READER QUESTION: TV Spec-Writing Advice?

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Today’s question comes from Peggy, an aspiring TV writer who lives in Florida. Peggy writes…

“I love Law & Order: SVU, and I am working on a script. Any suggestions for me?”

Well, first of all, Peggy—congratulations on starting your spec! I’m not sure exactly what stage you’re at, but I think simply starting a new script is farther than most aspiring writers ever get; the world is full of “writers” who never actually write… they simply talk about ideas and hang out in Starbucks. So kudos on putting pen to paper and actually starting a project!

You’re also taking the exact right first step in launching a TV career. One of the essential elements of any aspirant’s portfolio is at least a couple “spec scripts,” or sample episodes of shows already on the air. Spec scripts can’t be sold or produced; they’re simply written as samples of your work, calling cards to show off your talent. So when TV shows like “Law & Order: SVU” or “Pushing Daisies” hire their staffs of writers, their showrunners and executive producers vet potential writers by reading their sample specs.

It’s also important to understand that producers rarely read specs of their own shows; most, in fact, NEVER read specs of their own show. This is for a couple reasons:

1) Legal reasons. Showrunners never want to find themselves in a position where they could be accused of stealing a writer’s script or story idea, so they try not to expose themselves to spec scripts of their own series. This may seem over-protective, but the truth is: writers throw about hundreds, maybe thousands, or story areas each year… so it’s quite probable that many of the specs out there are treading on story territories that the writers have actually explored or talked about.

2) Writers on staff live and breathe their shows’ characters and stories, so they know the worlds of their series better than anyone… making it nearly impossible for them to be impressed with an outside writer’s take. This isn’t to say they’re arrogant or close-minded; it just means they’ve played with a gazillion story and character possibilities over the course of writing the series… so not only is it rare for an outside writer to come up with something original (and tonally accurate), but when an outside spec-writer does write something the staff has already discussed, it makes it easy for a showrunner to dismiss the spec (even if it’s fairly well-written). In other words, the bar is set so incredibly high when a showrunner reads a spec of his/her own show, it’s not fair to the showrunner OR the writer. So rather than putting themselves… or you… in that position, most showrunners just don’t read specs of their own series.

Thus, your “Law & Order: SVU” script probably won’t help get you a job at “Law & Order: SVU;” but it could certainly land you a job at “CSI” or “Numb3rs.”

So, moving forward, here are my top three suggestions for writing your spec:

OUTLINE EPISODES. Watch as many episodes of “Law & Order: SVU” as you possibly can. Or, better yet, read the scripts. (Words often read a bit differently than the play on-screen.) Write down what happens in every scene, and note when it takes place in the story (the time-code or page number). This will give you the beginnings of a reverse-engineered outline. Keep it short and sweet, like this…

2:42 – Detectives discover murdered body.
3:36 – Learn victim is bowling champion.
4:12 – Victim’s diary says he was having an affair with his wife’s sister.
6:00 – Interview wife’s sister; she denies affair.

Then go back through each “beat,” or piece of story information, and identify how it functions, or helps push the story forward. For instance (this time, I’ll do it with page numbers, as if we’re following the actual script, rather than a produced episode from TV)…

Page 2 – Detectives discover murdered body – DISCOVER MYSTERY
Page 3 – Learn victim is bowling champion – IDENTIFY VICTIM
Page 5 – Victim’s diary says he was having an affair with his wife’s sister – IDENTIFY SUSPICIOUS RELATIONSHIP AND SUSPECT #1
Page 7 – Interview wife’s sister; she denies affair – SUSPECT #1 DENIES RELATIONSHIP, COMPLICATES INVESTIGATION

Do this for the entire script, then go back through and remove the details associated with the particular episode you’re using as a model. I.e., using the info above…

Page 2 – Discover mystery
Page 3 – Identify victim
Page 5 – Identify suspicious relationship and suspect #1
Page 7 – Suspect #1 denies relationship with victim, complicates investigation

As you can see, you slowly develop a “reverse outline,” or an exact structural breakdown of a produced episode of “Law & Order!” You can then follow this beat-for-beat, simply laying your own story over the skeleton of the old. You may need to tweak and fudge some beats here and there, but because you’re “borrowing” from a working episode, you should have a solid outline with which to structure your spec!

SLASH ANY LINE THAT’S NOT ABSOLUTELY 100% NECESSARY. This is one of my favorite rewriting techniques. After writing your first draft, read through your script with a red pen. Slash ANY LINE OR WORD that is not COMPLETELY NECESSARY TO PUSHING THE STORY FORWARD. I don’t care if it’s beautiful description; if it doesn’t propel the story, cut it. I don’t care if it’s hilarious repartee; axe it. I don’t care if it’s a brilliant character moment; trash it. Deep-six anything—and I mean literally ANYTHING—that is not pure story. And expect to lose at least a third of what you’ve written. (First drafts are almost always too long.)

You’ll be left with a pared-down script that is nothing but bare-bones narrative. Which means your script will not only read “leaner,” but it’ll also show you where you have holes that need to be fixed. Some places, you’ll realize, need more dialogue to illustrate what’s happening between two characters. Others need whole new scenes.

This can be a painful process; after pouring your heart and soul into a script, it’s tough to go through and rip it to shreds. But often when we DON’T shave stories down to bare essentials, it’s difficult to tell whether or not they’re working because they’re cluttered with fun dialogue, description, and character moments. And while these can be emotionally moving, they cloud the story itself. So it’s important, after your first draft, to reduce your script to nothing but plot.

SORT DIALOGUE BY CHARACTER. As you’re watching or reading your “Law & Order: SVU” episodes, write down each character’s EVERY LINE OF DIALOGUE. Yes, that’s right… EVERY ONE. Then sort them according to character: Stabler’s lines, Benson’s lines, Munch’s lines, etc. Once you’re able to isolate and focus on each character’s lines, you’ll notice quirks and consistencies. Does one character always talk in sassy retorts? Does another communicate only in monosyllabic grunts? Is another always being overly negative or positive?

Do the same with your script as you finish each draft; separate your own dialogue by character. Does each person speak in a consistent voice that’s appropriate to his/her character? Do certain lines need to be punched up? Do some characters sound too similar to one another?

Well, Peggy—there ya go… my top three spec-writing suggestions. I’d also recommend picking up Pamela Douglas’s excellent b
ook, Writing the TV Drama Series. This book deals a bit more with creating your own series, but it’s still got some outstanding writing advice, especially for drama writers like yourself. Also, if you spend just a couple moments on Amazon, or at your local bookstore or library, you can certainly find countless other great books on writing TV specs and dramas.

I hope all this is helpful, Peggy. Please lemme know how it goes… and I hope to see you on a staff out here soon!

For the rest of you who may have questions about writing for TV, film, or the Internet… or questions about the business, how to break in, etc… please don’t hesitate to post a comment below or shoot me an email at WDScriptNotes@FWPubs.com.

Have a great Labor Day, everyone!

Chad

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