You’ve sent off your episodic spec sample to the latest screenwriting competition/festival/writing program feeling pretty good about your chances. Then, a few weeks later, you receive the dreaded letter/email informing you all your hard work and effort didn’t make it past the first round. It’s so frustrating! And disheartening. As the director of a the CBS Diversity Institute Writers Mentoring Program I’ve read hundreds of spec submissions over the years. And every year I see the same mistakes. Mistakes that keep the script from advancing to the next round... Mistakes that keep a good script from being great.
The top three missteps I see writers make over and over again:
- Playing it safe with the concept
- Writing something that could never possibly happen on the show
- Using outside characters to drive the action
Playing it safe with the concept
In a spec, the concept should be in keeping with the reality of the series, while also being absolutely memorable. In terms of concept, this is where you should swing for the fences. You want people to talk about it afterwards. One of the best specs I ever read was for the show Cheers and it was the story of the Pope coming to Boston (which actually had happened), and when the motorcade went past the bar the Pope went in to use the bathroom. It was a catalyst to explore each of the characters’ beliefs about God and religion and it was hilarious. Bottom line... Take a risk.
Writing something that could never possibly happen on the show
Whether it’s a grounded character drama or a zany comedy, there are certain rules, stories and structure these series have developed. You need to know what they are and adhere to them. The purpose of a spec is to demonstrate not only that you can write for television, but that you understand the tone and reality of the series. If zombies, super heroes or time travel don’t already exist on the show, don’t include them. If the tone of the show is a single cam realistic family comedy don’t write broad sex jokes that require a laugh track. Do your research. Watch all the episodes. Break them down. Learn the world and don’t have aliens land on the lawn in a The Blacklist spec script.
Using outside characters to drive the action
This is not to say you can’t introduce an outside character in your spec, you just need to use them wisely. Never make them the focal point of your script. Instead, use him/her as a catalyst to reveal something new about the series regulars. Back to the Cheers spec with the Pope using the bathroom (by the way, the title was “The Shrine”). While the Pope started the action of the episode and revealed our regulars’ beliefs and prejudices, it wasn’t about the Pope. If you’re going to use an outside character… that Aunt or Uncle who comes to town, make sure the story doesn’t revolve around them. After all you’re paying the stars of the show to be the focal point not the guest stars.
So before you send off your new and improved spec, make sure it swings for the fences concept wise, stays true to the reality/tone of the show and doesn’t use outside characters to drive the action. Keep writing and good luck! I hope to see your script make it to the final round and land on my desk one day.
To the script readers out there, tell me what makes YOU put a spec into the dreaded “pass pile”? Tweet me @CaroleKirsch
All my best, Carole
Director of WGA's Showrunner Training Program, creator & Director of the CBS Diversity Writers Mentoring Program, international speaker and a leading expert on entertainment career strategies, Carole Kirschner teaches creative professionals how to navigate the often mystifying landscape of show business. Her book, Hollywood Game Plan: How to Land a Job in Film, TV and Digital Entertainment is a primer on how to break in and move up in the entertainment industry. Through her popular workshops, Carole teaches writers, producers, directors and executives the real world strategies that will help them not just succeed, but thrive.