BBC Blogs – BBC Writersroom
Usman Mullan is a development producer at BBC Writersroom who works on our UK-wide programs such as Drama Room, Voices and Writers Access Group. Through his work, he reads many spec scripts and supports authors in developing new ones. Here he shares tips.
What is a spec script?
I think it’s worth saying that “spec” is short for speculative, which basically means to write something that you weren’t asked to write and usually don’t get paid to write . So it’s just an idea that you decide to write yourself.
Essentially, a spec script is something that best represents to a reader who you are as a writer. It’s a business card that showcases your talent, your ability and your voice. We talk a lot about “voice” when discussing what makes a great spec script. When I started in the industry, I was like ‘what do people mean by ‘Voice’? Is this the voice you hear in your head? Is it the voice of the characters? I think the best way to describe Voice to me is a script written in a way no one else could have written like you did. It contains the kind of qualities that express who you are as a writer, demonstrates your passions and strengths, and uniquely feels about you. So if you do all of that, that’s what will make your voice unique.
What is a spec script used for?
A specification is a gateway to opportunities. It’s something that gets you noticed. It makes you work. It puts you in a room with people who work in the industry. For example, if you don’t have representation and are looking for this, you would send it to an agent. If they like what they read, they will invite you to chat and eventually take you on as a customer. People working in production companies – script editors, development managers, producers – will work the same way. They might want to read your spec script to consider getting you into a writers room for a TV series, and they’ll judge whether you’re suitable based on that business card.
You would also submit a specification to consider for a write development program, which is the purpose of our open call submission window. A good script could earn you a place in one of our development groups like Voices or Drama Room or the Writers Access Group. So see it as something to hook people and get them excited about you as a writer.
What are you looking for in a spec script?
I am looking for, voice, character, authenticity, and originality. Does it feel distinctive? Is it a confident voice? Is it an unknown voice? Is it a voice that demands to be heard? Does it reflect the world we live in today? I want to see unique, thought-provoking, funny, complex, and engaging characters with stories that have messy, complicated relationships at their heart. Plus, characters we’ve never met before, who are emotionally truthful and distinctive, really pull us into their stories and make us want to keep reading.
Character is something we talk about a lot. I think for me, I should be able to hide the names on your script and be able to instantly identify who these characters are. If I can’t tell one from the other, that indicates to me that these characters just aren’t well balanced or don’t feel distinctive enough. This is a good exercise for you to try out when writing your script.
Authenticity? Choose a world and characters that you can authentically write about. I want to be able to enter a world and let myself be guided by the writer. When we talk about the world of a storyline, it can just be a setting or an enclosure. It doesn’t have to feel huge in terms of scale, but just where you define your story and the particular area or characters within it. So it can take place in a world that we know or that we often see on television, that is to say crime, health, education.
If so, then what is your new vision of this world? What is the turn you are going to give us on this world? Is there a particular point of view? That’s originality. I’m always on the lookout for original stories that haven’t been seen before, but even though it’s a topic that’s been covered many times, your unique perspective is going to make it different. Be bold and ambitious in terms of the stories you want to tell. Be specific but at the same time speak to a large audience.
What should you avoid in a spec script?
Definitely a familiarity and something that seems derivative. If it’s well traveled territory or a world we’ve seen before, give us a new or unique view of it. It shouldn’t be an adaptation. It shouldn’t use characters we’ve seen on TV, in movies, or in books. It shouldn’t be an episode of an existing show. It must be an original work.
The other thing is – if you’re going to submit to our open call – don’t guess what the BBC is looking for because it comes across in your writing. We’ll be able to tell because it’s going to look consciously commercial and inauthentic and we’ll end up with multiple versions of “Fleabag” or “Line of Duty.” We often find that there are ideas that have these really great big central themes that you want to interrogate or a world that looks interesting but lacks the heart of the story and the momentum to keep that story engine going. .
Genre twists (like sci-fi, horror, fantasy) are something we see a lot, and I like bold genre twists, but it can often feel quite complicated and done for fun. If you want to write a genre and you are really interested in the genre, then absolutely write this spec script. I would say that if you’re going to go for a gender twist, ask yourself, “why am I doing this?” You have to subvert expectations with this and not make a supernatural script just to make it look a little different. Again, he has to bring something new to well-trodden territory.
Usually a spec script can be for any medium. Many agents or TV production companies will consider theater scripts when looking for talent, for example. At the BBC Writersroom, we are accepting TV, film, theatrical, online or radio scripts during our submission window. However, when choosing your medium, you should consider whether your story is suitable for that particular medium. Why did you choose Radio rather than a visual medium such as TV or Film for example? When scripts look like they were written on the wrong medium, it can have a negative effect and throw the reader off.
Also, when I see “Draft One” on a title page and it’s been submitted, my heart still sinks. Do not submit your draft! As a writer, it’s very common that you’re never completely satisfied with your work, but as long as you’ve done a few revisions to it and sent it to people you respect and got their feedback and c is best possible at that time, so that’s when you should send it.
There are many free resources for screenwriting. You don’t necessarily need to go study in a paid course. Look around our website. We have an extensive script library of over a thousand scripts that you can download and that in itself is an education. It’s important to read a lot of scripts as well as watch or listen to a lot of the media you write for. Analyze the work when you do it. What works for you? Why does it work? Or what is not working? Apply these observations to your own writing and it will really refine your work.
Last piece of advice from me – BE YOURSELF! Write the script you want to write. Is this a story you’re dying to tell? Are you passionate about it? Does it move you emotionally? If so, trust that it will move and engage the reader!