Thursday, April 23, 2009

Denis McGrath on TV Specs

I had the good fortune of attending the Canadian Film Centre information session last Tuesday night, and of hearing the wise words of Mr. Denis McGrath, who was there to talk about how to properly spec a TV show. And though I feel anxious about taking any time from preparing my CFC application (that's due on May 14), I wanted to share some of Denis' fine insights. He had also hosted a similar talk a few weeks ago on April 8th, and though I wasn't there my writing group member Filip was, and I've combined the two sets of notes while trying to organize them into cohesive sections. The following is the result of those notes as well a certain amount of memory and interpretation, so hopefully I don't make any huge mistakes and find myself on the ass-end of a libel suit.

Which show do I spec?

Before deciding to spec a show, make sure it has already found its feet. For example, if you watch early episodes of the X-files it's obvious that they're still feeling out the show, and are playing around with structural and story elements. You want a show that is already fairly consistent from episode to episode, and that sometimes only happens halfway through the 1st season. Shows in their first season are generally not a good idea, unless that show is already a big hit right out of the gate (example: The Mentalist). If that's the case and it's almost guaranteed that it will be renewed, then if you spec that show you'll be in the front percentile for that show and therefore the readers won't be sick of reading that show yet. You have to realize that most of the people reading specs read piles of the same show, and in those cases the only specs that will stand out to them had better be frakin' awesome. You don't want to write a spec after everyone else has already specced that show, because it makes it that much harder for you. However, it's equally important that the person reading your spec has seen the show in the first place, because if they haven't it won't get any traction; therefore the show has to be popular enough to assume that most agents, producers, ect will have seen it. For most shows, a good time to spec it is near the beginning of the second season.

Do not spec your favourite show. You won't be critical, and your internal fanboy will take over, and the script will read like fan fiction. You need to be able to take apart the show, and identify the elements, strengths, and weaknesses. You need to write a dispassionate but good spec. Also, if it's your favourite show when you start writing the spec you will probably ruin your affection for it, just like writing an English report in high school ruined your favourite book.You also can't hate the show, because that will come through if you have contempt for the show and/or think you're writing "down". Ideally you should find a show you have an affinity for but aren't obsessed with.

Be anal about checking ratings. No one wants to read a cancelled show, even if it was just cancelled one minute ago. Sorry.

Good shows to spec

  • CSI
  • Cold Case
  • Criminal Minds
  • NCIS
  • Bones
  • The Closer
  • Saving Grace
  • Law & Order (any one, though you better have something good)
  • House - problem is that it's been done to death, so it had better be good. And if your sister in law isn't a doctor, don't bother. The medical stuff has to be spot on.
  • Mad Men
  • Hannah Montana - if you want to do kids stuff, great. But remember that the industry, especially Hollywood, loves to pigeonhole. Writing one of these would probably do that to you.
  • True Blood
  • Big Bang Theory
  • Numb3rs
  • Without A
  • Supernatural Trace
  • Big Love

  • American Dad
  • Family Guy
  • Ugly Betty
  • Big Bang Theory
  • Chuck (really good)
  • Samantha Who
  • How I met your Mother
  • Entourage
  • Weeds
  • Simpsons

30 Rock might not be a good show to spec, because it seems to be 4 different shows at different points, depending on Tina Fey's mood. Therefore it's kinda hard to nail.

Though this should not be true, it's probably not wise to spec a Canadian show. It's a wierd situation in the Canadian TV scene because there's a lot of pettiness. Since it's such a small industry, producer for Show A may not like the producer from Show B, and then your brilliant spec of Show B is useless. On top of that, the producers and writers in Canada often don't watch each other's shows; Canadians can be self-hating about our own content, and this includes the people making the content. This all boils down to the unfortunate truth that with all the baggage associated with Canadian TV you simply have a better chance if you spec an American show. Saying that, the two Canadian shows that are likely best to spec are Flashpoint and Being Erica (though you should only reference this show after episode seven).

Deconstructing a TV show

You want to watch and deconstruct 2-4 episodes of the show. One or two may not tell you what the patterns are but the more you see the more you can see the structure underlying all the episodes. Get scripts but if you can, ignore the pilot script, as it's likely not indicative of the show's tone and structure.


  • Go through each of these episodes and write a skeleton - how many scenes, how many plots (A-, B-, C-), when do the plots kick in, what does the show do off the top?
  • How many scenes are there per act? Create a chart where you get the exact timings of the scenes.
  • Break down the main and secondary characters, who are they, what are their characteristics, what are their stories?
  • Ask: are the A-, B-, C- plots tied together thematically? Where exactly does the climax of each plot come?
  • Look at the act outs, what type of beat do they go to commercial on?
  • Ask: Do the characters change at all? If so, to what degree?
  • If it’s a humorous show, what kind of humour is it? (i.e. cruel, uncomfortable, slapstick, witty). Also ask, do they use callbacks? Buttons? Rule of Three? Who gets the jokes, and how many times? For a comedy, do not impose your specific type of humour on the show, rather, try and mimic the style of humour the show already uses.
  • Break down how many locations there are. Ask: how many scenes are on the “home sets”? Do not exceed these numbers in your spec.
  • Exercise: Is there another angle not listed above that you can use to break down the show with?
  • With all this information, reverse engineer a beat-sheet for each episode.

A good exercise is to deconstruct Shakespeare's Macbeth by following the above guidelines, as Macbeth has a fantastic 5 act structure, and you'll learn a lot.

Preparing to Break Story

Have the basic rules down for the show. Capture the true voices of the characters; show the twists and turns in the same place and way as the show; write with the same themes in your storylines. However, you are not writing just any episode of the show. You are not reaching for mediocrity. Your spec has to have that "X-factor", it has to be an above average episode. Denis told us a story about a recent girl being hired onto a Canadian show, and the showrunner told Denis that her spec was the best spec that he had ever read. That's what we're up against.

Don't annoy the reader or make their job difficult. For a cable show like Dexter, or an otherwise highly serial show, a lot of people make the mistake of trying to place it "between episodes 3 and 4 of the 2nd season" (Trevor's note: I did that with my first spec, a Heroes. Woops!). Think about how annoying that would be for the person reading it, to try and figure out where it is in the timeline. There are two ways to spec these kinds of show 1) do a completely stand-alone episode or 2) write the first episode of an imaginary season. You can even have some elements that don't get resolved, like in any season opener. That should free you up creatively as well.

Do not fuck the world. Remember you are not there to fix the show, and you are not writing fan fiction.

Don't make the episode about the guest character. Guests are supposed to reveal aspects of the main characters. However, you can focus your spec on a little-used regular character. If you think of a story that would go perfect with Angel from Dexter, for example, then that could impress.

You need to know why people love a particular show, and you need to deliver that. People watch serial shows because they fall in love with the characters. People like to watch David Caruso take off his sunglasses. Don't deny them that.

The first 20 pages are crucial. But, the first 10 are even more important. The beginning needs to be exciting, vibrant, and page-turning, because every ten pages are a negotiation; you're constantly negotiating whether or not they are going to read the next 10 pages.

There are 3 basic skills to be a TV writer:
  1. being a good writer
  2. being good in a room - have the ability to give and take ideas
  3. being good at pitching

A true introvert will have immense trouble being a TV writer, as it is a highly social job. At a certain point in your career it will be assumed that you are a good writer, and at that moment, the other two skills become much more important. If you think you are too introverted, a good way to counter that is by taking acting classes (it doesn't matter if you don't want to be an actor, but it will help you become used to standing in front of people and talking). Otherwise, maybe you should think about film.

I hope that was as useful to you as it was to me! Back to writing!

No comments: