Back when I thought I wanted to break into TV writing, I wrote a couple of spec scripts, only one of which I tried to shop to agents. I failed rather dismally at that, due largely to the mistakes noted below — but I also wrote a pretty good script in terms of matching the show’s style, dialogue, characters, structure, etc. For all those reasons, I think it makes a good case study.
How did I shoot myself in the foot with this script?
I messed with the show’s mythology.
The script was for Quantum Leap, which had a time-traveling Sam Beckett “leaping” into a different person’s life each episode. Might be a man, might be a woman, but it was never an animal. I leaped him into a dog. Now, I did a really good job with it, and made the darned concept fit the show like a glove, so I might have gotten away with it — except for mistake #2.
I not only messed with the mythology, I did it right after the show did.
Talk about lousy timing. The one and only episode in which Sam leaped into an animal (a chimp) aired in season four juuuust about the time I was shopping my script. That sort of problem makes agents ask “What else you got?” Which led to mistake #3.
I only wrote one spec script.
When I had an interested agent on the phone ask me what else could I send him, I had to admit that I had nothing. Ouch. The exchange took seconds, and that’s all the time you will have to answer the same question. Always, always, always have more than one spec script to present — and be prepared to pitch it on the spot.
So what did I manage to do right?
I balanced the characters correctly.
The main characters — Sam and Al — take center stage as always. But the secondary/guest characters are deftly handled. They’re appealing, well differentiated, and have just enough problems that need resolving to fit into the standard Quantum Leap story structure. Great guest roles are the key to a good stand-alone spec script.
The structure matches the show.
You’ll notice that the script is divided into a teaser and three acts, with no tag. Whatever show you’re writing will have its own structure, possibly with a separate tag at the end — and, very probably, four or five acts. (Shows have more commercial breaks than they used to. Shows, and scripts are shorter as a result. Doh!)
I will note that it was probably too long. 61 pages?!
The plot works — and would probably have worked for Lassie, too.
With Sam jumping into a dog, there are only so many things he can do to save the day. I had a lot of fun figuring out how he could be both himself and act like a big yellow dog named Bucket.
The comedy and emotional arc are spot-on.
Any fan of the show loved seeing Sam leap into some crazy situation and have to deal with one difficulty after another — while uncovering the guest character’s secret lives and silent pains and finding a way to resolve them. It made for a beautiful story arc each episode, and I’m pleased that I managed to create that same arc, from Sam’s opening “Oh, boy” to Al’s final wave goodbye.
Have I mentioned Bucket? What could possibly be wrong with a Labrador retriever named Bucket? Nothing, that’s what I’m telling you. To this day, I adore the “real” dog Bucket. And I’m tickled that Sam got to be him for a while
Previously in this series:
Still to come:
Part Four: Formatting your script. One-hour drama versus half-hour comedy show. Freebie download to help you do it right.