Which Show Should I Spec?

Writers are unfortunately often perceived to be at the bottom of the food chain in the feature world. But in the world of TV, it’s a very different story.  TV Writers are some of Hollywood’s best-paid and most respected professionals.  But the odds of breaking in (or back in) to that coveted writer’s room seem to be worse than lottery odds.

As many aspiring TV writers know, a solid writing portfolio should contain two to three  “speculative” screenplays (i.e.: no one paid you to write them) for highly-rated and/or critically-acclaimed shows currently on the air. The shows you select to invest three to twelve weeks of your writing time and energy should be shows you love and can write passionately and authentically. From a practical stand-point, its also important that they be “sophomore” shows (i.e.: that have made the cut to be renewed for season two) or they can have an even longer track record but its then important that they promise at least a couple more years longevity because the second that show is cancelled, the shelf life to your sample expires.

The point of having these scripts in your inventory are to prove your ability to capture the voices of and emulate the pacing and tone of other people’s creations because that’s the job you’ll (if you’re lucky) be interviewing for. For legal reasons, its unlikely you’ll be read by or for the show you select (at least with the spec you wrote for their show) but you should carefully select a series that resonates with your sensibilities and nails the brand you’re trying to market so your unique voice can shine in its best environment.

To that end, knowing what shows are spec-worthy is a critical step in getting you that much closer to an agent or manager – or empowering the one you have to land you that life-changing job.

What Show Should I Spec?

Jen Grisanti is one of the few professionals striving to help unique voices break in to TV Land. Having worked on over fifteen prime-time shows including 90210, Melrose Place, Charmed, Medium, Numbers, NCIS, The 4400 and Girlfriends, she was herself mentored by Aaron Spelling and now gives back through NBC Writer’s on the Verge and CBS’ Diversity Program.  She’s a good one to ask. Only you can figure out the right show for you to spec, but Jen gives some great advice on this question. These are the shows she recommends you select from:

Good Series to Spec for the 2011 Staffing Season

Dramas

  • Mad Men
  • Breaking Bad
  • Dexter
  • True Blood
  • The Walking Dead
  • Glee
  • The Good Wife
  • Criminal Minds
  • The Closer
  • The Mentalist
  • Castle
  • White Collar
  • Parenthood
  • CSI: NY

Comedies

  • Big Bang Theory
  • Modern Family
  • Community
  • 30 Rock
  • Cougar Town
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • Two and a Half Men
  • Nurse Jackie
  • United States of Tara

Jen recommends that you study the shows (her workbooks have great breakdowns of most of these show’s pilots and award-winning episodes).

HOT TIP: The Tracking Board is a great resource for TV research and study and they are offering a 15% discount to readers of this blog: http://www.tracking-board.com/promo/?pppcode=15off.

Do you seem to prefer multi-camera, three camera, single camera? Are your favorite shows network or cable? Which episodes are your favorites? Why?

Jen explains that the delineation between a comedy writer and a drama writer have recently blurred. There is a lot of humor in modern dramas. The procedural with comedy, such as The Closer or The Mentalist, is a new breed.

Pay attention to the show’s structure, Jen advises. Is it serialized? Or close-ended?  Some shows like White Collar (and Supernatural) have an episode goal but never lose sight of the overarching series dilemma. Three-camera sitcoms are all about the joke.

Two of the most important tools available to television writers are irony (the twist in the logline/story goals) and subtext (what is said versus what is felt). And the all-critical “All is Lost Moment” is a prime opportunity, especially for aspiring writers, to reveal your unique voice as you highlight the character’s point of view.

Rounding out your inventory with a feature, a one act play or even an original pilot are increasingly acceptable options but an excellent spec script is critical.

19 thoughts on “Which Show Should I Spec?

  1. Dave S.

    You are most generous with your feedback! Thanks so much for sharing it with me — and with the rest of the screenwriting community. Heather Hale rocks!

  2. Heather HaleHeather Hale

    Great, great question, Dave – thank you!

    First and foremost, loving the show might be the #1 criteria (not that you can’t research and discover NEW shows that fit the right criteria you can grow to love!) but that’s always a great starting place.

    Do some research on the writer of the show, the showrunner, the author of the books – see what their themes and goals are – what they want the show or the books – the legacy to be – and try to honor that spirit.

    In terms of pulling an element out of the future of where you’re pretty sure the books are headed – I actually think that’s not a half bad idea – especially if, as you say, it looks like they are following the serialized storylines – and if you can get far enough out, you can show your unique handling of the exact, precise situations the characters will likely encounter.

    On the other hand, you do want to show your contribution to the storylines and characters – what kind of brainstorming you’d bring to the table, and you DON’T know that they’ll stick to that storyline – and even if they did – where ELSE might you take it?

    If you think of graphic novel stories, everyone has a different tone or take on origination stories – those’re rich and ripe – and you could pull out an evil villain – and tell a famous story – or make up one that we’ve never seen before that WOULD BE believable and fit into the known cannon.

    Again, give it all a lot of thought – and maybe there’s a unique hybrid approach you could come up with? Lift the skeleton of where the characters will be in their relationships or plotlines – but go off in a new and different – and entertaining and engaging direction – that is still TRUE to those characters – and where you’re pretty sure the series’ll end up.

    That clear?

    That help?

    No matter what – super good for you for putting this kind of thought into YOUR style and strengths – your loves and passions – and the best pockets of opportunities for you to shine!

    😉

  3. Dave S.

    And here is my latest question for Heather:

    I’m considering writing an episode of Game of Thrones as my next spec. It seems to fulfill all the requirements for a hot show to spec: it’s new, it’s a hit, there’s a lot of buzz around it in Hollywood, and it’s likely to last a few more years. Plus I love it!

    The show thus far has adhered closely to the original books by George R.R. Martin, telling a highly serialized story — which makes it difficult to do an original one-off that takes place during the course of the first season. So I find myself wondering whether I can get away with adapting an episode directly from one of the later books in the series, or if this would be considered a no-no. Same question applies to The Walking Dead, which is based on a comic book series.

    When a TV show is based on a well-known series of books or comic books, is it acceptable to base a sample spec on the source material for the show? Or is that too close to plagiarism? Would readers in Hollywood have the expectation that any sample I write would be entirely original, regardless of the basis for the show?

    Thanks again for your insight!

  4. Dave S.

    Hello aspiring writers!

    I recently asked Heather a couple more questions about sample specs offline, but she suggested the information would be better shared with the masses, so I will post our conversation up to the present.

    Heather’s response to my last post:

    Sounds great! Yeah, it’s good to consider your affinities, tastes, sensibilities – and strengths. Supernatural is an awesome qualifier…now to help you narrow down further, you might look for a one-hour supernatural show that’s got some comedic elements that’d give you a chance to hint at those chops, too? 😉

    And my answer:

    Again, savvy advice! As a matter of fact my Bones spec is heavy on the comedy, so I’m going to do something darker this time, to strike a balance. I just finished watching season one of The Walking Dead, and I think it will do nicely.

    I see you’ve got a blog going, that’s great! I look forward to mining it for more nuggets of wisdom. Thanks again for your kindly support!

  5. Dave S.

    Thank you Heather! It’s very kind of you to take the time to respond, and I think your advice is spot on. The sample spec I just finished is a Bones episode, and I had been thinking that next I would write a sitcom, to show my range (which is broad). But the truth is that even though I have a flair for comedy, most of my own favorite shows are one hour dramas with an element of the fantastic, like X-Files, Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, and Game of Thrones. After considering your advice, and also consulting this interesting website: http://www.tv-calling.com/drama-spec-script-2011-what-is-hot-and-what-is-not/, I’ve decided to write another hour-long spec, this time for something with a hint of the supernatural, such as True Blood or The Walking Dead. So thanks for the assist in plotting my next move, and for the encouragement. Cheers!

  6. Heather HaleHeather Hale

    Hey Dave S. –

    Glad you enjoyed the article and found it helpful.

    First, I’d say, as long as you wrote a show you love, that’s what’s most important ’cause your passion will shine through.

    In response to your question, I’d say there’s an argument for both strategies.

    The best way to make sense of the right answer FOR YOU might be to consider what your most immediate or ultimate career goals are. At the end of the day, are you trying to make it as a comedy writer or a drama writer? Long term, what might be the best fit for you, your typical favorites, where are your greatest strengths and affinities?

    Or are you trying to demonstrate your breadth to secure an agent? Honestly, its easier for them to break you initially into a niche. So perhaps two in the same arena – but certainly not the same show. Maybe a three-camera sitcom then a dramedy? Or two different kinds of procedurals? (I.E.: one legal another medical, etc.) Same genre different target audiences or vice versa, you see?

    Another thing to consider is your unique voice. Once you’ve proven you’re not a one-hit wonder and can actually capture the voices and styles of at least a couple of other ShowRunners, it might be worth your while to write a pilot? Bear in mind, this would have to be in addition to at least one, probably two, excellent specs of current shows, though.

    Give it plenty of thought because there’s so much work involved, the choice of genre, show, episode concept – make sure the idea has legs – and purpose for where you’re at in your career.

    And: GOOD LUCK!!!! 🙂

  7. Dave S.

    Thanks for the article! I’ve just written a spec sample (alas, not a show on the provided list) and have been trying to decide what to write next. I’ve seen some books/articles which suggest that you should write two sample episodes of the same kind (ie,drama vs comedy), but others which suggest that one of each demonstrates greater range. What do you think?

  8. Matt MacRae

    You are very kind to write such in depth answers questions. It’s nice to see someone so genuine trying to help writers on their path. Thank you very much for all your help, I know you are very busy.

    Matt

  9. G.D. Warner

    Hi, Heather.

    Sorry about the delay in getting back to you; too many tabs open in Firefox! :o)

    That said, a big THANK YOU for the in-depth response to my question! It will help me in my future endeavors a lot. Thinking of entering a script or two in the Film School’s screenwriting competition: Seven pages to grab and hold someone’s attention.

    Should be fun!

    –gdw

  10. Heather HaleHeather Hale

    Hey Ron – Good for you! 😉

    G.D. – Yes, that’s still the general consensus but there are thankfully lots of unique shows on the air now. As Sundance becomes increasingly commercialized and feature films get laden down with product placement, the lower cost and greater reach of the television landscape has opened up all sorts of daring creative risk-taking – so there’s a wider breadth of variety on television. I think we’re truly in a new Golden Age. Or at least a Renaissance.

    Great question re: “Chuck.”

    On the one hand, I’d say: Write what you love because Chuck is just ONE show – i.e.: place to get hired – and to write something you love LESS for the lottery shot of getting hired by a single ideal show versus writing a script for a show that you obviously ADORE that might better serve as a passionate, excellent writing sample hopefully for a few years to come, to me, it’s kind of a no-brainer. In the time you could research other shows, figure out their characters and pound out story ideas, you could’ve probably written five sample “Chucks.” 🙂 Besides, you need at least two samples. So why not let one be your guilty pleasure?

    Chuck is a fantastic example, by the way, of how the TV landscape is changing by social media grass roots efforts and integrated marketing. Appointment-TV for many of its rabid fans who’ve followed it as its changed time slots, their Facebook and Twitter “Save the Chuck” campaigns bumped the show off the bubble chopping block and got the powers that be to concede to renew its third season while Subway Sandwich’s product placement stepped in to help defray the production costs. One of the benefits of catering to the ComicCon audience by having a comic-book loving nerd as your lead is tapping into a very connected, vocal and powerful demographic.

    To fully answer your question: what OTHER show might you spec (after you write a brilliant Chuck, as I’d advise)?

    Couple of suggestions:

    Make a list of the shows YOU LOVE.
    What do they have in common?
    Are they all action comedies?
    Do they seem to all be workplace environment-based?
    Are there any other shows you like with slacker spies?
    🙂
    Do you like any three-camera sitcoms?
    Dramedies?
    Etc.

    I’d say “Burn Notice” might be a good show for you to spec for this purpose. Bonnie Hammer over at the USA Network is really doing some amazing programming, bringing unique characters and situations to the screen.

    Maybe do some research on the cancelled Jake 2.0 to see if that stimulates any great story ideas. Maybe toss a Chuck-like geek character into your Burn Notice sample episode to see if you can’t kill a couple birds with one stone?

    An Out of the Box PowerNetworking strategy:

    With “Chuck” apparently topping your “Hit/Wish List,” do a little mind mapping research.
    Think.

    Q: How do I shine for the Series Creator and Executive Producer Josh Schwartz without putting him or any of his people in any kind of liability for reading a spec for the show you’re actually wanting to get hired for?

    Well, your target is uniquely the Creator and EP of another hit show currently on the air – a rare opportunity. Perhaps you should spec that? “Gossip Girl.” Now, granted, a whole different genre, tone, style – but same Creator. We all have different ways our writing shows up. Study his previous show, “The OC” to familiarize yourself with his precursors. His world view.

    If you could bang a fantastic Chuck AND a great Gossip Girl out of the park, you might be lining up the assets to get you into the room of your dreams.

    Then I might be pitching myself to be your writer’s assistant. 😉

    GOOD LUCK on your Chuck!

    😉

  11. G.D. Warner

    Hi, Heather.

    Back when I was living in California (mid-80s), the big thing was to write a spec script for a show similar to the one you actually want to write for, and submit that script to the folks at the show you want to write for … like, say you wanted to write for “ER,” so you’d write a spec for “Chicago Hope.”

    Sounds good, but … suppose you want to write for “Chuck” …?

    Dilemma, dilemma!

    Thanks ….

  12. Heather HaleHeather Hale

    Great question, Jenean.

    We all love to write our own original ideas. That’s often what inspired each of us to write in the first place. But in order to launch or further a career (i.e.: get hired to write versus the rare spec sale), you have to be able to demonstrate that you have the ability to capture the voice of shows and breathe life into characters created by other successful ShowRunners.

    If you’re lottery-lucky enough to enjoy the luxury of a writing career filled with nothing but your original work (what a dream that would be! 🙂 and will you hire me!? 🙂 but most of us have to prove ourselves – over and over again.

    In order to enhance the confidence of those considering in risking investing in you, you must evidence your competence via currently successful shows they are familiar with so they can gauge your execution. Consider it their version of risk-mitigation. If you want them to bank on you, you have to be able to prove that you can deliver a competitive product to the marketplace.

    And while we each have our own unique voices, and that is what sets us apart from the pack, you still have to be able to collaborate on a team to achieve a unified vision – week after week.

    Think of it as your audition. Or your olympic trial. 🙂 You’re “testing out of” a particular prerequisite to get up on the board as even a legit contender. As an artist or entrepreneur in the entertainment industry, there is no piece of paper – a college degree or certificate or license – that can go up on any wall, anywhere, endorsing your talent.

    You have to prove it on the page.
    Over and over again.
    Throughout your career.

    Sampling material the buyers know, now, just makes that proof that much more accessible and relevant.

    You’re not just demonstrating your writing ability or your materials’ marketability – but your hire-abiity.

    I hope that helps.

    And best of luck!

    Where do I send MY writing sample? 😉

  13. Jenean Atwood Baynes

    Your articles are fantastic! Choc full of golden nuggets. I can print each one, keep them in a binder and end up with a “book” – writing coach Heather Hale’s Inside Guide to the Writing Business.

    Question: If I have all original projects and my goals do not include a staff writing position, do I need to also have spec scripts in my arsenal?

  14. Heather HaleHeather Hale

    Great question Roy!

    You should always write to and from your passion.

    If the show that best highlights your strengths, sensibilities and unique voice isn’t a hit – write such a fantastic spec that it stands out amongst the pack. Far better that than to half ass something that doesn’t resonate with you as that’ll show up on the page.

    🙂

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