Today’s reader question comes from Erica, who writes…
“When it comes to a TV spec, do you have to try and stay on the normal sets or can you branch out? For instance, on How I Met Your Mother, they tend to go to other places, like restaurants or the mall. But they've had several episodes that stick to just the bar and their apartments. Just curious what the rule of thumb is.”
This is a great question, Erica, and one that many writers often wrestle with.
When writing a TV spec, you obviously want to make sure you have your main characters on their primary sets for at least some (and maybe most) of the story. But I definitely think it’s okay to go to some new places… as long as they seem true to the world and tone of the show.
For example, let’s say you’re writing a “30 Rock” story in which Liz Lemon joins a Big Sister program and “adopts” an underprivileged child. That seems like a likely enough “30 Rock” story, and in the context of that story, it’s very plausible that you might write a scene or two where Liz goes to the little girl’s house or neighborhood.
Similarly, perhaps you’re writing a spec for “The Big Bang Theory” in which Leonard and Sheldon pick up some nerdy girls at a technology convention. You’d probably want some scenes on the floor of the convention… and you may even have a scene or two in a hotel room.
In these cases, it’s totally okay for you to leave the traditional sets of the show… just as most regular episodes often have a few scenes shot on “guest sets” (like when Michael Scott goes to Chili’s or the doctors on "Grey’s Anatomy" visit someone else’s house or hospital).
What you would NOT want to do is tell a story that seems so outlandish it forces you to go to ridiculous places. You wouldn’t write a “House” spec, for instance, that sends Dr. House to the moon, requiring you to have sets of a spaceship or lunar modules. And you probably wouldn’t write an “Ugly Betty” script where a job assignment sends Betty to Antarctica.
So, in short, it’s less about sending your characters to believable locations, and more about telling stories that seem tonally plausible for the show.
Having said all this… sometimes people write “novelty specs,” or spec scripts that are clearly playing with the format of their show—usually in some clever, splashy way. I.e., a few years ago, a writing team wrote a spec script for Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen’s sitcom (I think it was “Two of a Kind”). The spec was titled “Mary Kate Misses First Period,” and it was the raunchy, inappropriate story of how Ashley got her first period… but Mary Kate didn’t—and then it turned out she was pregnant. The story was raw, vulgar, and totally inappropriate… but it also landed the writers a ton of meetings and eventually a writing job.
In those cases, it’s okay to venture beyond the bounds of the show; in fact, you have to. Writing a novelty spec, however, can be risky. If you do an amazing job, it can garner a lot of attention. If you do a poor job, you look silly and foolish.
I remember reading a novelty spec for “Taxi” a few years ago… where the taxi kept picking up characters from different sitcoms—Jerry and Elaine from “Seinfeld,” Will and Grace, maybe some folks from “Cheers” or “Murphy Brown.” I don’t remember the specifics… all I remember is: it wasn’t very funny. The story itself was gimmicky and none the characters' voices seemed right... any everyone who read it knew is. So while it may have been a noble idea, it just made the writer seem desperate and hacky.
Anyway, I hope this helps, Erica… and for the rest of you with questions, please feel free to post them in the comments section or email me at WDScriptNotes@FWPubs.com.
In the mean time, keep reading… we have some great stuff coming up: more reader questions, Pitch Workshop submissions, book and movie reviews, and—in a few days—our first bona fide writing contest!!