How to Write a Spec Script, Part 1: Script ResearchPosted: June 5, 2012
I’ve decided to mix things up and create a three part series wherein l share how I choose to break down the spec script processes. Why? Specs are daunting and I need something to do other than worry about how scary specs are. Also, I’m curious how others do it, because I’m kinda winging it here.
Most wannabe screenwriters know the term “spec script”. If you’re brand stinkin’ new and have no idea what I’m saying, I’ll define for you: A spec script is a script you write for a currently in production television show…for funsies (or, a movie you write to use for your portfolio).
You won’t get paid for the episode you write, and no one’s telling you to do it. You write a spec to show the big wigs in the industry you can write professionally, at or above industry standards.
As you can imagine, there’s a million people who want to break into Hollywood each year. It’s you “against” a million. Your script better be damn good to get noticed.
I want to be damn good. How do I plan to get there?
Methodical approaches work best for me. Batching work into manageable chunks is the only way I can accomplish a lofty task like…writing an entire episode of a television show well enough to prove I’m not just another Hollywood hopeful.
That said, we dive into Part One of this blog series; Spec Script Research.
If you’re writing a spec script for a show, you want your script to look and read exactly like those that go into production, right? (If you don’t know the answer, it’s: yes, you do want it to look exactly like those that go into production)
That means you need to know how those scripts look and read. Seeing every single episode and reading the scripts for those episodes are not the same thing, for you lazy folks.
Through hardcore googling and a lucky connection, I was able to get my hands on 3 Season 1 Modern Family shooting scripts. I figure three is a good number to get a nice cross reference of how the writers for the show structure each episode.
Once I had those scripts, I created this massive chart (an adapted version based on the one found in Ellen Sandler’s book):
Basically, it’s a chart to help me deconstruct a script down to its most basic elements. I’m an incredibly visual person. And majorly ADD.
Categories include: Number of pages per script. Number of scenes. Scenes per Act. Scene lengths. Scene distribution for cast appearances. Number of regular sets. Number of swing sets (sets not usually featured). Guest Characters and their scene/line distribution. How quickly the writers introduce the problem that’ll drive that episode’s story. Time frame (is the story told over the span of a day, or several days). How the show utilizes talking heads.
By looking at all this information across the scope of three scripts, patterns emerged that illustrated the general framework Modern Family uses in their scripts to tell their story each week. If I tell my story in a similar fashion and pacing to theirs, my spec script should arguably read in line with their scripts.
And there you go. That’s how I broke down a Modern Family script to determine my spec’s story structure. Structure demystified, Part 1 complete.
Coming up next in Part 2: Brainstorming an idea and developing a story for your Spec.
(In case you’re wondering how long charting and analyzing the scripts took me: 3 hours per day, over the span of 4ish days).