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12/05/2006: We Need an Arc Angel to Tell Us Where the Story's Going
Hi! I got a great letter today from Lisa in Indiana, who is new to the notion of writing television specs, and who is asking all the right questions. This made me realize that it's been a very long time since I've covered the basics of this strange little enterprise.
1. First off, Lisa, yes, it's true that spec scripts are not usually submitted to the show they represent. In other words, you don't generally use a spec "The Office" to get hired at The Office. This is because it's simply too hard to execute a show so perfectly that your mistakes will go unnoticed by someone on the inside. It's like trying to do an impersonation of someone to their face. But, as a beginning writer, your scripts are unlikely to get to a show runner anytime soon anyway, but will instead be submitted to contests and to programs like the ABC Writing Fellowship. So write the show you love best.
2. Your instinct is right, not to use a spec to change the status quo of the show. Don't get the romantically-sparring couple together, for example. You want your episode to look like a typical episode of the show, only better, because you will have more time to work with it than the staff writers do. Think a lot about what the show's actual writers are going to do next.
3. A "shooting script" will work fine as an example script to teach you formatting. The only difference is that you shouldn't number your scenes, nor should you include a cast or set list. (And if the script you're looking at has asterisks in the margin, or pages printed in different colors, those are used to indicate changes made during different drafts. Don't worry about them.) There are lots of books out there, too, that will help you learn proper script format. Final Draft, which is the screenwriting program most commonly used by real shows, also does a good job of helping you pour your story into the proper format. But keep trying to get all the example scripts you can. Some shows publish their scripts in book form -- Buffy and The Sopranos both did this, and you can learn a lot from reading them.
4. And finally, Lisa asks the question that just keeps coming around, more and more. How do you spec a show with on-going arcs? You know, when I started writing this blog, I was convinced this didn't have to be a problem. I used an out-of-date Roseanne spec for years when I was getting established -- my spec had Darlene graduating high school for years after she was out. So I advocated simply picking a moment in time and not worrying when the arc continued past your show.
However, Roseanne was very different than, say, Heroes or Lost or 24 or even Grey's Anatomy. Shows with fast-moving arcs that affect the heart of the relationships you're trying to capture can be very hard to spec. Some agents even discourage the attempt, as they're worried that the script will start very quickly to look old. And I guess I now have to grudgingly accept that that is true. Certainly readers of scripts can't expect you to be psychic. But they also are going to prefer reading something that feels fresh and new.
I've heard various solutions to the problem. For example, I met someone who was writing a spec 24 -- by writing the first hour of a new adventure. I think that's brilliant. And although there is plenty of arc-driven stuff in House or Desperate Housewives, a story could certainly be chosen that starts and finishes off some stand-alone crisis. As for The Office, my instinct would be to ignore all the office re-org stuff, and settle everyone back into the relationships they had last season until and unless a new steady-state emerges.
But if a show persists in feeling unspecable, and you're throwing out everything you wrote every week when the newest ep airs? Then it just might not be the right show to spec.
Okay, Lisa! Those are the basics! Start writing!
Lunch: a BLT from The Daily Grill. So much bacon! Are they trying to kill me? Kill me with love?