spec scripts

All posts tagged spec scripts

THE FRAY PROJECT: A New Gift Horse (Writing)

Published June 13, 2012 by Teresa

I’ve been talking about a Castle spec script that I’ve been working on/struggling with for a while now. My first-ever spec that I wrote completely wrong at first (structure? What’s that? You mean, the main character has to be, like, in it? Like, a lot? And has to, like, do stuff?), but the plot and theme of which I wanted to salvage, because they were important to me. Also, there’s the fact that I wanted to learn from this script. My hope was that if I could fix my mistakes here, I’d be better off.

However, I’ve hit a wall on it, mostly because I started it completely wrong, so the entire foundation of the story is unstable. I tried patching it up, but haven’t been able to successfully, and now I’ve just stared at the thing so long I can’t even see it anymore. I want to make a good spec out of it. I want this particular story written for these characters. But I need distance from it. Right now, I’m still too attached to certain scenes as written, even though they’re wrong, and I need to get to a place where I can start from scratch. I’m not there on this script right now.

So, Castle is in the metaphorical drawer. (Remember when people actually put scripts in drawers, because they actually typed them on paper? I know. Me either. ;) )

BUT, I’ve been working on a new spec from scratch (outline, treatment, the works) where I’m putting everything I learned from all the mistakes I made on the Castle script to good use. It’s a spec for Grimm. What are these things I’ve learned? Well, they might seem like common sense, but I’m recording them here in all their ridiculousness in the hopes that my mentioning them might spare some of you some trouble. :) This way, you can make your own, entirely different mistakes!

  • When I first wrote the Castle script, I thought that having watched the show and “knowing it really well” was enough to write a script. Um, no. You need to know your show on the page if you want to write it. What you see on the screen and what you see in a script are two totally different things. I started looking at old Castle scripts long after I’d already made my first set of “revisions” (I put that word in quotes, because even my revisions at the time were wrong) to the first version of my spec, but by then it was too late. I was trying to shrink and stretch my spec to fit into the Castle mold, but it was never really designed to do that, so the whole thing just fell apart. With Grimm, after I got a glimmer of an idea for a story I wanted to tell, I immediately got a hold of the scripts for three episodes to see how many acts each had, how many pages each act had, how characters were included, when certain procedural plot points tended to happen… When I started to outline and write a treatment for my episode, the story came much more easily than the Castle one did, because I knew where certain parts of the story were supposed to go before I started! Knowing your show really well on the script level helps you write it. I know! Crazy, huh? :)
  • In the first incarnation of my Castle script, Richard Castle hardly did anything. You see, I so desperately wanted to give Beckett and Alexis more to do, that I forgot that the show is called Castle, and if I’m going to tell an effective Castle story, that story should, you know, include Castle. :) This is funny, since in my reviews of Grimm for Tor.com, the episodes I liked least were the ones where Monroe does all the heavy lifting, and Nick doesn’t get to save the day or have the major insights. Not only do my Castle mistakes help me write other specs better, but they also help me see and articulate what I do and don’t like on current television shows. Anyway, for my Grimm spec, I’m never letting myself forget that the show is called GRIMM. Nick is the hero. It’s his story, despite the wonderful ensemble, and in the end, he has to drive the action, make the big decisions, and have the most at stake. The simple act of remembering this has allowed my treatment to come much more easily. Whenever I was at a loss for what should happen to move the story forward, I would just ask “What does Nick want?” And then words would happen. It’s like magic! In fact…

  • Trusting the characters is something else I didn’t do much in my Castle script. There were Things That I Wanted To Say, and I was basically using the characters as mouthpieces for those things. Big mistake. I wasn’t treating them like people. For my Grimm script, as I’ve been writing the treatment, I’ve been talking to the characters in my head. Just as I’ve been asking myself what Nick wants, I’ve been asking what Hank and Juliette and Monroe want. What does Renard want? And yes, what does Wu want. :) And they’ve been telling me what they want. And what they want very often conflicts with what Nick wants. OMG, CONFLICT YOUSE GUYS. :) It seems so stupid to even have to type this as a thing. But no matter who you are, there’s always the point at which you didn’t know this. And then one day, you know it. And then your writing gets better. My story feels inevitable now, because as I progress act by act through my treatment, things are unfolding naturally in the plot, because they’re all driven by characters and not by me manipulating things. I mean, I knew the basic story I wanted to tell (the crime, where I wanted the characters to end up, etc), but I didn’t know how it was going to happen. By focusing on the characters, certain things popped up that not only surprised me, but forced me to change/add other things along the way that make the whole story better.
  • Last lesson? I’m not rushing my outline/treatment. The treatment for a TV spec is only about 4-5 pages where you write out, in prose, everything that happens in your script. It seems like an easy thing, but this is really where the bulk of the work happens. Doing this right means less work later. So, I’m taking my time at this stage, and not rushing to Final Draft until I’m sure I have a quality road map to follow. This doesn’t mean I won’t have to rewrite later. But it does mean that I’ll have a better script to work with when I’m revising, unlike my poor Castle script.

The other day, on Facebook, after gleefully getting through the teaser and 3 1/2 acts in my Grimm treatment, my status was: That awesome moment when a story clicks and suddenly a script actually seems possible. :) If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If it IS broke, try. But if you CAN’T fix it, get a new gift horse all together. But don’t look in its mouth. Or something.

This is what I was referring to. My Grimm spec is my new gift horse. A friend of mine joked, “Just hope it isn’t a Trojan horse!” :) I’ll let you know how that turns out.

The Fray Project: Research and Fellowships (Writing)

Published April 19, 2012 by Teresa

Hello, everyone!

And I was doing SO well. :) But I missed Tuesday’s post, which was supposed to be a Writing post. So, I’m doing it today. Sorry about that.

On Sunday, I was fortunate enough to be able to meet up with a writer on one of my favorite TV shows, NBC’s Grimm. I reached out to her via Twitter and asked if she’d be amenable to sitting down with me over coffee so that I could pick her brain about writing – totally not expecting an answer at all. She surprised me by saying yes! I wanted to speak with her specifically, because 1) she’s a writer on a show of the type that I would like to write one day, and 2) she’s a newer writer who also happens to be a woman of color, and I wanted to get that perspective. She confirmed some stuff I already knew, but she also taught me a lot that I didn’t know. Here are some kernels of wisdom I gathered:

  • Of the list of shows that I want to spec, she said Castle is my strongest choice, because it’s a popular, long-running procedural. My choice of Fringe is less strong, because it’s not clear that Fringe is gonna get another season. (Sad, but true! Please, FOX. Season 5?) She didn’t say anything about my desire to do a Doctor Who episode, but she did say that my wanting to spec Grimm was a good choice now that they have a second season, since they are also a procedural, but it’ll also allow me to get my genre-show groove on. Ultimately, since the specs are mostly for submission to writing fellowships and not necessarily to get me jobs on their own, I should choose shows that I’m passionate about, or at least choose shows in the genre I’m passionate about. Because it’s easy to tell if one is writing something he/she isn’t really into.
  • I should just have lots of stuff. Specs, original pilots, even short fiction or plays, etc. She got her job on Grimm off of a short story she wrote that her agent submitted for her. It was a modern re-telling of a fairy tale, so it was more perfect than any of the scripts she had at the ready. The point is to keep producing stories you love and always have a ready stable of current writing samples, because specs and even original pilots can become irrelevant really quickly, depending on what showrunners and producers are looking to read. Also, the short stories are helpful, because sometimes folks just don’t wanna read anything as long as 50 pages, since they get so many submissions.
  • She reminded me that there are  network writing fellowships other than the Disney/ABC Writing Program and the NHMC Writing Program, both of which I’ve applied to before, and NBC Writers on the Verge, which I was already planning on applying to this year. She received the first CBS Writing Fellowship through the USC Screenwriting program, and reminded me that CBS also has a Writing Mentorship Program through their Diversity Institute to which I can apply. Warner Bros. also has a Writer’s Workshop, as does FOX (FOX Writer’s Residency) and Nickelodeon (Nickelodeon Writing Program). So, you know, I’ve got my work cut out for me. Most of them have upcoming deadlines. :)
  • She recommended that, in addition to the ever-elusive writing assistant job (getting hired as the writing room assistant on the show, which means that you take notes as the writing team throws ideas around, sometimes getting to contribute, sometimes not), I should work on getting hired as a PA on stuff. Basically, any job that would allow me to be on-set is an advantage. Now, I’ve already been doing volunteer PA-ing on stuff, because I just wanted to learn how a set works and build contacts, but I didn’t really think about it in terms of it eventually getting me into a writing room. Huh. Anyway, she suggested just looking up PA jobs online – that that stuff is always posted. Usually around now. Um, OK!
  • She also did warn me that, while networks are definitely making an effort to be more diverse, 1) obviously that’s not enough. You have to be good. (Duh) and 2) that the “Diversity hire” can face hostility, depending on the show/showrunner/other writers/writing room environment. Not that it’s all horrible, but if you come up through a diversity initiative, you might be a little suspect. Meh. I can deal with it. Once I have the job, it doesn’t really matter to me what people think of my having that job. I’ll work my ass off and prove how much I deserve to be there. Which I will, of course.

There was some other chatter, but that was pretty much it. It was a really great conversation, and it basically gave me a lot of homework! I’m hoping to enter most of the fellowships this year, and in order to do that, I have to finish this Castle spec and work on a new one, which will likely be Grimm. Apparently, I’m working toward being an expert in nerdy procedurals. :) My first priority is to finish my Castle in time for the CBS deadline, then start my Grimm and finish it by June in time for ABC (I already entered the crappy version of my Castle script to ABC last year). Depending on which script has turned out best, I’ll send either one to the rest of them. So, my timeline looks like this:

  • Finish Castle script and submit to peeps for notes by – April 26th
  • Get and incorporate notes, get other CBS application materials together by – April 30th
  • Mail full application packet to CBS – May 1st (must be postmarked by this date!)
  • Finish 1st draft of Grimm script by – May 17th
  • Get and incorporate notes, get other ABC and WB application materials together by – May 30th
  • Send complete application packets to ABC and WB – May 31st (needs to be postmarked on or before June 1st!)
  • Send complete application packet to NBC by June 29th (postmark date)
  • Send complete application packet to NHMC Writing Program by Aug 13th
  • *bite nails as I wait to hear whether or not I’ve been accepted to any programs until Fall*

This is gonna be an interesting and busy couple of months, huh?

The Fray Project: Repairing the Castle (Writing)

Published April 10, 2012 by Teresa

As you might have seen on The Fray Project Writing page, my writing goals for April 2012 are:

  • finish breaking down scripts of show I’m spec-ing.
  • using Sandler book, start already-written spec from scratch using what you now know to keep the story bits that work and create a script that actually works.
  • send completed script to people you trust for feedback
  • finish The Ten-Cent Plague
  • have phone meeting w/Adam about pilot script
  • have rescheduled brain-picking meeting w/TV writer

The show I’m spec-ing right now is Castle. Now, some of you might have read elsewhere on the blog that I’ve already written a Castle spec. One that I’ve already gotten feedback on, and submit to writing fellowships even. So, am I writing a new one? No. I’m rewriting the same one. Why?

Because that script was crap, that’s why. :)

Here’s the thing. When I wrote that script, I knew fuck-all about teleplay structure. Seriously. Fuck-all. So, if I got anything right, it was purely by accident. And I mostly got things wrong. The story itself, however, was a good one, and that’s what I’m trying to salvage. However, after I got little bitty notes from a couple of people, I got some serious, heavy-duty notes from someone who’s actually written for TV, and I was all, “Damn. I know absolutely nothing.” Which, of course, shouldn’t have been a surprise, since I didn’t, and had only gotten interested in writing for television about a year before I wrote that script.

After the script was rejected from three fellowships (two this past year, one the year before), I set it aside and realized I needed to get my learn on. I’ve started reading TV scripts and writing about TV more critically. Sure, my reviews of Once Upon a Time and Grimm are for a paycheck, but they’re also me trying to articulate for myself what it is that works about individual episodes and what doesn’t. During a random trip to a bookstore when I first moved to L.A, I happened upon The TV Writer’s Workbook: A Creative Approach to Television Scripts by Ellen Sandler, which has been super helpful. It gives really practical information about what scripts need to be, as well as practical insight into the business side of things, while not being ridiculously stuffy or technical like other books I’ve read on the subject.

Sandler suggests starting by finding copies of scripts of the show you’re spec-ing and breaking them down hardcore: into acts, into scenes, into how many scenes each character has, how many lines they get, how many times each location is used…the purpose being to figure out the rhythm of the show you’re trying to write. Doing this to three scripts will give you enough of a pattern to go on. It’s not enough to have watched lots of episodes, or to be a fan. Seeing how it breaks down on the page is the important bit. It’s also the bit I didn’t do at first, and because of that, the show I ended up spec-ing wasn’t Castle, it was The Alexis and Beckett Show. :) In an attempt to give them “more to do” I ended up making Castle a supporting character on his own show. None of the drama came from him, and the entire thing fell flat.

Derf. I love you, Nathan Fillion.

But now, having broken down a couple of Castle scripts, I realize that I could have given the female characters “more to do” by simply giving them one or two more pages. It wouldn’t have taken a lot to make it seem like they were more involved. Also, the show is called Castle. :) If Castle isn’t doing the ultimate figuring-out, or having the ultimate revelations, the script is wrong. Plain and simple.

And I kinda feel like an asshole even needing to say that, because of course when you say all this it makes perfect sense. Like, duh, right? But I’m not gonna beat myself up over it too much, because everyone has to start from zero when they’re trying something new. And then you learn how to do things properly. And then you don’t make those same mistakes anymore. You learn to make all-new mistakes. And you learn from those, too.

I don’t even know if I’m going to do anything with this particular script at this point. But I do love the story I’m trying to tell in this episode. I think it’s important. So, I’d like to salvage it and put it in a script that works. That will be an accomplishment all on its own. And writing it will prepare me for the next one!

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