WRITING THE SCRIPT
With plenty of example scripts in hand, you’re ready to sit down and write a spec script. Here’s where the creative process kicks in.
Creating a Story
Think hard about the show you’re going to write a spec script for. Think about it deeply. What is it really about?
Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t a gothic tale of hunting vampires. It’s about a normal teenage girl who’s suddenly thrust into a world she didn’t know existed, suddenly given a grave responsibility she didn’t ask for, isn’t always sure she can handle, and she’s attempting to fulfill that calling while at the same time trying to live as much of a normal teenage life as possible. How does she do that? How does it affect her? How does it affect her friends, her family?
In other words, don’t concentrate on the trappings of the show so much. What do the characters do from week to week? Why do they do it? What are they trying to accomplish? And what is it about those characters which make them interesting within the show’s premise? Find something that challenges the characters for who they are, something that really cuts to the core of what they’re about.
(Of course, Buffy is no longer in production, so you wouldn’t spec that one; it’s just a familiar example.)
Bones, on its surface, is a forensic procedural show. But what it’s really about is an analytical genius scientist who thinks extremely logically about everything and who finds normal human social interaction confusing. She’s paired with a more visceral male partner, nearly her opposite, who’s very good with people but not scientific at all. The show is largely about the pair being two halves of a very effective whole when solving crimes. A great story may begin by finding something which challenges that arrangement.
For example, the character of Bones is an attractive woman, something she’s told frequently and knows on an intellectual level, but she doesn’t consider it part of her persona. It’s incidental, outside of her chosen life; it’s not how she thinks of herself. Booth, her partner, is a handsome man who enjoys his attractiveness to women. Being good-looking is part of his personality. Imagine, then, that Bones, also a popular crime novel author, is pursued by a Vanity Fair-type magazine to pose for a series of glamour photographs. She’d initially be resistant, but eventually, her publisher talks her into it. Soon, she’s thrust into a world where she’s known as an object of beauty, where her appearance becomes a public issue. She’s never given her daily appearance much thought, and she’s not used to being known for it. She’s thrust into social situations well out of her element, where her directness and lack of internal censors may get her into kinds of trouble she’s never had to deal with in her scientific world or solitary existence as a novel writer. At the same time, this sudden attention to Bones as a beautiful woman sort of impinges on Booth’s area of their relationship, and he has trouble with it, for reasons he might not initially be able to articulate. He may naturally try to claim a bit of Bones’s area of the relationship and become a bit more scientific in approach.
Both characters are thrust into roles they’re not accustomed to being in, and the symbiosis of their relationship is challenged. Now, of course, the show is an investigation procedural show, so there should be a crime which Bones and Both will investigate, naturally flowing from the story premise; it could be a crime at a high-society celebrity function to which Bones had been invited. The skewed dynamic of the relationship will impact how they investigate the crime. There’s potential for a good story with lots of character moments.
Now, think -- has this been done on the show before? Is this something they would do on the show? Your research into as many Bones scripts as possible should tell you this. If it hasn’t been done, and it’s an idea which works for the show, then you’ve got a start for a story.
Come up with several ideas like this. Dig into the characters and what they do in the show, and find several possible nuggets which can be turned into great stories. Then pick one.
As mentioned before, the wrong place to start is a “great scene” or great line of dialogue. Those might be excellent moments or fantastic plot points along the way, but they’re not the source of a good story that will work for the show.
You may think of a great dramatic scene – maybe you notice that many nurses wear their watch faces on the inside of their right wrists so that they can easily time a patient’s pulse, and you envision a Law & Order moment where a witness on the stand is dramatically revealed to be nurse because she wears her watch that way. That’s great, but that’s not where you want to begin. It may be a fine move if it serves the story, but it isn’t a story.
If you start with a plot move rather than a core idea of the show or a core aspect of the characters, it’s very easy for a script to end up contrived rather natural, forced rather than organic, because it’ll largely be a setup just to get to your “cool” scene. Plot moves should serve the story; the story isn’t there to lead to the plot moves. Make the show about what the show is about!
A great source of stories can come from the other, supporting characters of the show – from their personalities, their foibles, their own perceptions of themselves and the world. A spec writer has a big opportunity to shine by looking to characters who might be overlooked or underused by the show’s writing staff.
Remember, everyone has a story and their lives are their own. A show focuses on the “main” character, but the supporting characters don’t see it that way. They’re fully-fleshed individuals just like the main characters. If you can find a way to focus on an underused character and bring out something new and interesting about them, you’re on a good path to getting your script noticed.
Of course, the show is about the main characters, and your main story should be about them. But a B-story which focuses on the minor characters can be a great way to go. Find a character that’s usually the butt of jokes and explore them; make them human, make them heroic. Don’t do something the show wouldn’t do. Don’t do something out of character or atypical for the show. But try to find a way to show the character in a different light, to reveal something deeper about them.
Now, of course, most scripts will involve guest characters. However, one of the easiest traps to fall into is constructing a story primarily about a guest character. Avoid that. A show has established protagonists, established heroes who tackle the problems of the episodes. A writer’s job is to make them shine, make them drive the story forward.
If you center a story around a guest character, chances are, you’re having that character drive the action of the script and all the regular characters are reacting to him or her. (A classic beginner mistake is to bring in someone’s mother, who then reveals something about that character while everyone else gets caught up in her spitfire energy.) That’s not your job writing for that show. The show is about the main characters doing what they do, solving the problems and moving the story ahead. Put them at the center of the action, in the driver’s seat. Your guest character is there to help or to hinder, but not to be the hero. That’s for the main characters.
Not only is it not appropriate from a storytelling point of view, if you put your guest character front and center, it’s doing you as the writer of a spec script a disservice. When you submit a spec script for an existing show, a reader is in part reading your script to see how well you write that show – do you capture the characters well? That is to say, are you writing them in their voices? Do they speak the way the characters would speak? The more time you devote a character you created, the less time you’re demonstrating your ability to write the existing characters (who have established actors and real, tangible voices associated with them), or demonstrating that you can do the job of writing that show.
So, find a story that stems from the core idea of the show, from the core characters of the show – something that moves the show and the characters someplace new, something that’s never been done before, something a little better than what’s done before, and something the show’s writers would have done themselves. That’s your first step toward writing a great spec script.
Plotting the Story
Before you can write your script, you must work out the entire story, in detail, broken into acts, with specific act breaks in mind. The act breaks, as mentioned, are the backbone of the story.
It is very unlikely that your script will be as good as it can be unless you put a great deal of thought into it before you ever write “Fade In.” You can’t just sit down and write a script. Remember, television shows have writing staffs of eight or ten or twelve people who all sit with each other and hash out a story over a period of days or even weeks. They work out every detail, every act break, every story element, with the combined power of all of their brains. You as a spec writer need to go through the same process on your own, but with every bit of the meticulous detail. Your task is to write something that group of writers would write, and hasn’t written yet -- and do it a little better, because you’ve got all the time you need to do it. You can’t do it without really, really working it out in full before you try to write the script. So, take your time. You’re not under any time pressure. Really think it through and do the best job you can.
So, let’s look at our Bones idea, assuming it would work for the show – Bones participates in a glamour shoot and becomes a public beauty icon, and she and Booth reverse roles in their relationship. Boil it down to a few sentences. Then, try to find a B-story which will fit into it naturally – how does Cam react to Bones’s newfound attention and possible, say, paparazzi around the Jeffersonian Institute? How would Sweets comment on their changing relationship dynamic? How would Hodgins and Angela relate to Bones and Booth as they act in their new, semi-reversed roles? Would Booth start to relate to them better as people, rather than derisively as “squints”?
Once you have a story in play, you have to map it out, and the first thing you need to do is plan the act breaks. What’s the first act break in a typical Bones script? Often, in a one-hour script, it’s the point where the story has been fully established, but is that true for Bones, specifically?
Check your example scripts to see how the writers usually develop a story. See what kinds of things they use for act breaks. It is a line of dialogue? Is it a type of problem, like the wrong suspect being arrested?
Plot out your act breaks the way that show would. Be creative – don’t just mimic a produced script – but keep it within the show’s norm.
Build your scenes, leading to the act breaks. Include all of the major characters; you don’t want to leave anyone out. Find something meaningful for everyone to do, something that advances the story, builds their relationships, explores something new about them, and brings out conflict between them or in the story.
Find something personal about the story for each character to relate to. In our Bones story, Booth may find himself hanging around the Jeffersonian more than he ever has, because his usual position has been usurped, and Hodgins may comment something like, “you’re becoming a squint now.” Or whatever might be appropriate for the show.
You should generally have the whole dynamic of the story premise fleshed out by the first act break. In our scenario, the first act would end on having the role-reversal between Bones and Booth established and commented upon. But again -- if that’s appropriate for the show. Check your references and be sure.
Then, along the investigation of the crime, you know there will be red herrings, and twists and turns and sudden revelations; several of those are your act breaks. Your second act will end on a twist, possibly the wrong suspect arrested. So will your third, possibly the prime suspect escaping. If it’s more than four acts, then you’ll have more act breaks, and finally, your resolution in the last act, followed by, if appropriate, a little bit of a fun wrap-up.
Make sure that everything you do serves the plot of the story. Avoid doing things just because they’re “fun” or “cool” – it all should move the story forward. A beginning writer may be tempted to write scenes for their own sakes, because they’re fun, because they’re funny, because they use the characters enjoyably. But everything needs to be there for a reason – every scene has to get us a little further from point A to point B in the story. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be in the script.
But while you’re plotting out your scenes, keep in mind one of the advantages of writing a script which most likely isn’t going to be produced. You have a little more freedom to write wonderful scenes which would normally be too expensive to shoot. This is not a free license; part of what you’re doing is demonstrating that you can write to a budget. But you can let your imagination roam a little bit more freely with the luxury of knowing that money won’t actually have to be spent on a particular scene.
Preparing a Detailed Outline
An absolutely indispensible part of the pre-writing process is the detailed outline. You can’t write an effective script without one. This cannot be emphasized enough.
Professional TV writers work from outlines. Those outlines are meticulously detailed and tell the writer everything about the script they’re writing, scene to scene, point to point. They’re typically created by the entire writing staff and approved by the show’s creative head, and if a writer didn’t work from one, it would be extremely difficult indeed to remember everything that needs to go into the scenes, into the script as a whole. They will constantly review the outline while writing the script, and their notes along with it.
You as a spec writer should absolutely do the same, even though you’re plotting the story on your own. It will be your guide to yourself to make sure the story you’re carefully plotting out scene by scene, beat by beat, is effectively and thoroughly translated into your script. It’s far too much to try to do in your head. And, as always, in writing your script, you’re showing that you can do the job of a TV writer. TV writers outline.
Effective outlining is a skill honed with time, like anything else. At its simplest, it’s a detailed description of what happens in each act, ending with the plot movement at the end break. At this point, it should be no surprise, though, that the best way to learn to write an outline for your spec is to refer to the example scripts you’ve studied.
Take produced scripts, as many as you can, and create outlines for those. Make them as detailed as you can. Try to recreate what the original writer’s outline would have been when they wrote the script.
Note what they do for act breaks; note the characters in each scene; note the purpose of each scene – what is being accomplished or needs to be accomplished in this specific scene? A scene can typically be boiled down to a couple of sentences of dialogue. Of course, you want it to be more than that, because you want to do it naturally and elegantly and entertainingly, but there’s still a specific point you need to get across, and you could do it that briefly if you had to. What is it? Make sure you understand it fully.
Then, write your own outline for you own story. Make it detailed and big and specific and “juicy,” so that by the time you get to writing the script and filling in the dialogue, you absolutely understand exactly what it is you’re doing in each scene. If you come up with great lines of dialogue or jokes along the way, jot them down – but nothing should be set in stone until you’ve completely and thoroughly outlined the whole story.
The task of writing dialogue is largely the task of writing character, writing the voices of the characters in a way that’s true to them. What do characters of the show say? How do they say it? What would they say in a given set of circumstances? What wouldn’t they say?
Think about them like real people you know. Get into their psychology. People act and speak in certain ways because their personalities are shaped by many things – upbringing, education, experience, likes, dislikes, wants, needs, dreams, and desires. Get into their heads. Why do they do what they do?
On How I Met Your Mother, why is Barney a selfish narcissist? Well, it’s because he was badly hurt in a relationship and he’s put up thick defensive walls. But that’s not the same reason Cristina Yang got that way on Grey’s Anatomy – she’s aloof and egocentric because she’s striving to be the best, motivated by how helpless she felt when her father died.
It’s not always explicitly spelled out in the show, but every character has a motivation. Find it. Get inside their heads, and really, really listen to their voices. Find their layers, or give them some if they’re not always shown – staying consistent with what’s established, of course.
Knowing the characters and knowing them well will help you to write them naturally, have them react naturally, and have them speak in their own voices. It will help you craft the story vividly on the page, help you to get the dialogue exactly right for the characters, and help you to write a shining example of a script for that show.
Writing It All Out in the Script Format
By this point, after you’ve gone through all the steps in creating and plotting your story, you’ve written a meticulously detailed outline, it’s time to get started actually writing the document known as a script.
Here’s where a lot of beginning, aspiring writers start to panic. They want to get every technical detail of writing the script exactly right. Format is very important, of course, and writers want to make sure they show they know what they’re doing. Veteran TV writer Jane Espenson offers a bit of advice: relax.
I think a lot of times, beginning writers get very caught up in the rules of writing scripts, the format, getting it all exactly right – how exactly do I do flashbacks, exactly what level of description, as if there’s sort of a right answer for all this stuff, as if the key to good scriptwriting is following the rules, and it totally isn’t. There was never a rule-making committee that sat down and decided on the exact right way to do a flashback. A lot of these things are what feels right to you, what you feels most clearly conveys what you’re picturing. So, I think everyone should just relax a lot when you’re writing a script.
Be absolutely meticulous about things like spelling and punctuation and proofreading, and getting the characters’ backstories and voices perfect, and really understanding what kind of stories your show does, whether the story you’ve come up with is something that they would do, making sure the quality is absolutely perfect.
But the procedure of getting every little technical aspect of the scriptwriting right . . . there is no one right way to do it. All writers indicate flashbacks in all sorts of different ways; the granularity of the description varies all over the place. I had people who would get all hung up on “oh, I was told that I shouldn’t start this scene with ‘we pan around the room, Karen IS sitting up in her bed’ – no, no, I was told to say ‘Karen SITS in her bed,’ because ‘sits’ is an active thing and you want . . .” Just write it how it feels most clear and evocative to you, and relax a little bit about “the rules.”
Remember – and by now, this should come as no surprise – you don’t have to wonder about what’s appropriate form or language for the spec script you’re writing, because you already have access to the finished work of a staff who’s already figured that out for you – your script examples.
Do what the show does. Write your script in their style. Use caps when they would. Call an extra a “supernumerary” if that’s what they do. Don’t, as Jane says, “reinvent the wheel” when it’s already rolling.
Writing a Script to Be an Enjoyable Read
Never forget why you’re writing this spec script in the first place – to be read. Make it enjoyable for the person who’s reading it. Keep it appropriate for the purposes of the script, but remember – a script reader is a human being who will react to your writing. An enjoyable read leaves a positive impression. A boring read is quickly forgotten. Which would you rather your script be, when it’s being read by someone who can help you take the next step in your career?
So, what does that mean? Generally, it means, don’t be stiff. Write fluidly, naturally, confidently. Write in sentences, write with flow. Be expressive. Convey a mood or an emotion. Don’t be sterile. As Jane said above, don’t get so hung up on procedure that you let it stilt your writing.
When you’re reading scripts, pay attention to that kind of style, those kinds of writing tricks which make things a fluid read. For example, you might write “she leans forward and prays so hard the words are almost written on her forehead.” Or, you might lead into dialogue with “there’s a pin-drop stunned silence as she says -- ”
Do keep in mind what you’re writing, though, and don’t waste valuable script real estate with unnecessary flourish. There are many, many ways of going about it, and they don’t have to take up much room. Elegance often involves brevity. And you want to tailor it to the show you’re writing. You may find your language too loose to fit tonally with a serious courtroom show. But you’ll have your examples and you’ll know what flies and what doesn’t.
The point is, the script you’re writing is almost certainly not going to be produced. You’re writing it solely and only to be read. You’ve got some freedom to push the envelope a little, to make your writing stand out and be memorable. Make it a great, flowing, confident read. It will give you a great advantage over other writers who might have written good stories if on the screen, but their scripts were just plain boring reads with stiff descriptions and no flair at all.
So, those are the basic steps toward writing a TV script. Developing your skills requires a very great deal of study and practice.