How To Write A TV Spec Script: Part One
Updated: Feb 8, 2021
In my last post, I discussed some common mistakes in screenplays. While a lot of those mistakes also occur in TV Spec scripts, there are other things to take into consideration when writing for TV. The purpose of this post is the clarify what it means to write for a TV show and how it differs a great deal from writing a feature-length or short film.
The TV industry is a cut-throat business. Sorry, but it’s true. And I don’t want to sugarcoat it because it wouldn’t be honest. In order to break into the TV writing business, you’ll need to find an agent, someone who can champion you as a writer and get your script seen. In order to do that, you’ve got to write a great spec script for a CURRENT show, preferably well-known, in order to showcase your ability to write in a “prescribed environment”. Remember, TV writers write on a show they didn’t personally create.
So, you got to write a couple of spec scripts and a pilot script to show off in order to get an agent. He or she can then help you get your script read by the producers of the show and maybe, just maybe your script will be produced, and you’ll make money. If you get hired as a staff writer (LOWEST POSITION), that’s the greatest thing to ever happen. You'll be in the union, have a great starting pay, and the potential for residuals.
Networks are looking for new content all the time and they want to find new great writers, but it’s hard to get your foot in the door. So, write a great spec script of a show.
If you are confused by any of the content on this post, or just want to chat, shoot me an email and I’d be happy to help in any way that I can.
“You want to be a writer? A writer is someone who writes every day. So start writing.” – Shonda Rhimes
Before delving into the world of spec scripts, it’s probably best that you know what a spec script is. Well, it means speculative script. A spec script in film is the script written during pre-production, that moment in time where the funds are raised, the cast is hired, and the crew is assembled much like the Avengers. In TV, a spec script is a script you write to showcase your writing prowess. It is a script of a show that you have written that can help get you hired on staff or as a freelancer.
Of course, watching TV is something you must do in order to know how to write for TV. It’s pertinent to understand the act breaks in TV shows on cable and broadcast. And understand how TV shows flow in general. Watch lots of shows, good and bad, and take notes if you have to. If You’re writing a spec, do it for a show that’s still on the air, popular, critically acclaimed (preferred), and that you can’t get enough of. Don't write a spec for a show you don't know or enjoy.
By now, you probably understand that just like with film writing, TV writing requires the use of screenwriting software such as Final Draft. If you’re serious about your day, go ahead and purchase screenwriting software or find an affordable alternative. Without it, you’ll be behind others with who you are competing.
Writing for TV does require a basic knowledge of screenwriting and an understanding of the elements of a screenplay. How those elements are used do vary from show to show and whether or not the show is a drama or comedy, but you’ll still need an understanding of sluglines, action lines, dialogue/dialogue prompts, and parentheticals. Make sure you know that before going in.
“Write it. Shoot it. Crochet it, sauté it, whatever. MAKE.” – Joss Whedon
Write The Best TV Spec Script Possible
Watch the show you’re “spec-ing” A LOT — Become an expert
You must watch the show you’re writing a spec for A LOT. Understand how the characters interact with one another. Become familiar with sets and plot elements.
Know all the sets that are used on the regular to get a sense of what a typical episode looks like. You are, in fact, writing a typical episode of this show, so it must feel like all the other episodes.
Also, make sure you know where the show is currently. Stay caught up on the show. And, if a change happens on the show that makes your script atypical for the show, you must rewrite it to reflect that new change. Otherwise, you will appear to have no expertise in the show.
Read the scripts of the show (and adopt the format)
If you can get your hands on a script of the show you are writing a spec for, do it. Read 3 or more scripts. Make sure you take note of several things:
Character Names - How is each character named in dialogue prompts and action lines? If Dr. Duncan is named “Sally” in the dialogue prompt, make sure your script matches that. All the scripts of the show will name that character the same way.
Character Descriptions – In film, you would normally describe the character whenever they come on screen, but with a running TV show, you won’t need to do that. So, avoid doing that. You will still need to capitalize the character’s name the first time they come on screen and describe characters that are featured in your episode. These are generally guest stars that are only in that one episode. So, that’s okay.
Set Names – Take note of by what name each set is given. These will be in your sluglines and should match whatever the writing team has decided.
Don’t say “DAVE’S HOUSE” if it’s described in the script as “DAVE AND MARY’S HOUSE”. You have to follow the writing team’s formula.
Page Numbers/Act Lengths – Take note of how long each act normally lasts in the script (that is, how many pages). Don’t go way over or come up short. Make sure you are matching the average length with act length and overall script length. If the typical script length is 33 to 35 pages, don’t write 40. That’s not typical for the show.
Number of Scenes – Count how many scenes are within each act. Every time you use a new slugline is when you're beginning a new scene. Make sure you know the norm.
Number of Acts – In TV, an “Act” describes the action between commercial breaks. So, how many commercial breaks are there? Prepare to end each “act” on a high to get people back after the commercial break.
Number of Plots - Each TV show has a cast of characters who participate in separate plots in each episode. Have you watched a show and noticed that there are several stories playing out over the episodes? These are called “plots” and they’re named the A-Plot, B-Plot, C-Plot, and (rarely) D-Plot.
The A-Plot is most important and gets the most time on screen and it goes down from there. Make sure you understand what these plots are and which characters typically occupy which plots. A main character or characters are the focal point of each plot in the episode. Here’s an example from my Brooklyn Nine-Nine spec script:
A-Plot: When Jake, Boyle, Captain Holt, and Amy visit a local high school for Career Day, Jake makes the event a competition to settle who is the coolest in the group. When the others bring out their big guns, Jake struggles for a sure victory.
B-Plot: On a light day, Terry convinces Rosa to help her clean out the records room. However, when Rosa challenges Terry's idea on how to do it, the two of them split up to see whose method is best.
C-Plot: With the Records Room no longer a safe place for their treasure, Hitchcock and Scully search for a better place in the precinct, but it's easier said than done.
Take note that a main character carries each of the plots. That’s how it’s set up in every TV script. Some shows just have only an A-Plot and B-Plot, and others have a C-Plot and sometimes a D-Plot. It depends on the show.
Teaser or Cold Open
Is there a Teaser or Cold Open? That’s the part of the script that comes before the opening credits. It precedes act one. If the script says “Cold Open”, make sure you also use that terminology. Don’t use “Teaser” if the script says “Cold Open” and vice versa. Typically comedy uses “Cold Open” and dramas use “Teaser”. But that’s not always the case. Not all shows have them.
And then there are tags. They generally happen with closing credits are just before them and they have nothing to do with the story. The main story only occurs in ACTS. Cold Opens/Teasers and Tags don’t (generally) contain pertinent plot information.
Keep The TV Spec Writers Promise
Since you are writing a “typical” episode. The main character can’t die or find out they have a secret child or lose their job. The only way these things can happen is if they return to normal by the end of the episode. Remember, this isn’t your show, so you can’t make up crazy events that change the course or premise of the show. You can obviously create awkward situations as long as things return to normal by the end of the episode.
The Executive Producer or Showrunner determines the big stuff. The main character is killed, or he loses his main job or a character finds out she’s pregnant. You must write a “typical” episode that you will see during the run of the episode.
That also means that you can’t write a season premiere or finale. That’s usually the Showrunner’s job as they set the tone for the entire season. Imagine if you’re on staff. You would write all the episodes in between. If the show is heavily serialized, you’ll have to work around that. It’s typically easier to write a show that isn't heavily serialized.
Perform The Juggling Act
With TV, you may have 3 plots (A-Plot, B-Plot, and C-Plot) and in each act, you may need to feature scenes from each of those plots. Keep in mind that when viewers are watching one plot play out, time continues to move in the other plots. You’ll have to juggle these stories and ensure that time is passing in between each plot playing out on screen. While Dave is baking a cake with Sally, Jill and Ben are still locked out of the house. Don’t forget to ensure that time passes even when the audience isn’t watching that plot on screen.
Understand The Difference Between Single and Multi-Cam Comedy
Comedies are written like film scripts (single cam technique) or somewhat like stage plays (multi-cam). It’s pertinent to look at scripts for the comedy you want to write to determine their preferred formatting. Single cam shows are filmed all over the place. Shows like Scrubs, Malcolm in The Middle, and Arrested Development are single-cam sitcoms, and cost more to make. Single-cam TV shows cost more to produce. Sitcoms with studio audiences and a laugh track are multi-cam. Think of Seinfeld, Friends, and Will & Grace.
Take Note on Writing Drama Scripts
Dramas are written much like film scripts. Again, look at scripts for the show you want to write your spec and see how they format their work.
“As I experience life and go through things, that’s what I write about.” – Tyler Perry
All in all, take writing your spec seriously. It isn’t easy and TV is a very competitive industry. Your best bet is to write a few STRONG spec scripts (edit, edit, edit) and a pilot to get an agent’s attention. Your agent will help shop you around to producers and you might be asked to write a script for that show.
It may not be a writing position, but it’ll be a spark of hope. If you’re not in L.A., you’ll have to move there to make all the meetings with producers. I live in Atlanta, so I hope one day there will be TV writing rooms here, but for now, they’re mostly in L.A. and New York. So, if you’re serious about being a TV writer, be open to moving.
If you have any issues with anything or have any follow-up questions, please reach out to me. I’m happy to help in any way that I can.
Write to TV – A guide to writing TV scripts with help from writers and executives
The Writer’s Workbook – A workbook crafted by a TV writer on breaking into the TV industry
The Screenwriter’s Bible – 7th Edition of Dave Trottier’s screenwriting guide
Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV show – An adaptation of the documentary of the same name. Great advice from showrunners of all types of shows
ScriptMag – Article: Top Ten Things You Need To Know About Writing A TV Spec Script