Writing a Spec Script: Part 1 Research

So you want to be a TV writer.  First, you have to get into the industry to do so, and the only way to get into the industry is to show that you have what it takes, and the only way to do that is to write. You have to pick a currently running show and write an episode. But this isn’t just fan fiction. You don’t take the characters of the show and do something wacky with you as their new neighbor. This is a hardcore test to show not only that you know the show, but also that you are able to write to the needs of the genre.

What do you need to know about writing a spec? There are countless books on the subject. Ellen Saunders has a good one (and for an extra $600 she’ll read your script and help you fix it, like everyone has that lying around) as do some other people, but a lot of the rules are common sense once you have heard them spoken out loud. That said, tons of people break these rules almost every time they write. But, let’s not get in to the rules just yet. The first step is picking a show and then researching it.

Picking a show is easy, but there are a couple of rules. Most notably is the show has to currently be on the air. It is best if the show has at least one season under its belt. Maybe more importantly is that the show needs to be a hit. If you are watching an obscure show that airs on FX that not many people have seen, it is going to greatly limit your ability to find someone who can read it and make a determination. Write something that is huge or on one of the big 4 networks. Stay on your toes and write a lot, because once something is cancelled your spec is as dead as the show.

Once you have picked a show, it is time to do research. Your first step for research is to watch every produced episode. With DVD’s and the internet, there is no excuse for this skipping this stage. In the old days, prospecting writers had to record the audio of shows and go based on that. You are at an advantage already.  Stop making excuses and watch every single episode. This is going to take hours to days as your average season is anywhere from 13-24 episodes. For a half hour program this means you are going to be watching at least 7 hours of TV. So, buckle down and watch, but…

Don’t watch passively. When you are watching, you are looking for two key things:

1) Character: who the characters are, how they think, act and speak. How they interact with each other, the relationships between the characters and what these relationships mean. It will be necessary to demonstrate a thorough knowledge of all of the main characters to help show that you know the program.

2) Structure: Sitcoms are usually structured in one of two fashions: mult-cam or single-cam. This addresses the camera set-up. Most sitcoms that are filmed in front of a live studio audience are multi-cam. Today’s multi camera shows follow the structure of a teaser, first act, second act, tag. Between the act breaks are the commercials. Being mindful of the commercials is important as this is how any and all television shows, production companies and studios make money. Single cam shows have a different structure, usually with a cold open, first act, second act, third act, tag.

You will want to have the structure of your show down pat before you start to move on to the next writing stages.

Once you have watched all the shows and taken multiple notes, you are going to want to try and get your hands on a produced script. Many are online for free. Some can be purchased or borrowed. Your best bet is to do searches, and/or follow writer’s blogs who will often refer to such things. People in LA seem to always have better access to produced scripts, even digital copies. I don’t know why, but it’s true.

So watch, read and take notes and you should be on the write path (that’s a pun, not a typo, Fun!).

See you guys in a couple of weeks with the next step: Premise and outline.


About charismatictroublemaker

I'm the hottest isht on sound bombing. The charismatic trouble maker is an aspiring TV writer whose background includes theater as both an actor and a crew member, video production and screenplay/teleplay competition judging among an on going list of other things. He takes his writing serious and tries to better himself in everyone of his efforts. See the full Bio on we put words on paper, where he makes up a whole bunch of facts about himself.
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