What Is a Spec Script and How Do Writers Use Them?
What is a spec script? To pursue a career as a screenwriter, you’ll need to write scripts on your own to demonstrate your writing ability and a spec script is one tool you’ll need in your arsenal. But “spec” can mean something different in TV writing and feature writing, so let’s break it down.
Writing “on spec”
When you write a script “on spec,” or speculatively, you are writing without being asked or paid to do so. Typically, new writers will write all of their scripts on spec. Both feature writers and TV writers can write scripts on spec.
Once writers establish themselves in the industry, they may not need to write anything on spec; they often verbally pitch their ideas and then get paid to write the scripts (whether those are pilots or features). They might also verbally pitch their “takes” on existing material that is available to adapt (from a novel, short story, play, article, or idea).
However, some professional writers still choose to write scripts on spec in the hopes of selling them later. This gives them more creative control at the beginning of the process since they won’t be beholden to notes or ideas from producers, studio executives, network executives, actors or directors. (Of course, once you sell an idea, you may have to listen to what the buyers want.)
Matthew Weiner famously wrote the pilot of Mad Men on spec while he was working on the staff of The Sopranos. He actually tried to sell it for six years! Eventually, AMC bought the script and turned it into its flagship show.
Writing on spec also enables professional writers to put an idea on paper that might not be easy to pitch. If it’s hard for buyers to envision the movie or show verbally, you might want to write the idea on spec – even if you’re someone who is established enough to sell pitches.
Feature film spec scripts
A feature spec script is simply a movie script written on spec – for free, in the hopes of selling it later. The “spec market” refers to the world of studios or financiers who buy these projects to develop them. While TV shows written by established writers are traditionally sold as pitches (though spec pilot sales like Mad Men are increasingly common), feature sales are still dominated by movie scripts written on spec.
Scott Myers of Go Into the Story has been tracking spec sales for years. Check out his report to see the spec features that sold in 2017.
Spec TV scripts
People in the TV industry also use the term “spec” to refer to sample scripts of TV shows. Decades ago, to get a job as a staff writer on an existing television show, a new writer would write a sample episode of a popular TV show on the air. They would write the script in the voice of the show, making sure that the characters, plot lines, and tone all felt authentic to the real show.
This skill is what’s expected of staff writers. However, spec scripts are rarely used to get staff writing jobs today; showrunners now expect new writers to show off their original voices through pilot scripts. Showrunner Jeff Lieber has also mentioned on Twitter a number of times that there are now too many TV shows on the air for a showrunner to be familiar with every show that a writer might write a spec of.
Agents and managers often won’t represent a new writer based on a spec script alone and securing a representative is an important step on the journey of becoming a professional television writer. However, many studio writing fellowships and programs – such as the Disney/ABC Writing Program and the WB Writers Workshop – still require TV spec scripts in their applications. (Many also now require pilots as well.)
Unfortunately, aspiring TV writers will have little other use for these scripts, and they tend to become obsolete as shows evolve and go off the air. Still, writing specs is an enormously valuable experience. Writing a TV spec script teaches you to break down a show and study its structure, conflict engine, characters, tone, and quirks. This prepares you to eventually write your own pilot.
Good luck writing your first spec TV script or feature screenplay! For more about writing scripts, check out our post on confusing screenplay terms.