Television staff writers hold some of the most coveted (and highest paid) writing positions in Hollywood. And your first step toward ‘breaking in’ and becoming one of these elite writers begins with crafting a top-notch sample TV spec script.
In articles I’ve written about Feature-Length screenwriting, I’ve constantly remarked how Newbie writers should avoid Comedy and Drama like the plague. However when it comes to writing your Sample TV Spec Script, the exact opposite is true! Comedy and Drama are the only two genres you should consider and all others (e.g., action, horror) should be completely avoided.
3 Must-Haves For Your Sample TV Spec Script
Must-Have #1: The Right Kind of Genre
If you want to showcase your Comedy writing skills, then you’ll need to focus on the thirty-minute episode format (either for a live-studio audience as seen in Two and Half Men, or the alternative ‘staged’ versions as seen in Louie and Girls. If you would rather work on the dramatic side, then put your emphasis on the scripted one-hour dramas found on Network TV.
Hop online and get sample scripts from existing programs similar to yours to make sure your formatting is in sync. For example, live-studio sitcom formatting is completely different than traditional script formatting. Also TV generally requires ‘Act’ breaks for commercials.
Want to be creative and blend genres to create a ‘coming-of-age dramedy’?
Don’t do it!
Choose Comedy OR Drama and move on.
Must-Have #2: A Ready-to-Go Portfolio
You will need a minimum of two (ideally three) sample TV spec scripts before you’re ready to present yourself to Hollywood as a TV writer. And unlike the old days, these sample scripts should not be from existing series. You need to ‘invent’ two fully fleshed out TV series (and write one script for each). You don’t have to write a Series Bible unless it helps you, but you might want to consider outlining 3-4 additional episodes for each series to give a sample of what a full season might look like.
You should NOT try to ‘showcase your skills’ by writing one sitcom-comedy and one hour-long drama… As a writer you must choose either Comedy OR Drama and invent two unique series from the same genre.
Won’t you get a reputation as only being a ‘comedy’ writer or ‘dramatic’ writer?
And having that reputation is a good thing. In TV, executives and showrunners are thinking long-running seasons with multiple episodes… Being able to remain consistent with genre type and tone will really showcase this as a strength for your writing skills.
Must-Have #3: Proof of ‘Episodic Output’
When choosing your series ‘ideas’ don’t get too wrapped up in the beginning, middle and end story mentality. You will first need to create an overarching ‘concept’ that has the ongoing ability to generate endless story possibilities. To do this, keep your ideas big and open-ended. For example, think Breaking Bad’s big & open concept of a cancer patient cooking and dealing meth to pay his medical bills. It is not a plotline you’re after here, but rather a ‘filter’ to keep ideas on track while offering countless ways to mishmash conflicting characters and episodic plotlines together.
Second, when it comes to your sample TV spec script, focus on fully-realized 3-dimensional characters; pay careful attention to ensure your characters are able to both augment and conflict with one another simultaneously. Remember, its characters that drive long-running TV series; by taking these fleshed out characters and placing them into your big & open ‘concept’ filter, you will have a series capable of season-after-season of strong episodic output.
From here, you can begin pulling individual ‘segments’ from either the overarching ‘concept’ or from the individual lives of your fleshed out characters and build episodes around them—this allows each episode to have its own unique beginning, middle and end without altering the strength or direction of the entire series.
As I explain in my book, Writing for the Green Light, this ability to continually create fresh ideas from pre-existing frameworks is absolutely crucial in the landscape of TV writing (writers are constantly forced into creating new and unique ‘episodes’ for seemingly exhausted programs that have been on the air for several years). If your Sample TV Spec Scripts can showcase this ability, your work will stand head and shoulders above the competition and get taken seriously by Agents, Executives and Key Decision-Makers.
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Scott Kirkpatrick is a Los Angeles based production and distribution executive. He has managed international TV deals on major franchises including Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Digimon, and Julius Jr. Scott has also produced and directed TV series and feature films including Eye for an Eye, Muslims in America, and Roadside Massacre. Check out his book, Writing for the Green Light.