ATQ34: What makes a great spec script?

If a spec script will never get made and is more of a showcase, what are readers/producers looking for that I should highlight in my writing?

Tim Mallon


Great question!

Today’s spec script submissions are better than ever, and competition is strong.

There is no way round it – if you are going attract attention with a spec you have to be competing at a very high level these days. 

This may all sound daunting. But, in a way, it’s not.

I’m actually going to say to you that you should do what draws you to writing in the first place:

The best thing you can do is write a script that you personally love!?

It takes courage to look into yourself and find what you truly want to write – we get so trapped by everything else we see that we always think we have to do more of the same.

It’s true, your script has to be part of what’s going on – it has to be smart, and timely, and somehow feel part of the ‘conversation’? – but the last thing it should be is limited by you second-guessing what some producer will pay for.

Those worries come later.?

Your first few specs are all about abandoning ideas of what you think will sell. (No-one knows what will sell, truly.)

It’s all about opening up to writing the TV show or the movie that you were born to write.? (I don’t mean you to write an epic poem if you want to work on TV, but if that’s what you are born to write why are you writing scripts anyway?)

Within the fact you are writing for TV, or the movies, try to follow these guidelines. They are based on the specs that have crossed my desk in the last couple of years, either with the competition, or when I’ve been working at Bentley or for the BBC.

1. Be original with your story world

Original story setups, that you genuinely haven’t seen before, really do stand out.

I’m much more eager to read a script about a world I’ve never been to before than yet another dour police procedural.

(There is a place for police procedurals, and you will probably be asked to write many of them in your career, but if you’re doing one at this point it had better be truly fresh!)

Good writing is good writing and will come out on top in the end, whatever the genre, but fresh, original story worlds and unusual story angles DO initially get a slightly favourable read.

2. Get the basics in place – and go beyond

All these years of all those screenwriting books out there, all these workshops, all these forums dedicated to spreading basic technique, they’re all paying off.

The average unsolicited script I’m reading is far, far better than it was fifteen years ago.

So the bar has been raised considerably.

When most unsolicited scripts have a basic story structure fairly well in place then you simply cannot afford to be unaware of all that sort of thing.

Even if you reject the traditional three act paradigm in favour of your own personal invention, comprising, I don’t know, 7 and a ½ phases plus a coda, you have to do it from a position of strength.

If you’re into traditional three act structure you have to be really on it. You have to know what you are doing, you have to hit the beats, and you have to hit them lightly, cleverly, and preferably subversively in some way.

3. But a good structure is not enough

Some scripts have a great set up, a terrific structure, but they are spoiled by heavy-handed dialogue.

Not many people these days look for scripts in which they can merely see promise – far too many scripts show promise.

You have to dazzle.

Your dialogue must simply spark along.

Subtext, economy, precision, occasional humour, credibility, surprises, are all crucial.

(To learn about great dialogue, and how best to read and break down some scripts that do shine with inner life, there is a list of free script resources with instructions on how to use them here.)

4. Then find your voice and let it out

It’s not even enough to have a good structure, good setup, good characters and good dialogue.

We look for scripts that have all that – but also have that rarest thing: a wild, never before heard voice.

This is the advanced stage. This is the point at which you have mastered all the elements so well that your unique way of seeing the world combines with your unique writing style and your mastery of the story telling elements to elevate your script into something that burns into the imagination, is satisfying, surprising, entertaining – even haunting.

You get to this point by reading, and reading, and watching, and breaking down, and being brave enough to cut lose and reach deep into yourself and bring whatever you’ve got out to be shaped by your well-developed craft.

This is something that I think can never be taught, that comes with experience, with passion, with a genuinely original way of seeing the world.

When you are writing your first couple of specs, try not to worry about writing something that will play well on a particular TV channel, that will hit a specific audience demographic in the theatres.

Use this chance to set yourself free.

Write something, anything, with strong craft and a clear voice, whatever the genre, and you’ll get way more attention than if you write a neat, tidy, over-familiar police procedural, the like of which we’ve all seen a thousand times. 

Make contacts and sell your scripts

If you’ve looking for in-depth advice on getting your scripts into the hands of the people who can buy them, then you should definitely take a look at our Open Door Newsletter.

Every issue is full of detailed advice on the industry, with plenty of realistic advice on the best way to go about making the contacts you need to sell your script.