What is a Spec Script? [And 5 Tips For Writing a Great One!]

a man writing a spec script

Key Takeaways:

A spec script, which stands for “speculative screenplay,” is an original screenplay that you write to demonstrate your screenwriting skills and understanding of storytelling.

A spec script has not been requested or pre-sold. Its purpose is to show off your skills and help you get hired as a writer on a paid writing assignment or land a representation deal.

Click to go directly to my best tips for writing one!

Are you looking to break into Hollywood or make an independent film?

Writing a spec script is one of the best ways to do just that!

I’ve written more than twenty scripts, and I know the value of having a few great spec scripts up your sleeve when you are looking for representation. They are a great way to show off your screenwriting skills, and having a few in reserve is great for when you get asked, “So… what else have you written?”

In this article, I’ll share my best tips for how you should structure your spec script. We’ll also look at what elements should be included, how you can write your characters & dialogue, and discuss what to do with the script once it’s done!

After you read this article, you’ll be able to write a successful spec script that will show off your creativity and talent. Keep reading to learn more about writing spec scripts!

What is A Spec Script?

infographic defining a spec script

A spec script, short for a speculative screenplay, is a screenplay written on speculation. This means that the writer creates the script without any guarantee of it being commissioned or sold to a production company.

Writing on spec means writing your script to showcase your talent as a screenwriter. You are writing it as a way to potentially attract interest from producers, agents, managers, and other potential employers in the entertainment industry who can help produce your work.

In short, a film or TV show spec is a writing sample that a film or TV writer can use as a calling card to get the attention of the TV or filmmaking industry.

Spec scripts are essential in the film industry because they allow aspiring writers to demonstrate their skills and creativity without needing an existing connection with studios or production firms. As an independent filmmaker, I know how hard it can be to get a movie made without connections! Hint: sometimes you have to just make it yourself.

That said, many successful Hollywood films started as spec scripts before getting picked up by major studios, such as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Juno,” and “The Hangover.”

Juno Poster

In recent years, there has been an increasing demand for original content for TV specs due to streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.

As these platforms continue to grow their libraries with unique stories that appeal to various audiences worldwide, opportunities for aspiring screenwriters have expanded beyond traditional film studios and existing television systems. This is great news for anyone who is an unknown writer!

Spec Script Basics

Let’s look at some general information about most spec scripts.

Spec Script vs. Shooting Script

similarities and differences of spec script vs shooting script

A spec script is an original screenplay written by a writer without a production deal.

In contrast, a shooting script is a finalized version of a commissioned script that includes technical details such as camera angles, lighting cues, and actor movements for use during filming.

TV vs. Feature Film Spec Script

A spec TV script is typically shorter in length, usually around 30 to 60 pages, while movie spec scripts can range from 90 to 120 pages.

Television specs also usually follow a series format, written as either an original pilot for a new TV series or a standalone episode of an existing television show.

In contrast, movie spec scripts tend to be original material or standalone stories with a beginning, middle, and end.

Additionally, television spec scripts often have to conform to the style and tone of the show they are targeting, while movie spec scripts have more creative freedom.

Take a look at this video from the guys over at Save The Cat (a fantastic resource for screenwriters!) all about why you should be writing scripts to help develop your screenwriting skills!

How to Write a Successful Spec Script

To write a spec script that can grab the attention of studios and filmmakers, you need to have a good understanding of the basics and conventions of film scripting. You’ll also need knowledge about the type or genre of movie you are writing and a great story idea!

So, let’s talk about the essential steps to help you create a compelling spec script!

how to write a spec script infographic

1. Develop Your Spec Script Idea

infographic on how to find movie ideas: go outside

Writing on spec means that you alone are responsible for selecting the movie’s genre and then developing a unique story concept based on an original idea.

This involves researching popular genres within film or television, identifying what interests you most, and brainstorming great ideas that bring something fresh to the table.

2. Create Relatable Characters

how to write relatable characters

A successful screenplay relies heavily on its different characters. Spend time developing complex protagonists with clear goals and motivations and antagonists who challenge them throughout their journey.

To help create memorable roles for potential actors in your original pilot or movie, consider using tools like Sudowrite‘s AI character development tools or Novel Factory‘s Character Builder tools.

3. Write Engaging Dialogue

dialogue in a screenplay

Your script’s dialogue should be natural yet engaging. It must convey information while revealing character traits and emotions.

Avoid using excessive exposition or on-the-nose dialogue. Instead, opt for subtlety and subtext to keep viewers engaged. This is often easier said than done, so spend some time on this step!

4. Outline Your Story Structure

infographic showing 3 act story structure

An engaging story needs a solid structure to keep viewers hooked from beginning to end. Familiarize yourself with traditional three-act structures used in screenplays or experiment with alternative formats if it suits your story better.

Use outlining software (such as the ones outlined in my article on the best screenwriting software), which can assist you in organizing plot points effectively.

Act One

Introduce your main character(s), establish the setting, and present the inciting incident that sets your story in motion.

Act 1 of Three-Act Story Structure

Act Two

Develop character relationships, introduce obstacles and conflicts, and build towards a climactic turning point.

Act 2 of Three-Act Story Structure

Act Three

Resolve conflicts, tie up loose ends, and conclude with a satisfying resolution for your characters.

You may want to use a screenwriting beat sheet (such as the Save the Cat format) to outline each of the beats in your story.

Act Three story structure

5. Proper Screenplay Formatting

To ensure your spec script is taken seriously by industry professionals, it must adhere to proper formatting standards.

Most screenwriting software programs will automatically format your screenplay according to industry guidelines.

formatting in a screenplay infographic
  • Title Page: Include your title (in all caps) centered on the page, written by [your name] beneath the title, and contact information (email address/phone number) in the lower left-hand corner.
  • Action Lines: Write action lines in present tense describing what happens visually onscreen; avoid overloading with details or camera directions.
  • Dialogue: Keep dialogue concise yet natural-sounding; use subtext instead of stating everything explicitly through words.
  • Parentheticals: If needed, add brief parentheticals to clarify character actions or emotions during dialogue. Use sparingly!
  • Scene Headings: Use scene headings (also known as sluglines) in all caps, indicating INT. or EXT., location, and time of day.

What to Do With Your Spec Script

Now that you’ve written your successful spec script, you’ll need to understand the current film market and tailor your script to the conditions of the day.

To write a good script, find out what kinds of movies and TV shows are popular right now. Use this knowledge to help you write a script that is likely to find an audience and be successful at the box office.

Don’t shy away from getting feedback from others in the industry, either. Ask other talented writers, trusted friends, and colleagues to read your script and provide constructive criticism.

Submit Your Script

Once your spec script is finished, it’s time to start researching and preparing for submission to potential buyers. This can be challenging, as I know well!

screenwriter shaking hands with industry professional

Find the Right Places to Submit

The first step in submitting your spec script is identifying production companies or agents that may be interested in producing films or TV shows within the genre of your screenplay. To do this:

  • Research successful movies or television series similar to your original script and note down each production company.
  • Browse industry directories such as IMDbPro, which provides contact information for various film professionals, including producers and executives.

Other places you can try submitting your spec script include:

  • Screenwriting Competitions: Enter these to win awards and network with other screenwriters and filmmakers. Notable ones include the Academy Nicholl Fellowships and Austin Film Festival.
  • Fellowships and Labs: Programs like the Sundance Screenwriters Lab offer guidance and industry contacts.
  • Query Letters: Send brief, engaging letters to managers or production companies about your script.
  • Online Platforms: Websites like The Black List and InkTip let you share your script for industry members to potentially discover.
  • Networking: Attend events and join online forums to build connections in the film industry.
  • Direct Submissions to Companies: Some companies review unsolicited scripts – but always check their submission policies.
  • Agents and Managers: Having a representative can increase your script’s visibility to studios.
  • Film and TV Markets: Events like the American Film Market are opportunities to pitch your script to potential buyers.

Create Your Submission Materials

To make a strong impression when submitting your film and television show specs, ensure that all materials are professionally presented and tailored for each company, competition, or agent. This includes:

  • Cover Letter: Write a concise cover letter introducing yourself as a writer and briefly summarizing your screenplay’s story. However, don’t give away too much detail. Mention any awards or recognition received by previous works, if applicable.
  • Title Page: Include an industry-standard title page featuring the title of your screenplay, author name(s), contact information (email address & phone number), and agent representation details (if applicable).
  • Script Formatting: Ensure your script follows industry-standard formatting, which includes proper font, margins, and pagination. Use screenwriting software to help with this.

Tips for Submitting Your Script

To maximize your chances of success when submitting your spec script, keep these tips in mind:

  • Follow Submission Guidelines: Always adhere to any specific submission guidelines provided by the production firm or studio. This may include file formats (PDF is preferred), how many pages they want to read initially (often a specified number of pages), or whether they accept unsolicited submissions.
  • Pitching Events & Screenwriting Competitions: Participate in pitching events like The Great American PitchFest or submit your screenplay to reputable competitions like the Nicholl Fellowships and the PAGE Screenwriting awards.
  •  Be Patient: It can take time for executives to review submitted scripts. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t hear back immediately! Continue refining your craft, working on new projects, and submitting other works while waiting for responses. 

Final Thoughts

Writing a spec script can open up the door to fantastic filmmaking opportunities – you have the potential to create stories, dialogue, and characters that bring life to an entirely new world.

However, your hard work is only rewarded with submission.

Submitting your work shows you hold yourself accountable for not just inspiring creativity but also having the courage to put it out into the world.

If you work hard and stay focused on developing your skills, you’ll write something great and have the chance to have it seen and enjoyed by others!

Common Questions (FAQs)

Does Netflix buy spec scripts?

Netflix does occasionally buy spec scripts, yes. However, they primarily work with established writers and professionals in the film industry. As an emerging writer, it is more likely that your intellectual property would be picked up by a production company or studio first before being pitched to streaming platforms like Netflix.

Is it worth writing a spec script?

Yes! Writing a spec script is absolutely worth the effort and should be part of your writing portfolio! Having a script (or scripts) ready to go allows you to showcase your unique voice and storytelling abilities. A well-written spec script can open doors in the industry by attracting attention from agents, managers, and executives who may want to collaborate with you on future projects.

Can I use AI to help me write a script?

As technology continues to advance, so do the capabilities of artificial intelligence. One area where AI can assist individuals is in scriptwriting. If you’re looking to streamline your creative process, tools like Jasper
or Sudowrite can be incredibly helpful. These AI-powered scriptwriting programs are designed to help writers generate ideas, structure their scripts, and even help with dialogue.

Spec Script

Interested in writing screenplays? Check out these other helpful articles!

How To Write Flashbacks in Screenplays (With Examples!)

Why You Should Enter a Screenwriting Competition

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