The Spec Script
No one (I hope) watches television all the time, but everyone watches it sometimes. Television is pervasive and common, in the sense of communal, familiar, and available to all. Television establishes our ethical, moral, social, and, God knows, material boundaries more than any other factor in modern life. More than the movies, more than politics--no wonder you want to write for it. It's powerful!
Because it is common, television is often dismissed as insignificant, unworthy of respect or care. Because it is pervasive it is voracious--television needs material, and it reproduces like an amoeba, constantly dividing and replicating itself to fill the continuing void.
Television needs more, and it needs it now. That's where you come in. Your job as a writer is to supply it with content. This leads to fast, which leads to sloppy, which leads to formulaic, writing.
"It's not brain surgery," you'll often hear people in the industry say about working in TV. As a way to deflate self-importance, it's a perfectly good sentiment, but resist the impulse to use it as an excuse to lower standards; because in a way, when you create for TV you are doing a kind of brain surgery. You are shaping people's perceptions, and affecting their reality.
A career as a writer in Hollywood begins with excellent writing (excellent by commercial standards--we'll get into that in a minute). After that it's about persistence, tenacity, and some luck, though less than you might think. These are not secrets. Everybody knows the rules. The secret is committing to them. That's what makes a career happen.
In order to write for TV, you must get a job. In order to get a job, you must have material to show that you can write. Usually that will be a spec script. What Is a Spec Script?
A television spec script is an unsolicited, original episode written for an established TV show. No money, no contract, no guarantees. In all likelihood, a spec script will never be sold or produced. What it will be is READ. That's what you write it for: to be read by as many people connected to show business as you can get it to. Everyone counts. You never know who knows someone who knows someone.
There are two different kinds of spec scripts, one for TV and one for film. You write a spec screenplay when you are not established enough to get a deal to write a screenplay based on a pitch. You write a spec screenplay and hold on to the dream that a studio will pay you for the rights to make it into a movie. Or, more likely, pay you for the rights to change it completely and never make it into a movie, but at least you get a check. You can sell a spec screenplay.
A television spec script is different. You don't write a TV spec with the expectation of selling it to the show. It could happen, it has happened--it's Hollywood, everything happens once or twice--and if it happens to you, great! Call your lawyer and make sure you're protected on the back end. (Not as sexy as it sounds, but even more exciting; see Showbiz Meanings for Regular Words: A Selective Glossary.) But what's much more likely, and therefore what we'll be talking about in this book, is that you'll write a spec TV episode to prove that you can do the work. It's a writing sample, a portfolio piece. In film, people are looking for a script, but in TV they are looking for a writer.
Why Write for TV?
I teach scriptwriting classes and when I ask students why they want to write a spec script, I usually get an answer like, "It's fun." Well, that's great, but that won't get you to the end of your script because a lot about writing isn't so much fun. A lot of it is frustrating, confusing, and downright hard.
So they think about it and I hear, "To tell a story" or "To make people laugh." I've even heard, "Because I really, really, really want to." All of those are good reasons to write something, but not necessarily a TV spec script.
The only reason to write a television episodic spec script is: money. When I teach, I usually draw a big $ on the whiteboard and everybody laughs. I suppose because that's what they were really thinking but were afraid to say. Or maybe they were even afraid to think it. Maybe they feel it's not a worthy reason to write. But the truth is that television is a commercial medium and you write it for money.
There's a story about George Bernard Shaw, who in the '30s came to Hollywood for a meeting with Samuel Goldwyn, the head of MGM. Goldwyn wanted the rights to Shaw's plays, but, naturally, wanted to pay as little as possible for them. Goldwyn went on and on about what a genius Shaw was, how much he admired his plays, what a great artist he was, and how he, Goldwyn, was also a great artist and that he, in fact, would rather make a great artistic picture than eat a good meal. Shaw finally got up, thanked Goldwyn for the meeting, but respectfully declined to sell him the rights. Goldwyn was stunned: "Why not?" Shaw replied, "The trouble, sir, is that you are interested only in art, while I am interested only in money."Form Versus Formula
What writing for money means is that when you sit down to write you have to follow the rules. By rules, I don't mean formula--formula is what makes a writer a hack, and leads to predictable, dull scripts that nobody wants to read past page 8. However, there is form--quite a different thing. Television scripts have a specific form, and you must follow it.
It doesn't matter if you think you know how to do it better or funnier than what's on the air. That's not your job when you're writing a spec script. Your job is to do it exactly the way it's done and still be original. If you follow the rules without originality, your work will be okay but it will not distinguish itself as special.
Yes, you're writing for money, but you are not writing only for money. You must also put some art into your commercial product. It's very unlikely that you'll ever get to write for money if you don't put something of yourself into your script. The richest, most successful television writers I know have all written commercially savvy products from a personal point of view. Creative with the form? No. Creative with the content? Yes.
On any given day on any given reader's desk (or more likely, on the floor) there are going to be three piles of scripts. The piles will look like this:
Pile A, the smallest one, will be, as you probably guessed, the good scripts. The ones with a story we care about, dialogue that jumps up off the page, something very special that's worth noting. These are the scripts that will get passed along with "Recommend" written on the coverage form.
Pile C will be the hopelessly bad scripts--handwritten, incorrectly formatted, offensive, plagiarized, and so forth.
And Pile B, the one that rises endlessly to the ceiling? That is what I call the Big Pile of Okay. Scripts that look like scripts, read like scripts, and might even have some pretty good laughs. There's nothing really wrong with them, but there's nothing really right with them either. This, in my experience of reading scripts (I've read thousands, honestly), and in the experience of everyone else I know who reads scripts for a living, is the category that the vast majority of scripts fall into. I don't think I need to tell you where these scripts are going; suffice to say they are not going on to anyone else's desk.
Once, in an agent's waiting room, I picked up a scratch pad to make a note. As I tore off a page, I saw that the back had printing in the distinctive Courier font on it. These were lines of dialogue! This agent had scripts cut up and made into memo pads! You know those scripts came from Pile B.
But the good news is that many of these okay...