If you’re serious about pursuing a career as a series television writer (and if you’re not, don’t even attempt this), you’ve got to write a great comedy or drama spec script, which is a sample episode of a current show written “on speculation.” Producers want to be sure you can mimic the style, structure and voices of a series while bringing your own fresh stories to the table. The only way to prove you can do this is by writing a spec script for a DIFFERENT show. And it can’t be just a good spec, but a blow-their-socks off spec that’s better than the pile of literally a hundred other scripts sitting on the producer’s floor. If you're still up for the challenge, here's how to get started..
Pick a show to write, but not just any show. It must be currently on the air and not in danger of being cancelled any time soon. Do NOT write the episode you always wanted to see where Mulder and Scully get married on “The X-Files” or the “Gilligan’s Island” episode where the castaways are rescued. You and your script will be laughed at and not because you're both funny or clever.
The show you choose to spec must be both popular and critically respected. “According to Jim?” You may like it, but your readers probably don’t. In terms of comedies, we’re talking about a show like “The Office,” “Entourage,” “Two and a Half Men” or “My Name Is Earl.” For dramas, “Lost,” “Heroes,” “House,” and “Grey’s Anatomy” are probably a good bet. “Nip/Tuck” if you’re going edgier. If you’re interested in writing law or police shows, try a character-based drama like “Without a Trace” or a “Law and Order: SVU.”
It’s also good if you actually enjoy the show you’ve picked. Otherwise, you won’t want to live in that world for weeks at a time while you’re writing and rewriting it.
Finally, do NOT write a spec for your favorite show, say “Lost,” and expect that your brilliant script will be read by the producers, purchased on the spot and made into an Emmy-winning episode. For legal reasons, they won’t even be able to read it. So write a spec for your second-favorite show.
Watch every episode of your chosen series you can get your hands on. Of course, watch the new ones every week, but also rent or buy the DVD’s. You DON'T want to repeat one of their stories. You DO want to get the voices and story structure firmly locked in your noggin. Also try and find actual scripts for your show. There's lots of information to be found on the web (try script-o-rama.com), and some shows have had their scripts published in book form. If you live in LA, the Writers Guild library has scripts available for on-site perusal of almost every current show to help you get a feel for the format.
Take detailed notes on at least three episodes. Jot down everything that happens in the story, what each character is doing, where the commercial (act) breaks come and the exciting or funny actions that take place right before them. Note how long each act is. One minute of screen time usually translates to one page of script.
Come up with a great storyline. This is one of the most important and difficult tasks you’ll face. For it to stand out from the pack, your spec should have an impactful story that would make a TV Guide Close-up-type episode, BUT it must not change the basic premise of the series.
For example, DO NOT kill off a character or give them a serious illness or a new wacky job or adopted child.
DO double check that your story hasn’t already been done by that show.
DO NOT change the setting of the show to the moon, just because you can.
DO make the main story about the main characters, not the co-stars and most definitely NOT about a guest character you introduce.
DO give your story a strong emotional pull. Jokes are great, but if the story isn’t logical, emotionally resonant, true to the show and its characters, and have some surprising twists and turns, it’ll go straight into the round file.
Write a story outline. Refer back to your episode notes and structure your story the same way. You can either write detailed descriptions of what happens in each scene or bullet points with bits of dialogue. Use cards, a white board or type it up. Whatever’s best for you.
Now, let someone read your outline or tell them the story. This may be a good time to sign up for a class or workshop, so you can get some direction and decent feedback. I've never had experience with any of the websites that you can pay to give notes, but I would be wary.
Ask your readers these questions: Does your story makes sense? Are the plot points surprising and/or funny? Is it true to the show and the characters? Believe me, it’s much easier to re-jigger the story in the outline than it will be in the script.
Finally, you’re ready to sit down and write the actual script! Well, after you watch a few more episodes, that is. This will help you hear the character’s voices in your head.
Also, be sure and use the correct formatting, which is different for comedy and drama and can be found on the web. Or you can invest in a screenwriting software program. Final Draft is one of the most preferred and can be found at their website, www.finaldraft.com. It costs $229, but includes TV script templates for specific shows and does have a free demo you can try.
When you’re finished with your first or second draft, get another round of criticism, also called “notes,” from your writing workshop and/or a professional writer, if possible.
Have someone who’s a fan of the show read it and someone who’s isn't. The story should be gripping, involving and funny (if it’s a comedy) to both.
REWRITE! Writing is rewriting. And rewriting is not just adding a few lines or jokes here and there. It’s deleting entire scenes and storylines that aren’t working and writing new ones to make the story more surprising and emotionally resonant, the jokes sharper. Do NOT let yourself be married to any line or scene. When it doubt, cut it out.
Now put the script in a drawer for a few days and come back to it with a fresh eye. You might be surprised at what you think works and what doesn't. Do another draft. Tighten the story, make sure the characters' voices are on point and that each one sounds different. Punch up the jokes, cut dialogue. Find key images to help tell the story.
Don’t send it out until you’ve had one or more of your harshest critics tell you it’s ready (and not just because they’re tired of reading it). Register your script with the Writer’s Guild at www.wga.org for 20 bucks. Most agents and producers won’t read a script that hasn’t been registered, for legal reasons.
Congratulations! You’re now the proud author of a polished spec. Feel free to enter it in some contests. Now, are you sitting down? Since most agents, execs and producers request TWO specs of different shows, you must go back and repeat steps 1-11. Hey, that's why TV writers make the big bucks...