Don’t Make These TV Spec Script Mistakes!
By Jacob Krueger
In Part 1 of this “What You Need To Get A TV Staff Job” series, I discussed the most important things to consider in writing a spec script for an existing series. In this installment, I’ll be discussing the big mistakes aspiring staff writers tend to make in writing their spec scripts, and how to avoid them in your own writing.
1. Don’t Write The Season Finale.
Producers are looking for your ability to fit in with the existing parameters of their show, not to create new ones. So don’t kill off a character, introduce a special guest star (unless that’s a standard thing that happens on the show), or write the special two-hour episode. Instead, dazzle them with your ability to create an episode that could fit in perfectly with what’s already happening in the series. Show them how talented you are at doing what the series does best, not the new directions you’d like to take things if you were in charge, or how you would save their show with a few brilliant creative decisions.
Someday, you may become a Show-runner and get to make those kinds of choices. But right now you’re interviewing for a staff job. And most likely the person reading your work likes the way they do things. Don’t get me wrong. You still want to knock their socks off, and bring that special pizzazz to your script that only you can bring. But instead of focusing your creativity on how to change the show, focus it on how to find the coolest possible premise for your episode, how to wring the greatest irony out of each character’s dominant trait, and how to take what is already great about the show and makes it even better. Show them you can play on the team, and eventually they’ll want to see what else you can do.
2. Don’t Forget The Bible
Every TV series has a Bible—a written scripture of everything that can (or cannot) happen on the show. These Bibles can be shockingly detailed, and can include anything from the number of jokes per page, to the food the lead character will never ever eat. Aspiring TV staff writers dream of getting their hands on the Bibles for their favorite shows. But unless you know someone on the inside, you’re going to find this exceedingly difficult. Fortunately, you can create your own Bible, simply by reverse engineering existing scripts.
Start out by reading and watching every episode you can get your hands on, and taking notes on the things those episodes seem to have in common. On what page does the main problem of each episode get introduced? What is each character’s dominant trait, and what kinds of mistakes do they make (or not make) in each episode? How bawdy is the show willing to get? And what are the things that never seem to happen? What is each character’s problem, and how do the writers test that problem in each episode. What are the sources of the show’s humor, or of its drama. What is the issue that, if resolved, would make the show feel like it was over (make sure you don’t allow that to happen in your episode). Now, pick a few of your favorite episodes and break them down page by page. What happens on each page? How long do we follow each character before we cut? How do A, B and C stories seem to come together in each episode? How are jokes set up and paid off? Make a list of all the rules of the series you can think of. And make sure you play by those rules. This is the key to writing a successful spec episode.
3. Don’t Ignore The Act Breaks!
Particularly in Network Television, act breaks are where the dollar signs are, because act breaks are where the commercials are inserted. Different producers, and different networks, have all different theories about what kind of thing should happen at an act break. But the real concerns boil down to this:
Will the audience stick around and watch the commercial? And will they come back and keep watching when the show resumes. As you break down existing episodes, you’ll probably notice that each series has its own rules about how to handle act breaks, and that those breaks tend to happen consistently in exactly the same place in the script. Honor those act breaks. Make sure each act of your spec episode breaks on exactly the right page, with exactly the same kind of turn, reveal, or escalation demonstrated in existing episodes of the series. Change the page count, or the location of the act breaks, at your peril. Remember, Show-runners are looking for people who can play by their rules, and express their creativity within the commercial reality of TV. Act breaks are where producers pay the bills. And if you do them right, you may just find that producers are willing to pay YOUR bills as well.
If you’re interested in learning more about TV Writing, there are still a few spots left in our new TV Comedy Writing Class, with acclaimed Show-runner Jerry Perzigian. It’s the only class of its kind, run exactly like a writers room on a real TV series, taught by a showrunner with over 25 years of hit-show experience, and featuring the work of 12 talented student writers.