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.)