Spec Writing for TV (Seriously)

I have two main dilemmas related to TV spec writing that I’d love to have some input on: navigating network credibility and writing the serial drama.

An Emmy Award

Photo courtesy of Hans Splinter, unchanged from https://www.flickr.com/photos/archeon/13012904433.

Network Credibility and the TV Spec Market

I once read that it’s pointless to write a spec script of a CW show, because the fledgling network is considered the red-headed stepchild of television. In short, a serious writer does not spec The CW. Does anyone know? Was that true? Is it still true?

It’s definitely true that TV ratings are generally trending downward in the last five to eight years or so because of changing viewing habits, but there have been some surprise hits even in that muted landscape (The Walking Dead is a massive hit by today’s standards, especially for basic cable, hovering around 12 to 16 million for most episodes these days). And even The CW has its own (very) modest successes, ratings-wise. Still, most CW episodes currently fail to deliver more than 2 million episodes, let alone 3 million. And those are the hits! So I assume that this, at least in part, is why it’s a taboo to spec The CW.

However, there are CW shows that, content-wise, I’ve found to be worth my time, not the least of which is Supernatural, a holdover from the old (glorious) days of The WB. Granted, Supernatural is heading into its tenth season, and for that reason alone, it’s not worth speccing. I know that. But what about the rest? What about Arrow, the surprise “hit” The 100, or upcoming The Flash? Of those, only Arrow is ripe for speccing since it’s in season 2 and has, thus, proven itself ratings-wise (at least by CW standards). This time next year, though, The 100 could very well be speccable, and the following year, so could The Flash.

The question is…does the CW taboo still hold (or did it ever)? To spec or not to spec?

Please feel free to weigh in if you know the spec market!

The point is that I’m getting to the phase of my life where I need to be speccing shows if I really want to have a shot at writing for TV someday. I should have been doing so years ago, but getting my MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts kind of took a lot out of me. Writing and publishing a book of short stories took a lot out of me.

Now is the time; now is past time. I need to write lots of specs in the next few years if I’m going to improve my craft and have a serious shot at TV writing. Because though I enjoy writing short stories and would love to try my hand at novels, my dream is TV and always has been as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer.

Speccing the Serial Drama

The other problem is one that I relish: the serial drama. As a general rule, I gravitate toward serialized dramas, not procedural/episodic dramas, and that’s both good and bad. It’s good because they tend to have the best character development and depth. It’s bad because writing a spec script of a serialized show is like trying to jump onto a moving motorcycle. Where does my episode fit in? How can I write something that feels like the show I’m going for, including a mastery of the serialized elements? I could write a bottle episode, but even that would need to address certain serial elements in the series for it to feel like a real episode. I can’t write an episodic script of a serialized drama.

I’m curious: how do other writers tackle the dilemma of serial elements in their spec scripts?

I’d love to spec Shameless or Bates Motel, but even these shows—which (to me) seem the most speccable of all the shows I watch—are serialized. So I need to find a jumping-in point.

 

So my questions: What shows do you spec? How do you deal with serialized elements? Are there certain networks or shows that have never been speccable and never will be?

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2 Responses to “Spec Writing for TV (Seriously)”

  1. Laurie Stark 10-February-2015 at 10:08 pm #

    I wish someone had replied to this because I have the same question. I know that people DO spec shows with serialized elements because I see them listed as contest winners, but how on earth do they do it? Is everyone lying when they say that your spec has to be 100% current with no outdated references? Because it seems impossible to write a spec that’s 100% “evergreen” for any show but the few that are 95-100% episodic.

    • Roger Market 10-February-2015 at 10:56 pm #

      Thanks for chiming in!

      For what it’s worth, I think the spec can take place at any point in the show’s timeline, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be current. (For example, you could write a spec that takes place in season one even though the show is in season five, so long as it’s a great concept.) I’m more concerned about the logistics of writing a spec that plays into a continuing storyline at any point of the show. This is hard enough when you’re writing a season one spec, but you’re right: it would be especially difficult if you’re speccing a “current” episode. So how does one write an episode with a plot that feels genuine for the show, at any time, and make it fit into the events surrounding the episode? I think my major concern is that the show has already covered what needed to happen before and after my episode, so what serial elements are left for me to include?

      I think the “evergreen” spec just has to be one that fits the template and tone of the show in general, reveals character authentically, and doesn’t attempt to do anything that would be considered a “very special episode” (e.g., premieres, finales, and stunt episodes, as well as cliffhangers when the show doesn’t do them often). Nothing can be truly evergreen in TV anymore. Which, again, is both good and bad.

      Since I wrote this entry, I’ve shifted tactics a little bit with my writing. I don’t know about you, but my biggest writing problem is getting hung up on perfection in the early stages. I’m taking this year (2015) to get into the habit of writing every day, and I’m making a point to write as quickly and as much as I can and not allow my editor brain to take over until I’m ready for it. After all, you have to write the first draft before you can edit/rewrite, and there’s no sense trying to make it perfect; it won’t be. That’s what drafts 2, 3, and 23 are for—and all others in between. :-)

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