules (and why you should care)

While giving her ten commandments on writing a spec script in an interview a few years ago, Jane Espenson thought that “this could be a good blog entry.”
She wasn’t wrong.

How to write a spec script for TV is a broad question that has many answers. Her comment made me reminisce about some of the standard spec writing ground-rules. I find that having some does not hinder creativity, but rather focuses it.

Here’s a little (albeit detailed) reminder of some of them, starting with the most obvious.

Don’t spec a dead show
For the love of God, we don’t want to know what Carrie did with Mr. Big’s underwear or Ross’ latest honeymoon with Rachel.
If the show is buried, leave it there.

Don’t spec a show you want to get hired on
Where to send spec scripts is another issue, but your sample television script should not be destined for the show you’re basing it on. This might sound crazy for some but if you think about it, it’s pretty logical.
There are, firstly, some legal issues that might become involved. More importantly though, it’s just very hard for an outsider to nail a show right on the money.
As Martie Cook explains it in Write to TV:

If you are anyone on the Desperate Housewives writing staff, you know each of the characters intimately […], you know absolutely every minor detail. As a freelance writer, no matter how much you study a show before you write it, you simply won’t have the same inside track that the show’s script writers and producers do. It is quite probable that here and there throughout your script you may have things that are slightly off. [The Desperate Housewives writing staff] will no doubt pick up on the flaws in your script instantly.

Go for the next-of-kin, meaning the next show closest (regarding genre/voice/stories) to the one you want to get hired on.
There have been some successful rule-breakers, but these are extremely rare cases.

Spec a show you like
Not speccing the series you’re aiming at doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write something you don’t like (if anything, it’s gonna show in your writing).
Don’t spec a show simply because it’s hot, but also because you’re into it and have some kind of appreciation for it.
Passion is what drives you to be a writer, so why not use the same fuel for your script?

Don’t write mythological episodes
You know these little toys you had as a kid and didn’t want anyone else to touch?
Well the characters you’re using belong to someone else.
You’re allowed to play with them a bit, but the show-runner expects you to bring them back safely to him/her.
When you spec a show, go for the memorable stand-alone episode, not the big season finale.
If House suddenly learns he has a tumor, or Meredith Grey finds out she’s pregnant, you’re doing something wrong.
You can obviously play with characters’ relationships and/or use bigger mysteries/arcs, but one of the (many) questions you should be asking yourself is if your episode can neatly fit anywhere in a given season of the show. If the answer is yes, congrats, you’ve got a stand-alone episode.
This doesn’t mean though that your script should be pointless.
You need to provide the reader with an emotional ride, and perhaps even some thought-provoking content.
Use the already-defined protagonists; they’re here just for that reason.
For overly-serialized character shows you wouldn’t be able to understand without a Previously, the WB Writers’ Workshop advises to “set up your episode:”

If you are writing a serialized show (e.g. Gossip Girl or Grey’s Anatomy) please include a “Previously On” page that lists where your main characters are within the series when we come across them in your spec. This page should come after your title page and before your teaser.

Don’t write around new characters
You’re trying to prove that you can “blend in” a writing staff, and more importantly “get” the voice of a show.
Writing the backstory of Don Draper’s hairdresser might be fun, but it certainly doesn’t show how you can write the other Mad Men characters (the ones in suits and dresses).
And in case you’re wondering, limiting the amount of screen time a new character has doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any guest-stars.
If you’re writing a procedural, you will definitely need to introduce new people (victim, murderer, suspect, etc.), just make sure they’re not the protagonists of your episode.

Don’t go for the obvious
If you have thought of it, chances are other writers on staff have too.
Think of why the show didn’t use that particular storyline. Now look at your spec script outline.
The aim is to write better TV than what’s on TV. You have months, they have two weeks (at best).
Don’t be that guy/girl who throws an empty can of beer at your screen yelling “My dog can write better than that!”, and then come up with a body-switch episode.

Don’t think too big, your spec must be realistically producible…
Maybe you should edit your spec script down. Jane Espenson once told the story behind a failed Star Trek spec she did:

It was all epic. And unfilmable. I had demonstrated a complete lack of ability to tell a story with an eye toward real-life budget constraints. And, as a result, I had ended up telling a story that they simply wouldn’t do on their show. Writing a filmable spec, keeping it small enough, is an important part of the process.

..but don’t expect it to get produced
Specs are mainly here to showcase your talent as well as show you can blend in a predetermined ensemble.
One of the greatest ironies of TV spec writing is that, even though you’re striving to prove you can successfully write a one-hour drama, your “proof” won’t be made.
You can use that to your advantage by going bigger on some of the stories.
Alex Epstein in Crafty TV Writing also makes an interesting point about censorship, and how your material can be “slightly edgier” to what’s on TV:

If you are going to push the envelope, it should be in a direction that the show would naturally take if the network censors were all on holiday that week.

With that said, don’t go too far. Although you can thematically go beyond the usual, don’t go overboard and start putting “fuck” every pages (unless it’s The Sopranos — but what the hell are you doing speccing a dead show?).
Like getting staffed on your specced show, there have been very rare instances (mostly in sitcoms) where specs ended up being made. There’s also that guy who got struck by lightning twice. You know what I mean.

Keep it fresh
This is both about your choice of main storyline (who wants to see a rehash of a plot done to death?), as well as arcs you might have to use in your spec.
Your Grey’s Anatomy script about Izzy Stevens won’t be of much use now that Katherine Heigl is off the show.
Try to keep it updated enough so as not to make your spec stale. Doing this on a serialized show is obviously harder.
But like Botox, too much nip and tuck on your finished script, and it quickly becomes a mess.
As Jane Espenson puts it:

It’s better to let a spec show a few of the signs of aging than to keep fattening its lips and lifting its keister until even you can’t recognize it anymore.

Fellowships find that 6-month old scripts are fine as they consider it the correct amount of time for a good polish/new writing. However, if it’s a couple seasons old, cross it off.

Watch, read, and study
Perhaps the single most important rule here.
You’re aiming to mimic an already-existing show so that your own spec script format matches theirs.
The best way to know how it works is to do the three things listed: watch their episodes, read their scripts, study their structure. If you can, you should definitely try to get your hands on the series’ bible (though that’s going to be a hard thing to do).
Ask yourself: What would a typical A, B, or C story be? How long are the teaser and the tag? Why are the act breaks here but not there? And for that matter, how many acts are there altogether? The list goes on. You should also have a feel of how the characters talk, and even think.
Basically know the show by heart.

Remember that writing a spec script is still art, not science.

You could forget about everything and write for the double-edged sword that is ‘stunt speccing.’ If you’re on top of your game and make the perfect script, kudos to you. However if not done correctly, it could bomb massively (and you’d have wasted a lot of time writing it). Perhaps I’ll post a spec script example or two next time around.
Rules are meant to be broken, but some are also meant to be respected.

And since I did mention Jane Espenson’s own ten commandments of TV Spec writing, here they are:

– Don’t spec a show you don’t respect.
– Don’t make your spec about a guest character. Focus on the main character.
– Get sample scripts of produced episodes. Study them.
– Follow the show’s structure exactly.
– Find a story for your spec that plays on the show’s main theme.
– Don’t write an episode that resolves the show’s mystery or consummates its romance.
– Place the story turns at the act breaks, and give us a reason to come back after the commercials.
– In a comedy, spend time polishing the jokes, especially the last one of each scene.
– Spelling, formatting, clarity of stage directions – they really matter.
– Use strong brass brads.

Write on.


Still wondering which show to spec?

Try my awesome TV Spec Test


9 Comments

  1. Darina P.

    March 27, 2010 at 10:18 PM

    Wow so many rules, sounds like a promising way to suffer through the night.

  2. Stephan

    March 25, 2014 at 1:50 PM

    I have a question. I’ve read that you shouldn’t number scenes in your spec. What do you think? I come from the theater writing world and I’m moving into television. I see a lot of television shows names their scenes by letters. When writing a spec, should I do away with the letters/numbers?

  3. Alex

    April 12, 2015 at 1:35 PM

    Stephan:
    You don’t need to number your scenes when writing a spec. Numbering is only meant for production.

  4. Chiara

    February 18, 2016 at 5:37 PM

    Every now and then I read this and push myself to the brink of a nervous breakdown, then break through and keep writing. Thanks for putting all this in list form and jerking me back to reality when I need a firm reminder of what I need to do.

  5. Chris

    March 4, 2016 at 6:54 PM

    Great post! I had a question about format. I recently read a script for a tv show that does not break into acts or teasers, but I’m not sure if it’s acceptable to write it exactly as seen on the page. Should I break this spec into teaser/acts or mimic the style on the page completely?

  6. Alex

    March 8, 2016 at 10:40 AM

    Chiara:
    Thank YOU for your support and readership! :)

    Chris:
    If you are writing a spec of a an existing show, then it is crucial you mimic that format–including act breaks.

    If you are writing an original pilot, then I’d say it depends on what kind of pilot you’re trying to write. In other words, if it clearly is a premium cable drama, then I might forego the act breaks.
    However, I always say it’s better to err on the side of caution and include act break. Especially since the vast majority of networks (including basic cable) work in acts. It’s also another proof that you can work under television constraints.

  7. Peter Brabson

    August 18, 2016 at 5:40 AM

    Alex:

    This is a hugely helpful site. After an exhaustive largely unsuccessful internet search, and reading from various knowledgeable people in this business, including you, that it’s prudent to read multiple scripts from the same show, where do you find them?

    All I have been able to find is a single pilot script. You mentioned a script bible series. What exactly is that.

  8. Jake S

    February 19, 2017 at 10:31 AM

    Alex, can we copyright our spec scripts of currently running shows? How does that work?

  9. Alex

    March 22, 2017 at 12:26 PM

    Peter:
    Thanks for the kind words!
    Scripts from the same show can be fond in various places. One way is through an online script library (like the one linked in the menu bar above), the other is going to a physical one which has those scripts. If you’re in LA, I highly recommend the Writers Guild Foundation Library which is open to all (including non-guild members).
    Regarding a “series bible”, this would be a document used as a reference regarding overall storylines and character arcs. What the document looks like changes drastically from show to show, and showrunner to showrunner. Once again, you can find some online and some in the aforementioned library. That said, they are much trickier to find and it’s likely you’ll only get your hands on bibles of dead shows. I wouldn’t worry too much about a series bible when writing a spec.

    Jake:
    I doubt you could copyright a spec script of an existing show since you do not own the rights for said characters to begin with. However, over-protecting that kind of script isn’t worth your time and effort. The writers of the show will almost certainly never see or hear about your spec, and no one to begin with is interested in stealing spec ideas.
    I talked about this issue on the Paper Team podcast episode about “Protecting and Over-Protecting Your TV Script”. Here’s the episode in question: https://www.tv-calling.com/protecting-and-over-protecting-your-tv-script-copyright-ownership-and-idea-theft-pt23/

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Hi there!

Alex Freedman

I'm Alex Freedman, the writer behind TV Calling.


I started this site in 2008 to chronicle my own journey in television writing.

650 posts and 9 years later, TV Calling has also become a comprehensive resource dedicated to the full TV writing industry — from spec to success.


Everything here is written by yours truly (unless otherwise credited), so feel free to blame me for any missed deadlines.


I hope you'll answer your television calling, and join me in this creative journey.


Write on.


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