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SAM'S QUESTION: How closely should my TV spec copy an actual episode?

Categories: Reader Questions, Writing TV.

Happy new year, everyone!  Hope you all had a great holiday!

I wanted to kick off 2010 with a question I received from loyal reader Sam.  Sam writes:

As a new year’s gift to myself I bought The One-Hour Drama Series: Producing Episodic Television
and am really enjoying it.  There’s a war story on page 44 that gives a showrunner’s suggestion for how to write a script in 5 steps and I wanted to get your thoughts.  It reads:

“1. Choose the series… watch an episode

2. As soon as it’s over… sit down… and write the same episode all over again”

3. You’ll remember enough.. to give… the required story, structure and character elements

4. You’ll have forgotten just enough that you will have to add some of your own originality… to make it your own.

5. Submit said script.”

Robert Del Valle notes after the steps: “Draw your own conclusion.”

The conclusion I’ve drawn is blank – far be it for me to disagree with a  showrunner’s suggestion on how to write a spec, but what would a reader think if they remembered the original episode?  What do you think?  Have you ever heard of someone writing a spec like this?

Great question, Sam, and I have to say– I think that’s probably some of the most CONFUSING advice I’ve ever heard.  And while I may be interpreting Del Valle’s source more than I should here, I’m gonna try and give the anonymous showrunner the benefit of the doubt…

I “think” he’s saying: you’ll remember the important structural points, such as when and how information is revealed… but you then “re-upholster” them with your own narrative details.

Personally, I believe that when you’re speccing something formulaic, like a hard procedural, you SHOULD steal the structure– as precisely as you can– then just “disguise” it with your own story and details.

I feel like that’s what the showrunner is getting at… but he goes a little too far.

Also, I WILL say– as far as LEARNING how to write a spec– but not necessarily writing one you want to submit– I think transcribing an episode is a GREAT way to learn.  I’ve done that a million times… you get such a great sense of dialogue, pacing, how scenes connect to each other.  So in that sense, I think it’s good advice… but as far as writing an actual spec to use, I feel like he misspeaks a bit.

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One Response to SAM'S QUESTION: How closely should my TV spec copy an actual episode?

  1. mark says:

    First: How do you ask a question of Chad?

    Second: In case I’ve already answered my first question, my next question is: If I’m a produced animation TV writer, and want to "break into" non-animated TV, should I include samples of my produced work in my spec package to literary agents representing non-animated TV writers? Or would my animation credits count for nothing in the non-animated world? (Are there agents that deal in both worlds??)

    Thanks…

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