What is a Spec Script (and Why Should You Write One)?
Ever heard a screenwriter say they wrote something “on spec” and wondered what the heck they were talking about? Trust me, you’re not the only one who doesn't know what a spec script is.
Don’t worry, I’m here to demystify all things regarding “spec scripts,” “on spec,” and “speccing” — did I just make “spec” a verb? Yes. Yes, I did.
Okay, let's go!
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What Does "Spec" Actually Mean?
To get straight to the point, “spec” is short for “speculation.” The longer name for a “spec script” is “speculative screenplay.”
Writing something “on spec” in Hollywood is just code for “free.” No one is paying the writer to work on the script, nor is there any guarantee that the script will get made. Most of the time, no one’s actually expecting the script at all.
Okay, fine, maybe if you already have representation and have told them you’re going to write an amazing spec script that’s basically Romeo and Juliet but it takes place in space, your manager or agent might be expecting the script at some point in the relatively near future.
But the point is, most spec scripts are written for no reason other than because the screenwriter wants to.
You think you have a great idea for a story and speculate that Hollywood (and audiences around the world) will think so, too, so you go ahead and write the script. That, my friends, is a spec script.
Read More: The Fastest Way To Give Your Spec Scripts a Killer Hook
The Difference Between Movie Specs and TV Specs
So, we know that writing “on spec” means writing a script for free with no guarantee that it will be produced. However, that doesn’t mean that spec scripts are the same for movies and television.
For features, a spec script is an original story. It’s not what you think the next Spiderman movie should be, or another installment of Knives Out, or the sequel to Casablanca. It’s original material, original characters, and an original story all born from the depths of your amazing writerly brain.
In TV, a spec is almost the exact opposite.
TV spec scripts are speculative episodes of existing and usually ongoing television series.
You pick a show you love, develop an idea for an episode of that show, and write the episode using the existing characters, storylines, and settings.
For example: say you love What We Do In The Shadows. You think, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if there was an episode where Laszlo and Nadja celebrate a big relationship anniversary?” So you watch some WWDITS, study the episodic structure, characters, and themes, and write this story you’ve come up with into a full episode. It’s your original story placed within the context and using the material of an existing show.
When Is the Right Time To "Spec"?
One of the big questions about TV specs specifically is what shows you can and should "spec."
Look, we all watched The Office about a billion times during the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean you should write an Office spec. As a general rule, TV specs should target ongoing shows, not shows that ended ten years ago, or TV shows that only lasted one season. Also, don't mix two shows to create a seemingly fun mash-up. For example, a Friends spec titled: The One Where They Meet the Gang from Seinfeld would be frowned upon even though it sounds like a cool concept.
Writing television specs is a way to demonstrate your abilities as a TV writer. To stand out, it's important to be knowledgeable about the current landscape of ongoing airing shows. This might mean watching something new (maybe even a network show — gasp!) to find the right series to spec.
Can You Write Original TV Pilots on Spec?
Don't worry — original TV pilots can be written on spec, too!
Original television pilots are also technically spec scripts. They fall into the same category as feature specs. You have an original idea for a TV show, develop the world and characters, decide on the episodic structure, and write the first episode or two on spec.
Remind yourself, though — no one’s asking for it, no one’s paying you for it, and it most likely won’t get made into an actual series. But hey, you believe the story is a TV show (not a movie) and you want to write it yourself, dammit. Bravo!
Read More: 5 Essential Elements Every Spec Script Should Have
TV Spec Script: Why You Should Write One
Television writing is a ladder. It’s rare that someone offers you a position on the top rung if you haven’t climbed all the way up. This is just a fancy way of saying — you’re probably going to get a job writing someone else’s show before you get a job creating your own.
TV specs have gone a little out-of-fashion in the last decade, with a priority being put instead on writers having original pilot samples. Many people in the industry don’t read TV specs as regularly as they used to, so many writers end up thinking that writing a TV spec is a waste of time. Just because you can write an original TV pilot doesn’t mean you can write a TV spec. As I talked about in the section above, writing a spec of an existing television show is one of the best ways to show that you understand the fundamentals of episodic television.
Read More: Now is the Perfect Time to Turn Your Feature Spec into a TV Pilot
If you can come up with an original idea for a Ted Lasso storyline and write a speculative episode with all of the heart, humor, and Dad jokes of an actual Ted Lasso episode, then that proves you’re ready to be staffed on someone else’s show.
To write a great TV spec, you have to study the show itself, anyway. In doing so, you’ll learn things about writing for television that will help immensely when you are developing your own show and writing an original pilot script.
Writing a Spec Script Can Be Rewarding
Writing on spec means writing for free. Sometimes writing a feature or pilot spec is the best way to show proof of concept.
Say your manager, agent, or producer friend doesn’t really understand your story idea. They just don’t believe in it like you do. If you write it on spec, it’s not just an idea anymore. It’s words on paper that others can read, connect with, and get excited about.
There’s also an immense amount of freedom in writing on spec. Writing on spec allows the writer to avoid notes from producers, executives, and studio heads, unlike writing on assignment for Disney, Universal, or Netflix. In this way, writing on spec ensures that you write the script the way you want it to be written.
Yes, there’s an inherent risk with writing on spec — that it will never sell or be made. But specs have become classics before — ever heard of Good Will Hunting or Thelma & Louise? If you put your money where your mouth is, write one hell of a script, and it opens doors for you in Hollywood, the risk of the spec might just be worth it.
Read More: 5 Reasons to Have True Story Screenplays in Your Spec Portfolio
What Are You Doing?
Stop reading this article and start speccing already!