Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dexter, the One that Got Away

Ben writes,

"... in May of 2008 you were outlining a spec for Dexter... Did you ever finish it?... I've never written a spec before but I'd really like to write one for Dexter ... I'm 23 working as a waiter and have dreams of writing... something. I know that I'll never make a living with it, and probably never even make a dime with it, but it's fun and I would like to do it as a hobby ..."

Well Ben, first of all, yes I was writing a Dexter spec. But no, I didn't finish it. It's actually the only show I've tried and failed to write a spec for. Essentially I couldn't come up with story lines that I was satisfied with (quality-wise and tone-wise), and it was taking me so long that I realized I should move on. Because the thing is that in the real TV world you don't have that long to write a show. Maybe a month. So obviously if you're not working as a full-time writer that's going to take longer but if you can't do that in 2 or 3 months, I think it's time to move on to another spec.

I also just don't believe Dexter is a good spec. My reasons are:

1) It's a highly serialized show. If you saw the season finale you'll understand how difficult it would be to write an episode not connected to any particular season. And once you connect it to a season, it's shelf-life is directly connected to that season. Writing a spec in between seasons is an idea, but as soon as the next season starts your spec is totally useless. It's just easier to choose a show that is more procedural.

2) Dexter is kind of old, for a spec. It's still very popular but it's not the hot new thing, which I think is what people want to read. By this point a lot of people have written Dexter specs, and agents and producers may be tired of reading them. Saying that, as long as a show is on the air, you can spec it.

3) Dexter is a really smart, well-written show with an unusual structure. This means that it's really tough to nail. TV writing requires a mastery of TV structure and Dexter is purposefully written without one. Keep in mind it's a Showtime show, and they don't have commercials. I think you need, as a budding writer, to start with network shows that have commercials and therefore clear act breaks. If you want a challenge, go ahead by all means but I wouldn't recommend it for your first spec. Build up to it. My first spec was a Heroes, but I graduated to a Mad Men (although now I'm writing a Fringe). Start with something simpler. Also, it might be a better example of your ability to follow a particular structure if you write a show that has a clearer structure.

Now as for your personal aspirations, I know exactly how you feel. It's true you might not ever make a dime from it (I haven't yet, and I have an agent). But you should decide whether you really want it before starting it. I think it's the wrong attitude to say you know you'll never make a living from it because you're setting yourself up for failure. Of course it's possible you won't ever make a living from it but you have to believe that ultimately it's also possible that you will succeed. Because the only way you'll ever make it doing this is if you have the motivation to continue to do it unpaid for years until somehow things start to line up through sheer perseverance (and talent, hopefully). Because wanting to do it as a hobby is not enough. Writing TV specs is hard and in the end all you have is someone else's product. The only thing a finished TV spec is good for is to get you a job as a TV writer. So, if you want to write as a hobby, there are a ton of things you would be better off writing that in the end could result in you, say, selling your writing, for example. Like a screenplay or a novel. Because at least then you own your final product. I don't mean to discourage you but to have you think about what you really want to do. Because if it's TV writing you need to be focused about it and know what you're getting into.

Also, in case you haven't already done this, I'd suggest as a first step that you read some books and become familiar with screenwriting and TV writing structure. There are 10 books that I own on the subject and I read two of them (Story and Screenplay) back to back before even attempting to start writing. And I've read most of them more than once. Some books I particularly recommend are:

Story by Robert McKee
Screenplay by Syd Field
Writing the TV Drama Series by Pamela Douglas
Crafty TV Writing and Crafty Screenwriting by Alex Epstein
The Screenwriter's Bible by David Trottier (absolutely indispensable for script formatting - I refer back to this book almost every day)

Again, I hope I haven't discouraged you, because that wasn't my intention. I just think that the only way anyone will ever become successful at something is if they put consistent, steady energy into it, and know the steps they have to take to achieve something. And I hope you realize that this is something you'd like to do, and I hope you get paid! Speaking of which, I hope I get paid too...

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