If you’re an aspiring writer, it can be daunting to know that, whatever you submit, you’re up against a pool of highly talented and experienced writers. Thankfully, there are guidelines every writer can follow to craft content that will help sell your idea and your ability as a writer.
In today’s post, we’ll dive into how to write a spec script that gets you noticed. We’ll also go over what exactly writing on spec means, and how to gauge the spec market.
WRITING ON SPEC
1. Writing a spec script today
Writing on spec is a common practice in Hollywood. Whether or not they’re “in the industry”, film and TV specs can be a great tool for writers to sell their voice to potential buyers.
So what exactly is a “spec” script?
SPEC SCRIPT DEFINITION
What is a spec script?
A “spec” (speculative) script is a film or television script written independently of a production entity. “Writing on spec” refers to when a writer crafts a script on his or her own, with the goal of either selling it or securing representation for further assignments.
The annual Black List ranks the best spec scripts of the year.
Why write a script on spec?
- You gain much needed screenwriting practice.
- You now have material to show to producers, reps, and colleagues.
- You show your ability as a writer even if the idea isn’t bought.
2. Can writing on spec pay off?
It has been debated whether or not writing on spec can be valuable. After all, today’s entertainment landscape is dominated by franchises and existing properties with built-in audiences (like comic books).
Additionally, it is virtually impossible to get an unsolicited script read by a production company.
So why is anyone writing on spec?
Well, the goal for any writer is to generate some momentum behind their name or their project. This can lead to meetings with producers, representation, and meeting with head writers of popular shows.
If you have a spec that gets you noticed, that’s only the first step. Once you get into a room, you’ll also get asked if you have more materials to show.
That’s why veteran screenwriter John August suggests arming yourself with an additional feature film spec, a sample episode spec, and a pilot.
WRITING ON SPEC
3. How to write a spec script
When approaching any writing project, it’s always recommended to write an outline or treatment to get your ideas solid. That way you won’t get lost in a maze of your idea.
Then, when you actually set to writing, keep your end reader in mind.
Even more important than the agents and producers you wish to attract are their readers. These are usually assistants with tall stacks of good scripts like yours to get through every day.
So you’ll want to do a few things to keep them engaged.
First, make sure your scripts follow industry standards. Don’t try to spice them up with fancy titles, fonts, or images. Generally just make sure you format your script like the pros.
Here at StudioBinder, we’ve put together a TV Writing & Development Master Class which will take you through each step of the development process, and keep you on track while you write your ideas.
The lessons included in these seven separate courses will not only help you write, but we also go over a bunch of industry insider information and advice from successful writers and show runners to help you sell the idea.
4. Create a sample episode of a show
Choose the show that you sample wisely. The end reader will be agents, producers, and their assistants, so make sure this show is both current and making a splash in the industry. Then become a disciple of the show.
Know the characters, tone and structure inside out. Watch as many episodes as you can, and take note of all of those things
Remember that, due to legal and creative reasons, most showrunners won’t read sample episodes of their own shows. But they are valuable tools to get you staffed on similar shows.
Writing on his blog, John August also suggests calling production companies during staffing season (April to May) to discover what sample episodes the respective producers are reading.
WRITING ON SPEC
5. Write your original TV pilot
A pilot is an introductory episode to a series. Naturally, it takes a bit more effort to write a spec script for an existing show. That’s because you are creating everything -- characters, world, tone -- from scratch.
Even though you are starting with a blank page, anchor your vision with as many successful (and similar) shows as you can.
For example, while writing Extant, Mickey Fisher said that he took notes while watching several episodes of shows like Breaking Bad and Friday Night Lights. His notes were about episode structure and length.
Fisher said that, in addition to writing his pilot, he also wrote a season and series overview which gave him ammunition when getting asked questions in meetings.
6. Write your original feature film
It’s true: the number of films that major studios produce every year is on a downward trend. So, naturally, the appetite for original spec screenplays isn’t what it once was.
But that doesn’t mean spec film scripts don’t get sold. Considering the new avenues for content, including Netflix, Amazon, and even Apple, there is still an appetite for original material.
An agent can help you with that. But it’s also valuable to keep your eye on the market. Boil your idea down to its most basic genre and premise, and look at similar films that have come out in the past few years.
Do some research. How were they initially financed? Perhaps it wasn’t purchased as a spec. Sometimes, ultra-low-budget horror film scripts, for example, are produced for cheap and then sold to distributors later.
Research distributors too. Try to think about their angle for having released that similar film.
Consider how your strategy play to that market demand?
Finally, make contests and upload services your friends. Pick from a host of high-value screenwriting competitions and narrow down to the ones that satisfy the genre and tone you wrote your script in.
Also, there are legitimate success stories stemming from The Black List. This is a screenplay upload service that offers feedback and a voting functionality.
You have to pay in order to get reads, but this can result in your script getting surfaced to the right person at just the right time.
WRITING ON SPEC
7. Let your voice guide your spec script
Don’t be intimidated by the prospect of needing so many materials ready to go. What will get you noticed in the first place is your perspective and worldview.
Mickey Fisher, writer and executive producer of CBS’s Extant, wrote at length on the about his journey from being an aspiring writer-actor to having his show get executive-produced by Steven Spielberg.
Chief among the many nuggets of wisdom he provides in his post, is his advice to make your writing portfolio as tethered to your voice as possible.
He says that, at first, he tried diversify his potential projects as much as possible. But the lukewarm response he got guided him to align his portfolio closer with what got him noticed in the first place.
So get as familiar with that aspect of yourself. I always suggest making a moodboard to capture images that inspire you. Ask yourself why each image you add is particularly striking.
Dig deep into that creative part of yourself.
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8. Spec script examples
The best way to learn how to write a spec script is from the existing scripts. The more you read, the more you’ll learn how to write a spec script like the pros.
Find a good TV spec script example on a thorough repository of produced and unproduced scripts. Study as many episodes and pilots of similar, relevant shows as you can.
For film, consider checking out past winners of the annual Black List. Think particularly about how each script stood out in their marketplace.
Writing a Sitcom Script: Seinfeld Scripts
Now you understand how the spec script fits into the world of the modern entertainment industry. They may not be the sound monetary investment that they were in the 80’s - which you could say about most things.
No one is going to buy an idea or trust you unless you have something to show them. It could be video, paper, or a play, but the point is that you have something to show producers, agents, and other creatives.
Check out our article on Writing a Sitcom Script: Analyzing Seinfeld Scripts where we take you through the structure of Seinfeld, and show you how the writers worked on one of the most successful shows ever.