The 9 Rules of Writing a Spec Script for Television

The 9 rules of writing a spec script for television

1. Never write a spec script for a show that is off the air.

There are some exceptions, if you are writing a comedy and you are trying to get attention by completely breaking the rules. I once knew a guy who got a job from writing an episode of the Golden Girls meets the Sopranos.

2. Do your best to write something the show would never do.

  • Don’t write specs that involve the current mythology of the show.
  • Write something that could happen at almost any time in the series.
  • If you try to write something that matches the storyline of the show as it airs, then they might do that, and your spec is ruined. You don’t get points for anticipating what the show will do.
  • Don’t write your spec while the show is currently airing. Wait until the show is between seasons before you dig in. Or choose a show that has just ended its season, that way you can avoid doing a similar plot line.

3. Don’t rely too much on guest-casting.

Focus on your main characters – explore some new feature about your main character that the show has never thought of and will probably never do. Have fun with it.

4. Don’t write an outdated spec.

If the show is in it’s 8th season, and you have a 1st season spec, it’s too old. Rule of thumb is a season or two. That is the issue with specs. They have a shelf life.

5. Never get too caught up in your spec.

Write it, finish it, send it out, then move onto the next thing. They are temporary exercises, not something you should devote years of work to.

6. Look up sample scripts for the show you want to write online.

Most popular shows have a few scripts.

  • For example: If you are writing a Good Wife spec, Google something like: “Good Wife episode script pdf” (Here’s the pilot).
  • Make sure it’s a legitimate production script from that show
  • Then match the format, page length, act lengths, etc.

7. Learn to write FAST as well as good.

  • Most TV writers have to write a script in a week. Sometimes less.
  • Learning to write quickly is a skill that anyone can learn. It just takes practice and lots of writing. 
  • The key to writing fast is to not get precious about your work. That great line that you wrote? You may have to cut it because the scene doesn’t work. That’s ok. You’ll find yourself writing it later somewhere else.
  • So many novice writers spend years on the same script. Never get caught in that mess. It should take you a few months at most. Then shop it around to friends and connections. Not getting any traction with it? You should already be writing something else to replace it.
  • If you want to be a TV writer, you have to be able to write fast and “kill your darlings”. This means, if everyone who reads your script has the same problem with your main character, but that’s the one thing you like about your main character, then find a way to fix it or throw your script out. Verbally defending your work does not help it.

8. Swing for the fences!

Whether it’s writing a spec or a pilot, don’t be afraid to take risks and really “go there”. Don’t try to write something agreeable. Write what you love, break the rules, grab attention, write the “crazy idea” that popped into your head but you just can’t get it out of your head.

9. Punch up your scenes!

Read each scene of your script and ask yourself, why is this scene interesting? Then, find a way to make it as interesting as possible.

  • If it’s a drama, ask yourself how to raise the stakes or make the scene more tense.
  • If it’s a comedy, obviously as yourself, how do I make this scene more funny.

Your scenes can always be funnier, or more dramatic. Push yourself, and you’ll find that the possibilities are endless.

For more from Chris Masi check out his article TV Writing Samples: Basics of Pilots and Spec Scripts

About the Author

TV Writer

Chris Masi is a TV writer who has written on the shows White Collar and Graceland on USA, Being Mary Jane on BET, Lee Daniels’ Star on FOX, and most recently the upcoming Step Up TV series on STARZ. Chris is an alumnus of the NBC Writers on the Verge Program as well as the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Internship Program where he worked on the show NCIS on CBS. He graduated from Biola University in 2009, and worked his way into the industry by becoming a writer's PA/assistant on the show White Collar after meeting the showrunner on Twitter.