How to Watch a TV Show You Want to Write a Spec Script For
The best thing about writing a TV spec script is the research.
And by research, I of course mean watching episode after episode after episode of the show you’ve chosen to spec.
But this research isn’t leisurely. Oh no, it requires diligent analysis and extensive note-taking. In order to write a spec script that will wow readers, you must know the show you’re speccing inside and out.
So, without further ado, a master list of the things you should know about the TV show you’re planning to spec.
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What Platform Does the Show Air On?
Overall, there’s a big difference between a show that airs on HBO and one that airs on CBS, so it’s important to know what platform your show is produced for when preparing to write your spec script. For example, a show airing on CBS might have a 12 or 24 episode order; whereas, a show on HBO might give you more freedom of episode numbers. Your show could air 8, 10 or 12 episodes a season. The platform will dictate how much story you might be able to contain in each episode.
How long is the show?
Historically, TV shows are either a half-hour or one-hour long (including commercials). Nowadays, streaming has changed the game in terms of show length — with some shows solidly in between half-hour and hour long, and others well over one-hour. Make sure you take a look at the typical length of your show’s episodes.
What’s the show’s genre?
Comedy or Drama. Drama or comedy. What genre does your show fall into? Typically, half-hour shows are considered comedies and hour-longs are considered dramas, but there has been some crossover in recent years. If you’re not sure, try checking the show’s IMDB or Wikipedia page or seeing which category the show competes in for various awards.
What’s the general tone?
Try to think of tone as an extension of genre. Is the show a black comedy? A coming-of-age comedy-drama? A mockumentary? While a show like Barry technically competes for awards as a comedy, it also features psychological and crime elements, a tragicomic tone, and dark humor.
Read More: How to Choose a TV Show to Spec
Story & Plot
Is the show episodic or serialized?
When writing a spec script, you need to know the nature of the series’ overall story.
Episodic shows are made up of self-contained stories. These kinds of shows focus more on what happens to the characters than any larger, overarching plotline. For example, shows like CSI, Bones, Law & Order are episodic; whereas, Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building is considered serialized
Serialized shows feature ongoing stories and are built upon longer storylines and extended character growth.
What are the show’s episodic elements? What are the serialized elements?
These days, most shows feature both episodic and serialized elements. So, try to pinpoint which parts of your show are episodic and which are serialized.
For example, the primary storylines in Abbott Elementary that revolve around the trials and tribulations of the school are episodic. The character relationships (like between Janine and Gregory or Janine and Barbara) are serialized but develop at a very slow pace because the primary storylines take center stage. An example from an episodic TV show like CSI follows the "case of the week” model. In this model, this week’s case takes up about 75-85 percent of the episode and then the remaining real estate is dedicated to character arcs that might be season arcs or just episode arcs.
Where do the show’s stories come from?
What is the constant source of material for the episodes’ storylines? To figure this out, consider what the main conflict is. Does the show center on a singular character and how they deal with life’s challenges like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt? Is the show a procedural, with different “cases” each week? Is there a central situation or relationship that the whole show hinges on? Or maybe, like in Game of Thrones or Stranger Things, the world provides the stories.
How many storylines are typically featured per episode?
Half-hour shows often have A, B, and C-storylines, while hour-longs could have twice as many. You’ll also want to consider what each storyline is usually about. Do the storylines always follow a particular character or story element? And do the storylines intersect, or are they typically kept separate from one another?
Who are the main characters? Who are the supporting characters?
I’m not talking about just making a list of the character names. To write a great spec script, you need to know who the main characters are. What makes Ted Lasso, Ted Lasso?
When examining the characters, you want to look for both exterior and interior details. Note any important physical qualities, defining characteristics, personality quirks, fatal flaws, and redeeming qualities. You’ll also want to know about each character’s personal history — their backstory, family and friends, and any pivotal life events.
For example, a simple way to break down half hour vs. hour drama structure is use the conflict rule. In half hour, the protagonist's main conflict comes from the people in his or her life. For example, if we were to say that Monica is the central character in Friends, most of her life conflict comes from the people around her - her ex-best friend, ex-roommate, her neighbors, her brother, etc. She's the straight woman trying to make it broke in NYC and they are the chaos around her messing up her life. The same goes for Seinfeld - Jerry is the straight man and Kramer, Elaine and George bring the chaos into his apartment every week. In 1-hour dramas, typically the chaos comes from the protagonsist/s job. That's why working somewhere like in a police station or hospital is a great place for a show to be set because there is endless drama for the writers to pull from.
Are there any recurring characters?
Recurring characters are those who sometimes appear on a show but are not a pivotal part of every episode. These characters have been established as part of the show’s world, so it wouldn’t be unusual to craft a spec script that features them. For example, what kind of story could you come up with for a Ted Lasso spec that features Rupert Mannion, Trent Crimm, Roy’s niece Phoebe, or Rebecca’s friend Sassy?
What are the key character relationships of the show?
During your research, make sure to take note of the character relationships. Michael Scott adores Ryan Howard, who is in an on-again off-again relationship with Kelly Kapoor. Kelly works in the annex with Toby, who has a crush on Pam, who is dating Jim, who is rivals with Dwight… and so on and so on. All the characters on a show have some kind of relationship with one another. Build the web of character dynamics and you might just find an interesting relationship to focus your spec episode on.
When and where does the show actually take place?
The first step in examining the world of your show is the basics of setting. Where is the series set? And what time period does it take place in?
What are the commonly used locations (sets)?
If you were writing a spec of The Office, it’d be odd if your script didn’t include at least one scene that takes place in the Dunder Mifflin office. As you watch your show, keep a list of the primary and recurring locations. To go a step further, check existing scripts for your show to see how the sluglines are formatted and write yours the same way.
What are the rules of the world?
There are dragons in Game of Thrones, but if a dragon showed up in NCIS or Law and Order, a reader would immediately toss your script in the trash. To write a spec, you need to know any rules of your show’s world. Does it take place in our normal world? What fantastical elements are part of the fabric of the series?
Why it matters?
The audience wants to come back every week, every episode, to that world. Niche worlds have become even more popular nowadays. Streamers love niche worlds because they can offer their users a specific experience based on other viewing data. So shows with a specific world like ladies wrestling - that's the world of Glow -- let the audience know you're going to get ladies wrestling with each episode.
One of the most important things about writing a spec is proving that you know the show’s episodic structure.
When it comes to structure, you’ll want to track some, if not all, of the following things:
- How many acts are there per episode?
- If it’s a comedy, is there a cold open and/or tag? For dramas, is there a teaser?
- How many scenes are in each episode?
- How many scenes are in each act?
- How long are the scenes?
- Does the show have act breaks? If so, on what kind of story beat does the show usually act out?
Structurally, you’ll also want to mimic the show’s actual scripts. How long are the scripts for your show? How many pages for each act?
Spec scripts are supposed to illustrate that you can write someone else’s show, and understanding and being able to write to a certain structure is a critical component in that. If the show features a cold open and you don’t write a cold open in your spec, that’s going to be a huge red flag.
What is the show really about?
Theme is what a series is really about underneath all that plot. You’ll want to know what themes are inherent to the show’s DNA. What universal qualities can any viewer relate to?
How does the show handle or address theme?
You’ll want to mimic however your show typically handles theme in your spec script. Some shows are more blatant about theme than others, and you’ll need to know where your show falls. For example, if you were writing a spec of Grey’s Anatomy, that would mean writing an opening and closing voiceover speech for Meredith that subtly speaks to that episode’s theme.
Does the show feature any narrative storytelling devices?
Fleabag breaks the fourth wall. Jane the Virgin and Never Have I Ever feature omniscient narrators. What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary, so the characters often do talking heads. If your show relies on a narrative storytelling device, you need to know it!
What is the overall perspective/point of view of the show?
Shows tend to be fairly omniscient — the camera goes wherever it needs to go, following any of the characters, to convey the story. But occasionally there will be a show that is from one particular character’s point of view, meaning that the camera sticks to that character in every scene. You’ll want to know what the POV of your show is so that you don’t stray from what’s already been established for the series.
Are there any recurring bits or running jokes? Does anyone have frequently repeated phrases? Are there any recurring props or motifs?
I’m talking about the douchebag jar in New Girl, the Sunday Funday episodes of You’re the Worst, or Joey saying, “How you doin’?” in Friends. These elements are perfect fodder for spec episodes, so make sure you’re keeping an eye out for them during your research.
Is there anything else that makes this show distinct?
No detail is too much when you’re analyzing the show you’re going to spec!
So you’ve done your research and know whatever show you’re speccing like the back of your hand, which means it’s time to get to work on your episode.