Yesterday’s post on which spec script to write has generated a number of good questions and comments so I thought I’d serve ‘em while they’re hot.
Vivian Darkbloom is up first.
I am writing a sitcom pilot and have a question about the number of acts for the script. Some shows have two acts (e.g., "30 Rock," "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," "Friends"), whereas others have three (e.g., "New Girl," "2 Broke Girls," "Community").
What are your thoughts on writing a pilot with two acts versus three? Is it just a matter of personal preference?
Your call, Viv. Whatever format allows you to best tell your story. But generally that means the two-act structure. Shows went to a three-act format not as a way of improving storytelling. They did so because the networks want to sprinkle their heavy commercial load around without causing too much tune-out. But where best to schedule GoDaddy.com, Lexus, Cialis, Miller Lite, Disney Cruises, Pepsi, and seventeen WHITNEY promos is not your concern.
Ken, what do you think about writing a spec for an animated show like Archer?
I have no idea whether you can write MODERN FAMILY based on a FAMILY GUY.
The best solution: write two specs – one for animated shows and one for live. Cover your bases.
And having written both I would encourage young writers to consider adding animation to your arsenal. Especially if your strong suit is jokes. There’s less of a burden on character development and story in animation, but you better really bring the funny.
A reader suggested that animation studios don't consider material from outsiders. I don't agree. Maybe in his studio and if so, they're idiots because they're shortchanging themselves talent.
Bob Ross has an ageism question.
...Speaking of writers over forty, is it possible to get your first writing job if you are over forty?
I won't blow sunshine up your skirt. It’s harder.
But not impossible. The good news is when you submit your script you never have to list your age. If the spec knocks people out you’ll get work. The odds aren't great but much better than if you wanted to join the NBA at 40.
KingCooky weighed in with:
My style is more drama. I've recently written a Mad Men spec. Any thoughts if this is over done like Modern Family?
Also, I try to stay away from the law/CSI stuff as i think shows like are also overdone.
Drama is not my field but I would instinctively agree that procedurals are not ideal for specs unless you hope to get hired by a procedural.
To me the problem with dramas is that so many of them are episodic. How do you write a MAD MEN when you don't even know what year the next season will be set in?
I would pick a show that best fits your sensibilities. Are you a SONS OF ANARCHY fan? THE GOOD WIFE? FRINGE? ONCE UPON A TIME? BOARDWALK EMPIRE? The styles are so different.
I suppose I would pick the show you feel you know the best and try to write as self-contained episode as you can.
But I worry about BOSS simply because not many people have seen it. On the other hand, there sure won't be a glut of them.
Could producers rip off elements of your spec script? has that happened before?
When a spec script is submitted by an agent it's with the understanding that the studio is no longer liable if a similarity of the script finds its way into an episode. Without that protection studios would never read anybody's script. Does stealing from spec scripts occur? I'm sure it does but in my experience, I've never seen it. More often specs will stumble upon an upcoming storyline or beat that was already in the works.
On the other hand, I have seen instances where a studio will buy a spec because they like the story, even if they don't like the writing.
You may think your story is completely unique and original and the truth is a producer gets fifteen specs that all have the same story.
And trust me, if a producer has to rely on spec scripts for story notions he won't be in the business very long.
After you get work on various shows, do you/would you write any more specs? I've always thought I'd do that if there would be shows out there that I would really like.
That does happen. And the truth is, if you’re a working writer on a show that’s not well thought-of in the community, writing a spec may be the only way you graduate to a better show. So swallow your pride. The best example of this was on CHEERS. Peter Casey & David Lee were not just writers on THE JEFFERSONS, they were the showrunners. But to get a CHEERS assignment they had to suck it up and write a spec CHEERS. They did, it impressed the Charles Brothers, and the rest, as they say, is profit.
Have you ever done that?
Not specs for existing shows, but I’ve had to write a lot of specs. When my partner and I were on MASH we wanted to break into features. No one would hire us without a spec screenplay. Our agent would argue that we write a movie-caliber show every week, but they still wanted to see how we did in longform. So we wrote a spec, which got us our first assignment (VOLUNTEERS).
When I went off to do baseball, David tried to get feature work alone. Same story. They only knew him as a member of a team. So he (and later I) had to write a spec screenplay solo.
Now, had we said, “We’ve won Emmys, WGA awards, and we're known at the 20th commissary and barbershop. We’re not going to write on spec” then my guess is we’d have no movie career, either together or separately. And today we couldn't get into the 20th barbershop if we had a note from George Clooney.
Now here are a couple of comments from yesterday worth re-posting:
From Anonymous Reader:
As someone who works for the Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship (a great program for aspiring writers, btw!), let me just tell you that the glut IS "Modern Family".
Used to be "The Office", the "30 Rock", but making your script stand out amongst hundreds of "Modern Familys" is going to be an uphill battle for sure.
I imagine the situation must be the same at agencies.
Personally, I'd advise against it.
Good to know. What follows is a GREAT comment by David Schwartz. I could not agree with him more.
Here's a suggestion that I think is very valuable (and one I wish I knew years ago). It is important that even after you write your spec scripts and secure an agent that YOU KEEP WRITING! When I started writing specs in the early 1980's my partner and I wrote a couple of good scripts that landed us an agent, and then we stopped writing. Our attitude was, "We've now written our scripts, it's time for our agent to get us work." We felt that our next assignment should be a paying one. In contrast, at the same time, our agent had another writer that wanted to write for Family Ties. We were told that this writer wrote a Family Ties script practically EVERY WEEK and submitted it to the show. After a couple of months of this, the producers took notice! I believe this writer was Michael J. Weithorn who went on to an incredibly successful career (starting with Family Ties). The point I'm making, is that while you may not be able to write a script every week, persistence is more likely to pay off than inertia. If I had my writing career to do over again, the one thing I'd do differently would be to write more scripts, and then write more scripts after that. First, I'd have gotten better, and second, I'm pretty sure I'd have impressed the producers with my perseverance.
Thanks, David. That letter should come with every scriptwriting computer program and cup of coffee at Starbucks. The more you write, the better you will become and the more opportunities you will have for success.
As always, good luck to everybody!!!