Updated: Sep 28, 2021
Writing for TV is complicated. As I mentioned in Part One of Writing a TV Spec Script, it’s very difficult to break into the TV writing business. Besides having to move to L.A. (where the bulk of TV writing actually happens), get an agent, meet with producers, and get your script sold, you actually have to write a really good TV spec script.
As I mentioned in Part One, a TV spec script is a script of a TV show (currently on the air and popular/critically acclaimed) that you write in order to show your chops in writing in a prescribed environment. Whenever you’re writing for TV, comics, or even films within a franchise (think Marvel or Wizarding World), you must accommodate the show or Intellectual Property (IP).
Part Two is designed to elaborate more on what it means to write a TV spec script and how to acclimate yourself into the process. It will also elaborate on some components of TV writing.
If anything needs clarification, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email.
“It is true that, with TV, a writer gets a great deal more respect.” – Jon Spaihts
Because we already started this process in part one, let’s reiterate the importance of research. If you’re going to write for a show that you didn’t create, you’re going to have to know the flow of the show, how the characters interact with one another, how long each act is on the page and on screen, and a whole host of big and small details. This isn’t your show, so you must adapt to the norms already put into place.
Also, you have to make a promise not to change any major part of the show in your spec script. Essentially, you can’t kill a character, divorce a married couple, change a career for a character, or write any other major life changes in the script.
There is an exception, however. If you return things to normal by the end of the end of the episode, there’s no harm done. Think of comedies where characters get married for an episode or someone changes jobs only to return to their old one by the end. All BIG changes go through the Showrunner and Executive Producer(s). This rule also applies to “new” characters that you plan to introduce.
If you haven’t read a single script of the show you’re writing a spec for, take the time NOW to use Google (or another search engine) to find actual scripts to read. Take note of the following elements in the script(s) as you read:
· Number of Acts per episode
· Number of Pages per script
· Number of Pages per Cold Open/Teaser (if applicable)
· Number of Pages per Act
· Number of Pages per Tag
· Number of Scenes per Cold Open/Teaser, Act, & Tag
· Location of opening scenes and closing scenes
· Who is in opening scenes and closing scenes
Write all this information down as you read, so you can have an idea of a what a typical script looks like for the show you’re writing a spec script for. If you would like something to fill in, you can click here to you use the chart provided for this warm-up.
If you’re not exactly sure what to put down, just do your best.
“Ditch the dream and be a doer.” – Shonda Rhimes
The Writing Process
Create A Beat Sheet
The graphic above is what TV writers call a beat sheet. The best way to prepare yourself for the writing process is by writing up a beat sheet. Believe it or not, before any episode is written for a TV show, a beat sheet is created. So, it is prudent that you learn how to write a beat sheet if you want to be a TV writer.
In a writer’s room on a show, the writers bounce ideas off each other for the next episode. A beat sheet is written and then approved. Then the script is written. What a beat sheet outlines is each major dramatic beat in a scene.
After you’ve read several scripts of the show you’re writing a spec for, break down the script. Hopefully you did the warm-up exercise. Start with the number of acts. An act in TV coincides with each commercial break. Also determine whether the script has a cold open/teaser and/or tag.
Here's an example of how a show might be set up. It's probably a sitcom with the "Cold Open".
Teasers/Cold Opens occur before the first act (the naming of this scene is based off the show). Generally, comedies have Cold Opens and dramas have Teasers.
Tags occur after the final act and sometimes along with closing credits. Make sure you take note of these elements when you read the scripts.
Note that that each act or cold open/teaser and/or tag is labeled. The look of that label depends on the show:
ACT I or ACT I or ACT I
You must also know how many scenes occur within each act. Each scene begins with a new slugline:
INT. BRIEFING ROOM – DAY
If you count the number of times a new slugline is created, you can determine the number of scenes in any given film or TV script.
Within those scenes are the beats that move the story forward. You won’t be writing your clever jokes or dialogue on a beat sheet. Just provide the broad strokes like in the example above.
By the end of your writing process, your script should not exceed the normal page count of the show you are writing a spec for. Don’t go over and don’t come in under the average page count.
Play The Juggling Act
The beat sheet above features the title of the show, the name of the episode, and the author. Below that information is the description of each plot that occurs in the episode. Each TV show has a number of “plots” that occur in each episode. Generally, there are 2, or 3, or 4 separate storylines playing out throughout each episode.
Each plot is given a certain priority. The A-Plot is the most prominent plot in the episode. Audiences will see this particular story play out the most in the episode. The B-Plot and the C-Plot are secondary and tertiary respectfully. Sometimes a show may have a D-Plot. You, as the TV writer, must be able to show that you can juggle these storylines.
On the beat sheet, the letter “A” is written to indicate that the beat belongs to the A-plot. Now that you know how many acts are in the show and how many scenes belong in each act, it’s safe to say that the bulk of those scenes belong to the most prominent plot, the A-Plot. Then the B-Plot is 2nd most important, and the C-Plot comes in every so often.
Rule: Make sure to have at least one scene in each act for C & D plots. Don’t leave the audience hanging too long!
When you write your script, simply follow the beat sheet, keeping in mind how many pages these scenes generally last. The beat sheet is the outline. Label your act (or tease/cold open or tag), write the scene (slugline) and write the dialogue and action that accompanies each story beat. Then, we’re done. You’ve written the script.
Keep The Audience Engaged
So, you’ve written your script. You’ve got the cold open/teaser that lasts the normal length for the show, you’ve written the correct number of acts, and you’ve got the scene number in the normal range. You’ve got those scenes to last as long as they normally do for the show. And you’ve got the page number right into normal range! Hooray.
However, did you keep the audience engaged? Here are some things to remember.
· End each act on a high place of tension (otherwise, why would they tune back in after commercials)
· Make sure that time moves for each plot even when the audience isn’t watching them. If in plot D, the characters are eating dinner, and you move the viewers over to plot A, the characters in plot D are likely to be done with dinner when you come back to them.
· Follow the normal flow. The viewers of these shows are used to a specific setup each week. Breaking that flow may be jarring for the viewers and perhaps turn them off completely. Not to mention that if you don’t write that flow in your script well enough, it will not impress the showrunners.
Be Consistent With The Show’s Norms
If you’ve done your research and watched the show MANY times over, you understand the norms. You understand that a murder generally starts the episodes and that one character talks with a certain sassiness. You must work in the confines of the show. You must use the typical in order to show your ability to write in a prescribed environment.
Your goal is always to emulate the norms of the show while also incorporating your unique voice and style. Give your viewers something fun, but also something familiar.
In your script, keep naming conventions the same (the names of characters in dialogue prompts, the names of locations, and how certain elements of the show are written on the page). Not only is that great for consistency's sake, but also for production as there are hundreds of people who need to be updated constantly during the day-to-day production.
In sitcoms, line up your jokes similarly to those that happen normally in the show. In dramas, pull hard on certain dramatic beats. Juggle each plot and understand how each act is broken up in the scheme of the entire episode. Also, know when certain twists or turns are generally introduced.
Accommodate Recent Changes
While it is never a good idea to change the show as it is today, you will need to keep up-to-date with everything that happens on the show AFTER you write your spec script. If a character dies, moves away, gets pregnant, has a baby, etc., you will need to reflect those changes in your spec script.
If you write an episode with a character pregnant and she’s had the baby already in the current season, your episode must be rewritten to reflect the recent change. You must write your spec script for the show CURRENTLY on air.
When you’re writing a spec for a TV show, also make sure you are a fan of that show and that it’s a show you watch regularly.
Make A Hard Choice
A lot of times, writers have this notion that they will write comedy for a while and then move on to TV drama. Unfortunately, in the TV world, you will have to choose one or the other. Filling these writing rooms in L.A. is difficult and Showrunners and Executive Producers will hire you based on if you’re known as a “Comedy Writer” or “Drama Writer”.
Sometimes TV shows last for years, so don’t write a drama if you would prefer to write comedy. When writing your spec, make sure you understand that the genre choice matters in TV. There won’t be any going back and forth. It’s just how the industry is.
“Television is ultimately a business of failure. You try a lot of things, and most of it fails.”- Greg Berlanti
The quote from Greg Berlanti isn’t to discourage you. Frankly, I think it’s quite accurate. We all know that TV shows come and go very quickly, and sometimes, things just don’t work out. So, don’t fret if you see failure. Just understand that it’s just a part of the journey. TV writing is hard and the industry is very selective. Keep at it. Work hard.
Writing a stellar spec script will help you land a job in a Writers Room. If you get that job, be forever grateful. It comes with a slew of benefits and the pleasure of writing alongside other great writers. It’s best to not just write one spec script. Write two or three and even a pilot script to show to an agent. Be persistent and show your chops. Who knows what can happen.
If you need me for anything, don’t hesitate to shoot me an email. I’m always happy to help.
Save The Cat Beat Sheet by Blake Snyder – A look into writing beat sheets for films
Showrunners Documentary (Documentary) – Showrunners talk about the TV industry
How To Write A Spec Script (from Studiobinder) – Article to help writers create a spec script
50 Best TV Scripts To Read And Download For Free (from Script Reader Pro) – Read and download great TV scripts for free
The TV Writer’s Workbook by Ellen Sandler – How to write for TV and get hired on a show.