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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.

One Comment

  1. Tatiana

    This is a great post- very helpful! I have a specific question regarding something like Fargo or American Horror Story where the characters are different each season. If you can nail the tone/DNA/brand of the show do you think it works to write a spec that’s the pilot for an entirely new season. In the case of Fargo, it would be writing a hypothetical season 4 pilot. What are your thoughts?

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