Typing Faster

May 25, 2009

What to spec?

Filed under: Specs — petertypingfaster @ 2:20 pm

How do you decide what show to spec? It’s a tough question to answer, and there’s a lot riding on your choice. Spec a show that’s out of style and you run the risk of not being read. Speccing a super popular show you run the risk of getting lost in the pack.

Here are a few rough guidelines to help you make your choice.

1. It should currently be on the air, and it should be a “hit”

People in Hollywood have notoriously short attention spans. We’re always looking for “the next big thing,” and don’t spend a lot of time looking at the past. By speccing a current hit show you give yourself the best shot at having the person reading your script recognize, and be able to effectively judge, your script.

What’s the definition of a hit? Used to be a hit meant huge ratings (15+ Million viewers). With the fragmentation of the current media market those numbers have dropped way down. Nowadays hit shows are pulling in half those numbers (minus time-shifting, downloading, iTunes, and everything else that might fudge the numbers).

The important thing though is that it needs to be a show that’s doing strong enough in the ratings to be around for a while (at least a couple more seasons preferably). This extends your specs shelf life, because as soon as that show goes off the air your spec is pretty much dead.

2. But it shouldn’t be a show in its first season.

This is for a few reasons. It usually takes a show half a season, maybe a whole season, to find its feet. The writers are still figuring out what kind of stories to tell and how to tell them. This means that individual episodes may vary wildly in tone, structure and subject matter.

In other words, it’s a hell of a lot harder to accurately recreate and write a first year show.

The othe reason to avoid first year shows is that it’s hard to tell whether or not they’ll be picked up for a second season. Series renewal is a bit of a crapshoot, and takes into account a whole whack load of variables. Ratings, budget, relationship between network and production house, all of these play a role in the network’s decision to renew a series.

You might be able to get away speccing a breakout hit (The Mentalist for example), but speccing a cult show like Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse is much riskier.

3. It should be similar to the show you want to write on.

If you want to work on a police procedural (CSI then don’t spec a Mad Men. If you’re trying to get on a comedy, don’t use a drama spec. Simple enough, but having the right spec for the right show is incredibly important.

4. But it shouldn’t BE the show you want to write on.

If you want to write for The Office don’t write an Office spec! Showrunners don’t like to read specs of the shows they’re currently running. Doing so opens up a whole can of legal worms. A crazy writer might claim that they stole their script. Don’t be a crazy writer.

5. Serialized vs. Procedural

Serialized and Procedural refers to the type of stories a show tells, and specifically whether the stories are open (ie. ongoing) or closed (ie. each episode wraps up its story). CSI would be a procedural. Each episode they investigate a couple of cases, solve them, and then move onto different cases the following week. A serialized show would be something like The Wire, where each episode (and even season) builds on the one prior to it.

Most shows will incorporate both serialized and procedural elements. The Mentalist has its ongoing Red John serial killer story arc.

Serialized shows are much harder to spec than Procedruals. If you spec a serialized show you have to figure out how to slot your story into the ongoing series arc, which is a lot tougher than it looks. The other thing to be aware of is that serialized specs have a much shorter shelf life than their procedural counterparts. Serialized shows, by their very definition, have ongoing story arcs. Once the story leaves your spec behind, your spec isn’t worth much.

6. What skills are you trying to showcase?

This kind of ties in with number 3. Your specs are a showcase for what you can do. If all your other writing samples are plot heavy procedurals, then it might be worthwhile to spec a more character driven show, something along the lines of a Brothers & Sisters maybe. If you want to prove you can write action, then maybe a 24 might be in order.

Last, but by no means least…

7. What do you like?

At the end of the day, this is probably the most important thing. If you hate the show you’re trying to spec, you won’t do a good job of it. Once you’ve weighed your options, and the pros and cons of your choice, you should write what you want to write.

Anyways, I’ll probably post a list of recommended specs gleaned from various industry sources tomorrow or the next day.

In the mean time, happy speccing!


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