What is a spec script? What does it mean to “write on spec” and is it something you should do? We’ll be answering all of these questions, breaking down the differences between a film spec and a TV spec, and looking at a couple of examples of successful scripts written on spec and the writers whose careers they launched.
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What is a Spec Script
First, let’s define spec script
The term “spec script” can actually mean two different things depending on the context. Spec script means one thing when referring to a film and means something slightly different in the context of television writing.
Let’s start with the film definition. And, if you encounter any other unfamiliar film terms, our ultimate guide to filmmaking terminology is a helpful resource for looking them up.
SPEC SCRIPT DEFINITION
What is a spec script?
A spec script is an original screenplay written without prior attachment or deal with an executive or studio. A screenwriter creates a spec script of their own volition without pay, though the spec script may be sold later on for a profit. "Spec” is short for “speculative.” After these scripts are written it is up to the writer and their agent (if they have one) to "shop it around" to producers, production companies and studios. More often than not, these scripts are written as a "way in," a calling card that writers use to break into the screenwriting game.
Spec Script Characteristics:
- Original material
Spec Writing Screenplay
Scripts written on spec in TV vs. film
Confusingly, the term spec script means something entirely different in the context of television. As opposed to a feature film spec script, which consists of new, original material, a television version is a writer’s take on an episode of an existing television show. The writer takes the premise and characters of a show that is currently on the air and generates a fresh episode that fits the style and tone of the overall series.
Here's some great advice from Carole Kirschner on writing an original pilot vs. writing an episode of an existing show.
Worth noting is that the television industry also uses the term “spec pilot.” This is more in line with what a spec script is in the film industry, where the writer creates the first episode of a brand new series from their own imagination. Spec pilots are frequently referred as just “pilots.”
What are Spec Scripts
Why should you write “on spec”?
Writing on spec means writing a screenplay for free but that doesn’t mean that a spec script can’t lead to financial success. The goal of these speculative scripts is either to eventually sell it and get it made. Or to use the script as a calling card for your talents as a writer and land a paid writing gig as a result. Check out our salary guide to find out just how much screenwriters can earn.
Spec scripts are a common way for screenwriters to break into both the film and television industries. They offer readers of taste of what that writer can do, whether or not that particular script ever ends up getting made. Writing on spec is also just good, old-fashioned practice. Writing every day is a great habit to have. You become a better writer by writing as much as possible.
What Does Spec Mean
Big careers were launched with specs
The one and only Quentin Tarantino got his break into the film industry by writing spec scripts. Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, and Natural Born Killers were all spec scripts that Tarantino wrote before making his directorial debut with Reservoir Dogs. Find out where Reservoir Dogs ranks on our retrospective of Tarantino’s filmography.
Speculative scripts still play an important role in the film industry. Tarantino even spoke about the importance of spec scripts recently while accepting a Hall of Fame award from Final Draft.
Shane Black, writer of classic hits such as Lethal Weapon, was another screenwriter who made it big through writing scripts on spec. Shane Black played a pivotal role in the spec script boom of the late '80s-'90s. He managed to sell his original script for Lethal Weapon at a high price tag as a first time writer fresh out of college, setting off a wave of similar script sales.
His scripts achieved legendary status and he became the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood for a time.
The success of spec scripts in television is no different. Huge, hit series like Stranger Things began as spec pilots. The creators of Stranger Things, the Duffer brothers, wrote the pilot episode on spec and pitched the series to Netflix, who happily snapped it up. If you plan on pitching a TV series, be sure to have an understanding of what pilot season is and how it works.
How to Write a Spec Script
If you want to begin a career as a screenwriter, you should making getting a couple of spec scripts in your portfolio a top priority. Luckily, we have a useful guide for writing a spec script. The guide covers feature film specs and both types of television specs, so no matter which you are writing, our how-to guide will prove useful.