The road to network writing programs starts with a strong spec script. Here are pointers from Tawnya Bhattacharya to help you choose the right spec.
Tawnya Bhattacharya is currently a writer/producer on Freeform’s Famous in Love, and formerly wrote on NBC’s The Night Shift, TNT’s Perception, The Client List at Lifetime and on USA’s Fairly Legal, with her writing partner, Ali Laventhol. Repped by ICM Partners and Heroes and Villains Entertainment, the duo are former NBC Writers on the Verge fellows. Bhattacharya was also a FOX Writer’s Intensive fellow. A writing instructor for 10 years, Bhattacharya launched Script Anatomy in 2010, a unique TV writing curriculum designed to give emerging professionals practical development, writing and rewriting tools to help advance their craft. Script Anatomy clients have been staffed, sold shows, and won numerous awards and TV writing fellowships. Follow Script Anatomy on Facebook or Twitter: @ScriptAnatomy
Ah, spec scripts. The bane of every baby writer’s existence. Come January, if you’re not staffed, you’re probably thinking — and maybe groaning inwardly — about applying to network fellowships again. And as everyone knows, the road to fellowships starts with a strong spec script. There are different theories and strategies out there about which show to pick to spec, but for us, the general rules are:
- LOVE THE SHOW
This is the rule that sounds cheesiest but truly is the most important. Most, if not all, of our alumni who have gotten into fellowship programs say that they truly loved the show they specced. In most cases, it was among their top three favorite shows on the air. That’s not entirely coincidence, either; it’s an annoying but true fact of life in this industry that your passion and excitement will inevitably show up in your work on the page. And since you’re going to be rewriting and polishing your spec until you’re sick of looking at your computer, you definitely want to pick a show that you can live with for awhile.
2. KNOW THE RULES AND INDUSTRY STANDARDS
It’s great that you love Sons of Anarchy and feel like it is truly the TV show you were made to write on. That’s a great story to tell in general meetings when execs ask you why you want to write for TV and what your inspirations are.
But you can’t spec it.
We know what some of you are going to say. You’re going to point out the infamous Seinfeld 9/11 Stunt Spec of 2016, and some of you maybe even know that the writer of that spec, Billy Domineau, is now staffed on Family Guy. Yes, there are one in a bajillion instances like that. We’re not saying you don’t have that kind of ingenuity. But if you notice, Domineau wrote that spec and published it for everyone to read on Google. He wasn’t sending it in to network writing programs. There are nuanced differences between standards for network writing programs and what works in terms of generating heat in the business.
For network writing programs, we recommend you stick to currently airing shows, preferably ones that are not too long in the tooth. If you have a good stunt spec idea for a CURRENT show on the air, it might be worth it to take that risk. For example, someone is rumored to have specced a CSI that set up the next franchise, CSI: Rio. And someone in a program this year wrote an Always Sunny stunt spec that was a nod to an inside joke all industry readers will definitely get about a pilot that didn’t go to series after causing somewhat of a social justice-fueled controversy.
In general though, once a show passes its 4th season, unless you have a killer idea, and it’s a show you truly love (again, always defer to rule #1!), consider a second or third option to present to your classmates or consultant.
3. RESPECT THE WARNER BROTHERS ACCEPTED SHOWS LIST
Baby writers hover in anticipation over the arrival of the new Warner Brothers Accepted Shows List like ballerinas hovering in anticipation over a NUTCRACKER cast list. Unlike NBC, CBS, and ABC, which don’t specify which specs a writer can submit (though ABC cautions against doing shows still in their first season) Warner Brothers Writers Workshop releases a specific list of specs they’ll accept each year. We’ve had students and alumni “go rogue” and spec a show anyway even if it’s not on the WB List. While it’s worked out great in some cases (one of our alumni got into ABC with her DOWNTON ABBEY spec), it’s a huge gamble that, for the most part, doesn’t pay off. Besides, very few other people in the industry read specs except in the context of fellowship applications, so if you’re going to put yourself through this process, why not kill as many birds as possible with one stone?
4. BEWARE THE SUPER-SERIAL STRUCTURE
In general, we advise our students who are speccing extremely serialized shows such as THE 100, CATASTROPHE, or THE AFFAIR against jumping off from the end of the previous season. It’s a surefire way to make sure your spec has shorter shelf life than organic bananas during a heat wave. Instead, we usually recommend students slot their spec in between two episodes that have a sizable time jump between them, referred to sometimes as a “bottle episode” or a “sandwich episode” (TV writers are pretty food-driven, if you haven’t noticed that already).
With shows that have incredibly serialized story structure, it’s so hard to guess where the writers’ room will take the characters between seasons. But, if you see a character arc that maybe felt a little incomplete or unclear to you in the show’s current season, a sandwich episode would be a great way to explore that while staying within the showrunner’s vision of the series — sort of like what you may be asked to do as a staff writer.
5. DO NOT TAKE REJECTION PERSONALLY
Thousands of people apply to network writing programs every year. While it can get difficult to understand this, it’s 100% true: writing programs are in no way a meritocracy. There are many factors that go into selecting each class, including what shows that individual network is looking to pick up, what rooms will need what kinds of voices at the lower levels, what kind of connections your reps have with the individual network Talent & Development departments, etc.
Hollywood is a lot like America in that behind every meritocracy is often a painstakingly orchestrated campaign. So try to remember that just because you don’t get traction with your spec does not mean you are a bad writer.
Okay, now with all that out of the way, we’ve polled our faculty and staff, many of whom are network writing program alumni, about what they would spec if they were applying to programs this year and why:
From Tawnya Bhattacharya & Ali Laventhol, writer/producers, Famous in Love; alumni of NBC’s Writers on the Verge:
“We would spec THE AFFAIR because it exemplifies our brand and it features complex, flawed characters and thematic storylines. But the real opportunity is the way the series juxtaposes dual perspectives — An episode’s second POV can re-contextualize a scene or moment from the first which allows a writer to shine in terms of craft, and that is critical when applying to fellowships.”
From Alyson Feltes, Co-EP of Ozark on Netflix:
“I’d spec GOLIATH [on Amazon]. As a former lawyer, I’m always interested in legal series, but this series really grabbed me. The first season showed a Los Angeles that we rarely see, introduced a character with flaws that reminded me of HOUSE. There is a personal desperation and a fury and a sense of injustice (class, race, gender) that feels very relatable in this political time. Then I looked at some practical factors: Is the show new? How has it been received? Does it fit with my original material? How would this spec show my writerly range? GOLIATH ticks all those boxes for me.”
From Hollie Overton, co-producer on Shadowhunters and alumni of the Warner Brothers Writers Workshop:
“If I were feeling risky, I’d spec BLACK MIRROR. It’s risky because each episode is self-contained and you’re not following the same characters/series arc but TV is all about breaking rules. What I love about this show is it gives the writer an opportunity to create a high concept and create your own world and characters within their framework. I think if you nailed this spec, it would definitely get attention.
If I were feeling a little less adventurous, a safer bet would be JANE THE VIRGIN. It’s the perfect blend of drama and comedy and would allow a writer to show their range.”
From Margaux Froley, staff writer on Privileged and alumni of the Warner Brothers Writers Workshop:
“I’m going to play devil’s advocate here – as much as a high-end cable drama brings all the playwrights to the yard — what job do you want to get from your spec sample is the question I always start with.
To play the network card, I would spec either THE CATCH, LETHAL WEAPON, or ELEMENTARY. Yes, these are pretty standard network procedurals, but there’s more of these types of shows where a spec would be relevant as a work sample, than there are multiple versions of a highly stylized, expensive, cable show. Each has a clear format, snappy characters with quippy dialogue, twisty act outs, and memorable action scenes (LETHAL WEAPON more so). These are a great reminder that if you’re writing a spec, it’s most likely in the hopes of landing a network diversity program, which often end up staffing on network shows. Writing a good spec of a successful network show shows the reader that as a writer, you know how to play in the sandbox, but can keep the sandbox interesting.”
From Eileen Jones, current 2016/17 program writer in the Warner Brothers Writers Workshop:
“I’d spec THE LEFTOVERS. Yes, it’s ending after next season, and no, we don’t know what season 3 will be, so you’d have to slot your episode into season 2, but when it comes to a show that is just supercharged with theme and emotion, I don’t think anything beats it. Plus, “International Assassin” broke all the rules, so I feel like this is a show that would allow you to really flex your muscles and craft something that absolutely no one else will do — to write something that stands out and is memorable. With so many characters and storylines to choose from, there’s a ton of story to mine still in Miracle.”
From Kevin Townsley, who’s sold comedy and drama projects and teaches of one of our TV Spec Labs:
“The formula for an outstanding spec script is passion. If you don’t LOVE the show you’re writing it will telegraph into the work. Almost anyone can write a good script of a show they kind of like, but that’s not the goal… the goal is to STAND OUT. Therefore I would spec CATASTROPHE on Amazon. To me, it’s quit simply the best show on TV and since it’s not so well known I think someone could really stand out. That said the main reason I’d pick this show is because it would feel like an honor to write an episode of it. Only write a spec of a show you respect.”
From Mike Perri, staff writer on BLINDSPOT and alumni of the NHMC Writers Program and NBC’s Writers on the Verge:
“I’d spec WESTWORLD. Why? I think the Sci-Fi arena, on-going time loop device, and strong characters all make for a unique series that will be winning awards for years to come. Although it’s a science fiction series, the heart of everything lies within the suspenseful storytelling and complex characters that inhabit WESTWORLD. I feel that if a writer could successfully weave all three of these elements (the arena, time-loop, strong characters, etc.) together, using a great thematic hook in a cohesive way, you’d really be able to stand out and display some fine writing chops… Also, this is the bar that shows and execs are now talking about every day, so why not try to only hit, but surpass the bar, right? ;-)”
From Nora Nolan, current 2016/17 program writer, Warner Brothers Writers Workshop
“For half-hour comedy, I’d write BLACK-ISH or FRESH OFF THE BOAT. Both shows allow you to demonstrate you can write the clean structure of network comedy, without limiting you joke-wise in the way that multi cams can. That is to say, they’re both edgy enough to give you room to show off your jokes and also stay within the lines of network TV.
For an hour-long, I’d spec CRAZY EX GIRLFRIEND. It’s a drama that really feels more like a long sitcom. If you can write drama and jokes, I think this would be a good choice.”
“I think one of the ways an emerging comedy writer can really stand out is by being able to write humor that comes from the honesty of realistic character interactions and grounded relationship moments — instead of just being a joke machine. If any comedy writer is up to this challenge, then a CASUAL spec would be a perfect one to write. Plus, it currently has two seasons (Season 3 to come next year), each with 10-13 episodes, which makes for an easy, enjoyable bingewatch/research affair.”
From Lorelei Ignas, current 2016/17 program writer, NBC’s Writers on the Verge:
“For me this isn’t really a hypothetical question; we had to write specs in NBC Writers on the Verge just this past fall, and I wrote a JESSICA JONES. I’d recommend any Marvel/Netflix franchise (but JESSICA JONES in particular because of how Season 1 ended) because they offer opportunities to do some character work while still adhering to a template. It’s not like THE 100 or GAME OF THRONES or other serialized genre shows in which anything (or anyone, literally) goes. Also, the Marvel/Netflix franchises go a long time in between seasons, so your spec will be current for awhile.
If I were a comedy writer, I’d spec YOUNGER. It’s character-driven and thematic, but has edgier content than most network shows. I heard it perfectly described by an exec recently as “what network comedy should be doing.” Also, it’s technically a workplace comedy (set in a book publishing house) which means there’s a task of the week that provides a solid and clear structure to hang your storylines on.”
Hopefully, if you’re still undecided about what to spec, hearing our resident experts weigh in has helped sway you towards one show or another. Oh, and one more thing to keep in mind — getting into fellowships, like breaking into the industry in any other context, takes a village. Nobody gets anywhere by writing in a vacuum. Many of our alumni who have gotten into network writing programs develop their spec scripts with us from start to finish, either in our TV Spec Lab classes or via private consultations with our faculty.
Nearly all of our alumni run their specs past their writers’ group — some of whom are former Script Anatomy classmates — several times before the deadlines as well. Rest assured, half if not all of each network fellowship’s class got some sort of professional help in their artistic development to get to where they are. At the very least, you should be vetting your ideas with a close circle of strong writer or storyteller friends that you trust. Your spec script will have to stand out against a pile of 2,000+ other submissions and go through several rounds of professional readers. You don’t want the reader to be the first fresh set of eyes on your spec.
Some shows that our alumni have specced that got them into programs over the past 3 fellowship seasons are:
Orange is the New Black (NBC Writers on the Verge)
The Americans (NBC Writers on the Verge)
The Americans (Warner Brothers Writers Workshop)
Downton Abbey (Disney | ABC Writing Program)
The Knick (NBC Writers on the Verge)
The Blacklist (NBC Writers on the Verge)
The Affair (Warner Brothers Writers Workshop)
The Affair (NBC Writers on the Verge)
Fresh off the Boat (Warner Brothers Writers Workshop)
iZombie (NBC Writers on the Verge)
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