If you’re a writer looking to break into television, you are absolutely going to need a sample spec script.
What is a sample spec script?
I’m so glad you asked! A spec script is an episodic writing sample. There are two types of spec scripts:
- ORIGINAL SPEC: This is an episode of television (presumably, a pilot – the first episode of a series) based on your original concept
- EXISTING SPEC: This is a spec script based on an episode of an existing series. A lot of writer’s training programs offered by major studios require you to submit a spec episode of a current series in order to be considered.
If you’re a brand new writer, I highly recommend having both. I was extremely reluctant to write a spec of an existing show – I had so many of my own ideas I wanted to pursue. But writing programs – like this one offered by NBC – often require a spec of an existing show for consideration. Writing programs are a great way to get your foot in the door, so today, we’ll tackle existing specs. Having a spec of an existing show on hand can be very useful – not to mention, a great exercise.
The purpose of writing a spec of an existing show is to prove that you understand character and voice. Let’s take Big Bang as an example. Any Big Bang Theory fans out there? If I were reading your Big Bang spec script, I’d be looking to make sure that you’ve written to Sheldon’s neuroses, Raj’s effeminate tendencies, and Bernadette’s brassiness. I would be confused if Leonard was overly confident, if Penny was too scientific, or if Howard didn’t hate/love his mom. Specs of existing shows are to help the reader/adjudicator understand that YOU understand character and story development. They want to know that you have the ability to work with an entire team of writers to create one consistent voice for each character and dynamic and interesting story arcs born of those personalities.
what to consider when writing an existing spec
- Choose a show you know backwards and forwards. I would rather read an insightful, compelling spec of a less popular series than a contrived and inaccurate spec of the latest hit. Trying to tackle something that’s being done extraordinarily well might not be the best choice for your first go around. Start with what you know and love – that will translate to the page.
- Structure and character reign supreme. I highly recommend trying to find an existing script of the show for which you plan to write. There are TONS of previously filmed and aired scripts availably online – seriously, just run a Google search. Pay attention to the act structure: is there a teaser? Is it a three act show comedy? Is it a four act drama? Where do the major turning points occur? Take an existing script and notate it to use as a roadmap. Check for the inciting incident, the climax, and the resolution. Structure is something that becomes intuitive but might take a moment to fully grasp. Just as it’s important to pay attention to character and voice, it’s also important to stay true to the structure of the show.
- Know when to take risks and when to stay true to the show. Obviously, readers want to see familiar characters in new and exciting situations, but remember that those situations and the choices they make within them must be true to character. Any Marvelous Mrs. Maisel fans out there? While deciding that Miriam gives up her standup career for a life in the movies is a bold and possibly interesting choice, it’s one better left to the show runner. Make interesting choices within the existing world of the show. Take her to California to perform standup for a major Hollywood producer – that’s new and true to form. They’ve given you wheels – don’t try to reinvent them.