Friday, 16 June 2017

Should I write a Spec Script?

Firstly, what is a spec script?
A ‘spec’ script is one that is written speculatively. Or ‘on spec’. Which means that no-one has paid you or commissioned you to write it. Because of the way the TV industry in USA has worked in the past, a ‘spec script’ implies that the script written ‘on spec’ is a script for an existing show. So not too long ago, an aspiring writer might have written a ‘spec’ episode of Frasier or Seinfeld.

Why would you write an episode of an existing show?
In America, especially in the 80s and 90s when there were only really a few networks making sitcoms, the emphasis for writers was on getting work on long-running existing shows. You’d need a room of 8-12 writers for that. So the most common writing job for the sitcom writer was, and still is, writing on someone else's show. To get that job, you'd need to demonstrate your ability to write funny lines for existing characters and plot episodes that worked for a specific world. Originality was not really required.

So, a writer starting out might write a 'spec' episode of Seinfeld – without maybe even intending to work on Seinfeld. But show-runners of other shows would be able to read your Seinfeld spec script and decide whether you had the skills required to work on their show, be it Ellen or Caroline in the City or Married with Children.

These days, I believe that spec scripts no longer open doors as they used to. Show-runners are now expecting to read original material and hear fresh voices. But this is a tall order, since presumably they expect the same level of competence at writing for existing characters. Plus, wannabe writers now have to be able to write cracking pilot scripts, which is, ironically, the hardest episode to write. Still, far be it from me to tell the Americans they are going about it all the wrong way, since they  making all the shows I love like Brooklyn 99, The Goldbergs, Silicon Valley and Modern Family.

What about in UK?
'Spec scripts' in the UK are not a thing. Traditionally, British shows are written by one person (eg. Carla Lane, John Sullivan) or a writing partnership (eg. Marks and Gran, Esmonde & Larbey). The chances of working on someone else’s sitcom is fairly low. I was lucky enough to work on My Hero and My Family, both of which had ‘teams’ of sorts, but this is quite unusual. Therefore, the concept of writing spec scripts never really took off. Why would you spend weeks perfecting a script given there’s almost no way that script will get you work?

That is not to say that writing a spec is a complete waste of time. It's a valuable writing exercise and if you're keen to improve and want to have a go, far be it from me to stop you. I think I wrote a spec Blackadder script when I was 18, set in 1066. (I seem to remember Baldrick was responsible for shooting Harold in the eye) But in UK, the sitcom market has always been towards originality so you should priorities an original script – which you will have to do speculatively since it is unlikely that you will be paid to write a script with very little track record.

Bear in mind your original script needs to do three things.

Objective One – Proof of Concept

Your script needs to demonstrate that your characters, your idea, your scenario works as a half-hour comedy. You need to show that your sitcom about a nanny in space, or set on in a betting shop, or based on Timon of Athens, will sustain for half an hour with decent jokes. Your characters need to be consistent, and are undone by their own flaws and do all the things sitcom characters need to do. And the reader of the script is left wondering what will happen next week. (You should probably tell them, with a paragraph outline a few more episodes)

Objective Two – Proof of Writer

Your script needs to demonstrate that you are technically competent to write the show you are proposing. This is often neglected. You need to execute your idea in a way that gives the reader the confidence that you could pull off this trick six times over. Ideally, 18-24 times over.

Producers are excited about finding new voices, and fresh ideas, but they need to see a baseline level of competence in a script so they can be confident they have something to work with.

Imagine it from their point of view. They have a pile of thirty script to read. Thirty different situations (okay, at least six of those script will be about out-of-work actors, and another six will be flat shares. Three will be set in the future. Etc.) and in the right hands, a dozen of those situations or sets of characters could work, with a bit of luck and development. But your script has to show that you are a safe pair of hands, or at least that you can learn and improve.

Your script can and should also do something else beyond display technical competence. It should demonstrate insight into the human condition, or the particular world you're opening up that feels fresh and original. Or timeless and classic, but timely. If your sitcom is set in a very specific location, like an operating theatre, a refugee camp in Somalia or behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House, you need to show that you know that world. It needs to feel authentic, even if it is heightened.

Objective Three – Proof of Potential

You do need think of your script as a ‘sitcom-in-waiting’, a show that could actually happen. But you also need to realise that your sitcom is statistically very unlikely to make it to the screen, for a whole number of reasons. But if you’re writing scripts that feel like they at least ought to be on TV, you will look like the kind of writer who producers want to work with. Your sitcom script will do the job of a ‘spec script’ and possibly open the door to other opportunities. Maybe the producer reading your script is looking for someone to work on a script they’ve already got in development but isn’t quite working. (I know, you’d think they’d ditch the idea that isn’t working, and start developing your idea instead, but it doesn’t work like that for some reason.)

Your script needs to do all of the above. It’s a tall order and no-one said it would be easy. But hey, no-one asked you to write a script.

If you need a hand with that, dip into my book which takes you from, as the Americans say, soup to nuts on turning your sitcom idea into a script that you can send out.

For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.


It's available as a bog-standard PDF here.


People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so: 


"Straight talking, supportive but never patronising, and clearly the work of one who actually knows." Amazon Review

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Outlining Your Sitcom Script

Writing a half-hour script is hard.

Really hard.

You need to do everything you can to make your life as easy as possible. Of course that involves getting some decent coffee, collapsing your Facebook window – maybe even unplugging your internet altogether, or going somewhere where there’s no wifi. You really need to put your back into this.

Most writers tend to find the best way to get through the painful process is to have a really solid outline in front of them. And it’s worth spending time on this so that by the time you come to write the script, there’s so much detail already there, it feels like joining the dots.

I personally make sure that I don’t start writing a script until I have an outline that runs to at least two or three pages, with a decent paragraph on what happens in each scene, and some key jokes. Overall, the document might be 1500- 2500 words.

If I have that document, I might be able to get the script done (5000-6000 words) in four or five days. That’s working flat out from 10ish ‘til 6-ish with maybe one late night if I’m ‘in the zone’, maybe with a swim or a walk after lunch each day I don’t think I’m exceptionally quick – or ludicrously slow.

Alright. I’ll Do an Outline? But how?

The good news is that you’ve done most of the hard work. Hopefully, you’ve worked out three plots for your show: A Main Plot, a Sub Plot and a Runner. The Main Plot, especially in the pilot, should be all about the hero of the story, the key relationship, or embody the essence of the show in some way. The Sub Plot is a proper story for some of the other characters – which could also involve the main character. And a Running joke is a tiny little C-Plot that might soak up the other characters.

In Miranda, as the title suggests, the show is all about Miranda – so she’s in all three stories. The Main Story might be about Miranda and her mother. A Sub Plot might be about Miranda and Gary and the on-off romance. And a C-Plot might be something to do with Stevie in the Shop. In another episode, it might be flipped, so the Main Plot is about Miranda and Stevie competing over something, the B-Plot might be about Miranda and her mother, possibly involving Tilly; and the C-plot might be about Miranda and Gary.

In Bluestone 42, with a fairly large cast, Richard Hurst and I tried to give the main plot to Captain Nick Medhurst – which might involve a storyline with Mary and Bird. The B-Plot might be Towerblock/Millsy and the Colonel; and the C-Plot Mac, Rocket and Simon. Another week, it might be Nick and Simon leading the A-Plot; with Mac, Rocket and Towerblock messing around in the B-Plot; with Bird and the Colonel as the C-Plot. Over the course of the Series, we try and make sure it all balances it out, although actors frequently think everyone else has more lines than them.

Separate

It’s normally simpler to think of the stories in isolation – and work out the main beats. Don’t worry about what happens in each scene yet. Write out the story in bullet form, with a new line/bullet for each new beat or moment of the story, but add in as much detail as you can. You might have some really neat phrasing, or a decent joke. Put it all down. If it’s the main story, it might have somewhere between eight and twelve beats.

Do the same with the B-Story, which should have fewer beats, maybe between six and ten. Again, keep going with detail, and anything relevant. Then do the same for the runner/C-Story, which may only have three or four beats.

Check the stories over, especially the A-Story. Does it peak and trough? Does it escalate? Do we believe each step? Does each step move on in a way that is both believable but surprising? Does the hero have a way out that means they could walk away from their quest without suffering any consequences? You want to close off any such escape route. Check over the mechanics of the story so no-one needs to call the Logic Police.

But then there’s the issue of being excited about the story. Do you like the whole storyline? Could it be better? Do bits of it bore you or seem predictable? If so, they’ll be very hard to write in a satisfactory way. Fix them. Now. Don’t assume you’ll think of something better when you come to write it. You might, but if you don’t, you’ll have miserable days trying to think of something better when you should be getting on with the next scene. Take the time to fix the problems at this stage.

Combine

When you’re happy with the stories, and they’re flowing nicely, you can start to work out your scenes. This should be fairly straightforward as you’ve probably been subconsciously doing it all along, but you’re working out which scene happens in which location or set. In some scenes, you’ll be pushing along two plots. In others, just one. Occasionally, it’ll be all three. Quite often, you might be kicking off all three in the first scene (although you might start a fire under one of the stories if you have a quick pre-titles scene).

The plots might not mesh together perfectly, so you may need an extra beat of a plot here, or lose another there. But hopefully, you’ll be able to get the episode laid out as a Scene by Scene outline.
It would be worth showing that to someone if you can. A producer, if you’re working with one. If not, a friend who ‘gets’ what you’re trying to do. Talk them through it. They’ll have some thoughts or concerns, about beats of the stories, moments they don’t understand, set-pieces that might not work, or character motivations that seem unclear. Even if they don’t, you will as you explain your story. Again, I recommend fixing them – if you agree with the notes – before you write the episode, so that once you’ve got your revised outline you can finally start writing.

So. We’re going to start writing the script, now right? Okay. Sorry. One more thing? It’ll take two minutes...

But you'll need to get my book, Writing That Sitcom.

For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.


It's available as a bog-standard PDF here.


People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so:

"Straight talking, supportive but never patronising, and clearly the work of one who actually knows." Amazon Review