Spec Scripts – Have you written your Law & Order episode yet?

handcuffed mans hands behind back

The question I’m often asked as a Script Editor and Script Producer on TV series is: “How do I break into the competitive market of TV writers when I have no produced credits under my belt?”

My answer is almost always the same: “Have you written your “Law & Order” episode yet?”

I know what you’re thinking here; it’s hard enough for me to try and enter the writer’s room on any Australian show, how on earth could I get a script commission on “Law & Order”?

Well, to grab the attention of a TV Series Producer or Script Editor, what you need are spec scripts, and an episode of “Law & Order” could be a very good one to start with.

Spec Scripts are scripts you develop based on existing series, following the format of that series and its storylines; trying to reproduce the tone, the pace and the characters’ dialogue to the best of your abilities. It’s like a pretend script, and it’s a great exercise with two main purposes: the first one is to train you as a writer to write within constraints, to follow the rules of a world you haven’t created and that you can’t bend. And then to apply to a TV series all the nuts and bolts of your writing skills in the safety of your own home.

The other purpose is to be able to offer this spec script to any TV Script Producer or Script Editor to show how well you can respect the world of a series when developing a script.

The added interest of a spec script is that it doesn’t have to cover the series you want to work in. Actually, the opposite is true, and unless you have been invited to write a submission for a specific TV series, it’s best to develop your spec on a series you like and know, one that you are familiar with and that will match some of the tone, genre or format of the series you want to apply for.

As a personal example, when I was working on the animated TV series “The Wild Adventures of Blinky Bill”, I received a spec script of the American sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle”. This was a live action, M classification, 22 minute format comedy script while I was working an on animation, G classification, 11 minute buddy comedy series. Not exactly the same kind of beast, apart from the comedy streak.

But I had seen many episodes of “Malcolm in the Middle” and the tone of the script was spot on, the stories were as wacky as the ones in the original series and, while reading it, I wanted to watch that episode on screen. I hired this writer knowing she was able to stick to the rules of the world I would give her, and she ended up writing 5 episodes of the series.

I honestly am not sure I would have hired this writer if she had simply sent me writing samples of her own personal feature film, mostly because I was pressed for time and needed to see right away her potential as a writer for the TV series I had been commissioned to develop.

When you’re writing a spec script, there are a few rules to follow to help you on your journey. The obvious first one is for you to know (and preferably like) the show you’re going to use for your spec. Being comfortable with your subject in this instance is important. This is an exercise that needs to show your best ability as a writer, do not bite off more than you can chew.

Then, do your research: analyze episode structures, check the main locations you should use, which characters should appear and what is their hierarchy in the original show. If those characters have different evolutions throughout the history of the show, choose one moment and specify it at the beginning of your spec script.

For example: “This episode takes place at the end of series 3, before Character 1 and Character 2 got romanticall y involved.”Write, rewrite, get it read and digest the feedback, rewrite again until you’re confident you have a proper episode of the series you’ve chosen.

An important corollary to this is to try and choose a series that most Script Producers would know about. For example, choose “Law & Order” over “Murder One”, choose “Glee” over “Smash” or choose “Sex and the City” over “The Girlfriend Experience”.

Lastly, it is best to try and develop a few spec scripts to cover all of your needs. As a veteran writer once told me, “If you don’t have at least four specs in your folder, you’re not ready to write for television”. And that is very good advice.

To develop one comedy, one drama, one soap and one procedural/cop spec will not only help you develop your skills as a writer, but they will ensure that whatever the show you’re applying for you will have an adapted sample to give to the Script Editor immediately so they can assess your skills and give you a script to develop.

Writing spec scripts can sometimes feel like a hard exercise, but you should see it as an investment on your future as a writer, the door that could lead you to the coveted writer’s room.

Laurent Auclair