Constructing a Spec Script

At this particular moment (Sunday, 4:09 pm), the requirements as to what executives and producers are reading are rather porous.  There was a time when they were hesitant to read original material, but that time is no longer.  So if you have a play or a pilot or a feature up your sleeve, rejoice — agents are sending them out.  But it doesn’t hurt to have a writing sample in traditional series television format.

I’ve been asked what makes a good story for a series teleplay — and, in a related question, how a writer can keep things fresh in the face of deadlines and the retreading of old ground. We’ll talk about process another time, but for now: television staff writers, pros who are asked in to pitch freelance episodes, and someone sitting in Spokane writing their first spec script all have the same issue — what would be a good story for this particular show?

I am about to generalize. Go with it.

First, don’t judge where you can aim, in terms of quality, by what you see on TV on any particular week (unless that week is extraordinary).  You don’t want create an average or below-average episode; no matter how much satisfaction it gave you to smack your fist on your desk after watching the travesty that those bumbling idiots call Episode 13 and cry, “I can do better than this!” Because if you’re at all a passably good writer, odds are you probably can. There are a lot of reasons bad TV makes it to your tube, and I’m not going into them here. You can’t afford to let that be your standard.

You can’t even afford to let an average, decent-for-this-show, bread-and-butter episode be your standard. Because if you’re writing your first spec you want to be noticed; if you’re a pro who’s been asked to pitch, you still want to be noticed; and if you’re on staff, you don’t want your name associated with a bottom-of-the-barrel episode, because it’ll affect your reputation.

So now and for the rest of your life, you must always aim high. I hope you find that as liberating a thought as I do. You’re not going to always hit your mark, and once you’re in the business some people will try to tell you why aiming squarely mid-point is a better idea; and even if everything goes well and you write at your best and riskiest and nobody eviscerates it — the truth is, on the majority of shows, just about every writer is disappointed on some level with the episode they see on screen. Because it was just so much better in the theater in your head — that surround-sound, 360-degree magic screen in your brain in which every nuanced rhythm of dialogue and facial expression plays out, catching every glimmer of sunlight on every molecular subtlety.  And including those utterly necessary 12 pages that were cut for time!

It’s so much less painful to aim high and to see a percentage of it get through, than to say to yourself, “Yes, I can be mediocre.” After all, if you didn’t love the possibilities of television, and the series as an art form, would you be a fan girl or boy? And the good news is, people will let you. Well — the better showrunners and development people will let you. Because they’re nearly as obsessive as you are.

What are they looking for? Remember, I’m still generalizing. If you watch any particular show, you’ll usually see a couple of pretty bad episodes, a lot of decent, bread-and-butter ones, and a few that are clearly superlative.

What makes a decent episode? Basically, a good “A” story. The A story is the main plot or storyline, and if this is a show about murder, or kicking evil demon butt, or saving people from Krypto mutants, or stealing the fabled phoenix feather from the museum of some imaginary country, that portion of the episode represents the A story.

An A story is often paired with a B story — which may be another action-plot storyline, but is more likely psychological, and affects one or two of the characters. You know — Roger must overcome his fear of confined spaces, Audrey Jane attends her estranged father in a nursing home as he dies, Clark finally gets laid.

A good episode will have a well-done A story, and possibly a B as well.

A better episode will have a character-related thread that is so on point, you just have to see how it turns out. For instance, there were quite a few pitches made to one fan-favorite show I was on; unfortunately, by the time pitches were being taken, it was nearing the end of the season, and practically every conceivable combination of villain had been, at the very least, discussed. But one writing team came in, pitched a villain that was familiar, and then pitched a B story that went, “Suppose Clark discovered that Jonathan…” [Snipped, in case this is ever done.] I still remember everybody at the table sitting up as it hit us. As soon as you heard it, possibilities and potential scenes rippled off from the premise.

That is what people want. A story that tells you something new about the characters, and does it in such a way that while wholly new, it’s also wholly in-character. A story that makes you see people and relationships in a new light.

That’s the better kind of story. The best story will put all the pieces together; it will connect that character jolt of recognition to the A plot. This can be overt — for instance, the characters are all held hostage and the psychological B story affects how the hostage drama of the A story plays out. Or the villain has some deep connection to the hero. Or the villain is the hero. There are a lot of ways of marrying the A story to character, and I’m not even going to bother scratching the surface here — that’s for you to explore.

Or, instead of being overt, the connection between A and B can simply reflect a resonance. Say a detective is pressing an unsolved case hard, almost obsessively. In the B story, his wife left him, and he’s trying to convince her to come home. What we realize, in a poignant moment near the end, is that the detective is trying to take back control of his life; if he can make sense of the case, in his head it means he’s the person his wife would come back to.

So what am I telling you here? Think about the characters. If you create a clockwork, mechanical plot with no character/emotional resonance, nobody who reads your script is going to care. No matter how carefully you worked out your locked-room detective mystery on page 49.  (Indeed, it is notorious that regardless of your plotting creativity, the vast majority of the audience is only going to remember that that was the one where Remington Steele got married.)

So; respect the characters, love the characters, give them their moment in the spotlight. Make them suffer.

Or as one of my executive producers said, “Enjoy torturing him in Act Four, ’cause the audience is going to need to see that.” “Already on it!” I replied cheerfully.  And so I still am; and may you have as much fun.

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