Why writing a TV Spec is a very, very bad idea.

The title of this post is misleading. Sorry about that. Writing a speculative script for a potential TV show is one of the many things that we as writers do. It is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in the current climate, writing for a TV show is a sound investment given the fact that more and more TV shows are being made on newer platforms like Amazon Studios and Netflix. And lets face it – the writer has more input, credit and control in a TV show than a movie screenplay – or so I’m told.

But writing one is a bad idea. Not because no one will read it. Not because it’s a waste of time. Not because they are harder to structure than a movie. But because…

They will haunt you.

If you’re reading this as a fellow writer, hopefully at this point you’ll have worked out that a spec screenplay is an encapsulated moment of time involving characters whose story is told over 90-120 pages. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. There will be a journey for the protagonist, whether you follow McKee, Vogler or that Save The Cat thing. Whatever structure you favour – the narrative will end at the end of the script. Yeah, you might place in some potential leads for a sequel (I write horror – that’s a given) or the concept might be so strong it lends itself to a franchise but, at the end of the day, when a feature screenplay ends – it ends.

That’s not necessarily the case with the TV spec. There are different kinds of TV pilot script. There’s the franchise, episodic story-of-the-week type. The same characters who don’t change much, but the situations they’re in do change. Come on – you’ve seen CSI or NCIS or Criminal Minds or whatever. Killer of the week, case of the week, story of the week. With these you need to set up the concept, the characters, the tone of the show and make sure there’s enough there to keep the engine running.

Then there’s the serialised show – a longer form story spread over episodes featuring the same characters. The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, blah blah. There’s a concept there, the characters and conflicts, yep – there are different stories in each episode but its a long form narrative based on longer story arcs, seasons and character developement. This is the binge watching shit we hear so much about. It’s a good thing.

So Joel, why is writing a TV spec a bad thing? There’s the freedom to think about the big picture, plot lines and story threads that could carry over seasons of television rather than 120 pages, all that character development, the endless possibilities of exploring the concept you’ve created.

You’d be mad to say that’s a bad thing. Right?

(It will fucking HAUNT YOU.)

I wrote a TV spec. I didn’t intend to. I wrote a screenplay for a low-budget crime/horror movie that could possibly be produced in one location for fuck all money. I had a good idea and I wrote the script in a few months in my evenings and days off. It came out pretty well. There were some good characters, some juicy scenes and a decent ending. What was good about it was that, although being a ‘monster in the house’ story, if you took the monster out of it there was still a story. The characters, their conflicts and their situation were solid and interesting enough to carry a film.

Later on, myself and my associates were looking for an idea for a TV show. I took the bones of the screenplay – the concept and characters and developed it into something else that transcended the original idea and became something more interesting, original and downright more exciting. The first 15 pages of the feature screenplay grew a 30 minute script. New characters were created, new relationships, themes and concepts came to life. Sorry – that sounds really fucking wanky. But, no shit, this thing became something far better than what it was before. A new logline, a new pitch document, a breakdown of characters, a synopsis of a whole first season of a TV show were written over a few months.

After notes and development, I wrote a 50 page pilot script for the show. Using notes I expanded the characters, their situations, conflicts and relationships. I amped up the tension, suspense and drama. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written. Honestly.

But that’s the problem. Because this pilot is the prelude to a story. It’s the beginning of a tale, the opening to an ongoing story of family, death, crime and betrayal. A story I dearly want to tell. These characters have their own life now. I have notebooks with my scrawls about situations, dialogue and relationships they may have. I know which actors should play them, the story arcs for numerous seasons, cool lines and potential episodes. I know what happens in the very last scene of this show – maybe 6-7 seasons in. I know the music I’ll use for some scenes – I have a playlist on Spotify.

But for now – all they can be is 50 pages of a PDF file. Maybe, just maybe they will become more than that. Some people may see the potential, read the bible I’ve written, listen to my pitches and hopefully see the promise that this story brings.

But this is why writing a TV spec is a bad idea. Because you are creating characters whose lives deserve to be played out over more than 120 pages. They deserve hours of screen time to honour their nuances and conflicts. What is just a name and some lines on a page to a reader is a ghost to the writer, a ghost they have summoned from the depths who requires more than their master can give.

These ghosts will haunt you. They will gnaw at your brain, speaking to you about all the stories they can be involved in but… you can only write the pilot. Yeah, you can create a bible and synopsis for future episodes but they want more…

They will haunt you.

So stick to the feature screenplay spec my fellow writers. Create a character with a problem and wrap it all up by the end of the script. Give the character and the audience what they want – a fucking ending.

Because if you don’t, if you want to start a chain reaction, if you want to drive yourself insane thinking ‘that’s a brilliant idea for season 3’  then by all means crack on with a TV script. I dare you. But seriously, stick to the feature spec with the definite ending.

Because you don’t want ghosts of your own creation haunting you.

Or do you?

(I currently have 30 pages of a new Horror/Thriller TV spec on my hard drive along with the bare bones of an idea for a Crime TV show. As always you should ignore the advice of anyone who talks about screenwriting on the internet unless they are a professional or you agree with them. Especially if it’s me.)

 

 

 

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3 comments

  1. I can see where you’re coming from, which is why I’ve done the opposite the last couple times.

    Being a baby writer, my reps are pushing hard to get me staffed so I thought I’d write a pilot as a stand alone sample — no one will ever ask about episode two, this just needs to be good enough in 60 pages to get me into rooms. I wrote it and it got optioned by a small studio. Now I’ve found myself having to give it legs and flesh it out into a real show to pitch to networks in the next months.

    I didn’t think that was a bad turn out so I did it again. This time, for a procedural. I told my guys this would be my “procedural sample” in my staffing portfolio. We sent it out, and the next day we had an actor’s new POD with a studio deal interested and they wanted to meet to hear my pitch for the rest. So I had 3 days to come up with a show built around this pilot. This scared me and I was suddenly questioning why I did this. But I got my crap together and came up with a show (luckily with it being episodic, cases would take up a lot of the show and those can be determined in the room).

    I must have pulled off the pitch because they gave my pilot to the actor to read. He liked it so now I’m meeting with him when he’s back in town next weekend to discuss the next steps (likely pitch the studio).

    So now I’m rethinking how to go about this. I don’t like pulling things out of my ass so my thought is to come up with a show and then narrow it down to a pilot — but this is leaving my brain swirling as you mentioned — there’s so much to consider that I’m getting overwhelmed. I will likely just revert back to writing my stand alone pilot and build out from there — but this time put it in my notebook JUST IN CASE someone wants me to give them the whole run down.

    I want to say that as a baby writer, likely execs are only going to only read the pilot and if that isn’t good or great, they’ll never ask about what’s next. So maybe write the best pilot episode you can and introduce the characters and figure everything else out later. It would suck to spend all that time building a show that no one else will possibly ever see…

    Now obviously if you are established or have a name like Abrams or Shonda Rhimes, you can create an entire show and have someone buy it as is. Or if you’re building heat with samples, you can slip your way into a room with no pilot and go pitch a show to a studio and networks and then get paid to write it… But that’s a ways off for some of us.

    Just my .02

    1. Hi Kristy,

      Thanks for your comment and your insight.

      I’m unrepped and unmanaged, but the spec I allude to here was written with Exec’s involvement and was sent out around the town to a certain extent. I always considered it at the very least to be a good writing sample that had a good concept and characters as a hook.

      It was the first time I’d stepped outside the short scripts I’d written and had produced and the feature length spec scripts I’ve written. What was weird for me was creating a group of characters that really came to life over those 50 pages and whose stories I really wanted to tell beyond the pilot sxcript I’d written.

      Personally, before I wrote the longer 50 page pilot I’d had a good 4-6 months of thinking about the potential of the show along with the feedback of the execs and two other creatives who’d been involved with its inception. That gave me a lot of time to think about future plot threads and stories, as well as who the characters were and a how they would change over seasons of a show. I certainly wouldn’t have had the same handle on the show if I’d written a spec pilot and then been asked to create a bible very quickly after!

      “I want to say that as a baby writer, likely execs are only going to only read the pilot and if that isn’t good or great, they’ll never ask about what’s next. So maybe write the best pilot episode you can and introduce the characters and figure everything else out later. It would suck to spend all that time building a show that no one else will possibly ever see… ”

      This is spot on – and the core of my post! As writers – amateur or baby, repped or pro – we’ll spend out time constructing worlds and honing stories that unless we are super, super lucky, may never be experienced by anyone else.

      There’s certainly a case for just writing the pilot, getting the core of the idea down and then worrying about the rest of it later. Unfortunatley I’m one of those folk that gets carried away…

      If you’d like to read the pilot I’m talking about, let me know!

  2. There is definitely nothing wrong in fleshing out an entire show if you have a lot of time to think or down time between projects. I think some young writers get so caught up in “this will be the best show if someone just gives me the chance!” that they have every aspect thought out and no one will ever know.

    Long story short — build out your show but make sure your pilot is kick ass so that you’ll have the chance to tell someone the rest of the story one day.

    I’m buried in reading for friends at the moment. Hit me up on Twitter in a month or so to check back in. Best of luck to you and your project 🙂

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