PrimeTime: How Current Should My TV Spec Be … and How Do I Keep It That Way?

Today’s question comes from Peter, who recently emailed after listening to my interview with Gray Jones on the TVWriter Podcast, where we discussed spec-writing … and why it’s usually not a good idea to write a spec for a highly serialized show. Peter asks:

If you decide to write a spec for a serial show, given the chance it does manage to get read, will it count against you if a character in your spec has just recently died in the series?  I want to try my chops at The Walking Dead, but I’m worried a good chunk of the show will have changed by the time I would have my spec is decent shape.  I realize that rewriting is the name of the game here, but I was just curious if this should be a concern when coming up with the story.

Well, Peter, you are hitting on one of the main reasons it’s rarely a good idea to write a spec of a highly serialized show.

The point of a spec is to prove you understand the essence of another writer’s show and its world. This means:

  • Capturing the tone and voices of the series characters
  • Telling a story that feels exactly like the kind of story told on the show
  • Infusing your own voice and worldview into the spec, using the show to “tell a story only you could tell”
  • Being up-to-date with the show (plot, characters, major story arcs)

So yes … making sure your spec reflects the current state of the show and its relationships is imperative if you want a formidable spec. And if your script includes dead characters or wrong relationships, it will reflect poorly on you.

A walker who just read an out-of-date spec.

After all, if your spec features a character who just died, any avid Walking Dead-watcher (and there a lot in the industry; it’s a highly watched and respected show) will immediately say, “Well, this guy obviously doesn’t know the show very well.”

Knowing I’m a huge fan of  Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an agent-friend at a big agency once sent me a client’s Buffy spec for staffing consideration (this was years ago, when Buffy was either still on TV or had just gone off the air). The writing was fine, but on page four, Buffy killed a vampire … with a shard of glass. I didn’t read another page. I simply called the agent and said, “I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but anyone who watches Buffy knows you can’t kill vampires with a shard of glass. (Hell, anyone who knows anything about vampires knows that!) The point is: Your client clearly doesn’t know the world of this show … and he did sloppy research to try and figure it out.”

While it may seem like an inconsequential detail, why would anyone want to staff a show with a writer who doesn’t care about the show enough to get a simple detail right?

If the writer does such shoddy research on his own scripts, when he has all the time in the world, and is writing a story he concocted himself (and is supposedly passionate about), why would I believe he’ll do a better job on my show, when he may be assigned stories created by other writers and won’t have all the time in the world?

So my first piece of advice:

Don’t write specs for shows with highly serialized or frequently changing storylines.

If you’re passionate about shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead, spec something with similar tones or stories — but stronger standalone elements. For instance, American Horror Story, Fringe, and Dexter all play in related territories, but they have strong standalone elements. (To be fair, Dexter and Fringe are probably too old to spec … and Fringe is almost dead.  American Horror Story, while new, may be okay; it’s successful, well-respected, and buzzed about, and it’s been picked up for a second season. So, it’s not going anywhere and it’s not ancient.)

Having said that …

My second piece of advice:

Write what you’re passionate about.

And if the spec that’s burning and clawing its way out of you is The Walking Dead, you have to write The Walking Dead.

An amazing spec of a serialized show, written with passion, will almost always trump a “decently” written spec of a standalone show.

However …

I would try to create a story that stands “outside” the show’s serialized elements.

The Walking Dead is soapy, its relationships constantly shifting and evolving, yet most of its relationship dynamics remain the same. (FYI, I’ve recorded all the Season Two episodes of The Walking Dead, but I haven’t watched yet, so I only know the relationships through the end of last season.)

For example, the Rick/Shane relationship doesn’t change much; yes, those men grow and go through hell, but they still tend to relate to each other in the same way. (The second scene of the pilot, with the two cops sitting in a police car together, gives a nice glimpse into this friendship … and their dynamic stays pretty much intact when they reunite after the apocalypse. One is more volatile, the other more thoughtful … but they still trust and respect each other. And they have a good sense of when to give the other rein or pull him in.)

Stories and situations may change… but relationship dynamics usually don’t.

Your priority, then, isn’t necessarily to create a story that falls into a specific point in the timeline, it’s to create a story that explores this unique relationship dynamic … no matter where it falls in the timeline.

(Sure, constant rewriting is a way to keep your spec current, but it’s an impractical pain … and this is a better way to write a good spec story.)

Season One’s fourth episode, “Vatos,” strikes me as an episode whose premise may have made a decent spec. (Rick leads a group into Atlanta to hunt for Daryl’s brother, Merle, but they’re attacked by a Latino gang hiding in a nursing home.) In the midst of a highly serialized show, it was a strong standalone episode that gave its story a beginning, middle, and end.

If you wrote this as a spec, you may want to take a bit of focus off the gang — since they’re all outside characters — and instead use the situation to explore more deeply the Rick/Daryl relationship, or the Rick/Shane relationship, but the point is, you could write a version of this episode without totally ignoring or tampering with the show’s serialized elements.

This is the mark of a good spec: a story that uses its show’s  relationship fodder, but can be a bit “timeless,” existing outside the series’ hyper-specific actual timeline.

It’s a tricky balancing act… which is why attempting to spec a serialized show can be a risky endeavor.

Fail, and you have a useless 60 pages.

Succeed, and you may have a really special spec on your hands.

I hope this helps, Peter!  If you, or anyone else, has more questions, please feel free to email me at chad@chadgervich.com, find me on Facebook, or Tweet me @ChadGervich.

Walking Dead images courtesy AMC/Greg Nicotero. All Rights Reserved.
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5 thoughts on “PrimeTime: How Current Should My TV Spec Be … and How Do I Keep It That Way?

  1. concerned students

    Gervich should be questioned– Told students as a group they were all shit then turned around & tried to sell them a “TV Summit” that he runs at 400 hundy a pop. Never has been on staff as a tv writer, but teaches it somehow? IMDB him. Refuses to give written notes to students. Has screaming tirades at class.

  2. Erica

    When I read for contests, nothing irks me more than a script that doesn’t follow the rules of a show (Shard of glass, seriously?!). Especially when there are so many resources beyond the show – network web sites, wikipedia, fan sites. No excuse. That said, I think it’s fun to see how far you can bend a rule before it breaks. Like say Sheldon on Big Bang may give up his favorite spot on the couch to get his friend to forgive him, but by the end of the episode he better claim his spot back.

  3. Peter

    Hey Chad,

    Thanks for the response! You bring up a lot of good points and I like the approach you suggested. It makes a lot of sense and gives me an idea of where to go with my idea.

  4. Chad GervichChad Gervich Post author

    @Roy – Not trying to be mean to “Fringe.” I like the show (although I don’t watch it a ton)… but the truth is: “Fringe” is barely staying alive on FOX, and I’d be SHOCKED if this wasn’t its final season. It may not even FINISH this season!

    http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2011/11/19/tv-ratings-friday-blue-bloods-rises-leads-cbs-win-fringe-grimm-chuck-nikita-steady-supernatural-falls/111185/

    …So it’s not a good show to spec, because as soon as the series is canceled, the spec is worthless.

    Chad

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