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02/19/2001
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"Unlocking The Television Conundrum - Your TV SPEC Perfection Guide." Part Two.

Paul Buscemi's Column for Monday February 19th, 2001. Buscemiarts@hotmail.com

On the surface, writing a TV spec script doesn't seem like a very formidable task. After all, the characters are already created and the length of your script is half or even a quarter the length of a screenplay. Piece of cake. I'll knock one out over the weekend. Oh, if it were only that simple. The reality is that understanding the complexities of the TV spec sample can be like solving a conundrum. Webster's definition of conundrum is: "1. A riddle whose answer involves a pun. 2. Anything that puzzles." Before we go any further, let me tell you, I'm not able to provide a pun at this time. Sure it would be great to use ?conundrum' in a sentence with a pun. I'm just low on puns right now. Really sorry about that.

Where were we?

Ah, yes! Last week we talked about, cracking the code. Finding the password. Saying those magic words (in our script) that would unlock the great TV doors, open the secret world and roll out the red carpet to television spec paradise. Well, like developing a pun to go with conundrum, it's not that simple. I know of no single magic formula that grants TV script success. That's the bad news. The good news is, there are a lot of little formulas that, when combined, will demonstrate your ability to meet the challenges of writing for series television.

Now I already knew a thing or two about TV writing. But I wanted deeper insight. Information from the front lines. To obtain this, I enlisted the gracious help of Josh Berman, Co-Producer and writer for CSI: Crime Scene Investigations. CSI, which premiered this season, is already a ratings powerhouse. The show was recently moved to Thursday nights and has consistently been in the top ten Nielson ratings for the week. We're talking hits-ville baby! And deservedly so, the show is a fast paced mystery filled hour where the viewer rides with the forensic experts solving crimes one clue at a time.

Berman's background is not limited to his writing and producing. He has also worked as a Creative Executive at NBC for a number of years and has been writing his whole life, in one form or another. He attended the creative writing program at Princeton where he earned his undergraduate degree. Berman also worked for the Business magazine, Business Today as a writer and editor while still in college. I wanted to know first, how he got started?

"My first break was a movie of the week that I wrote on spec in 1992. I didn't even have an agent at that time. A family friend (who was a lawyer) gave the (the script) to a creative executive at Dick Clark. The executive liked it and optioned it from me."

Did you see that one word?

?Spec.'

His first break came with a spec script. Had spec. Got Break. You got to have the spec, to get the break. Actually Berman recommends you have more than one TV sample when looking for that work. "Don't show anyone one sample, unless you have two samples. No one is going to hire you in this day and age without two samples and you get caught with your pants down if you don't have a second script."

So let me reiterate.
Have specs. Get breaks!
Any questions?

Well okay, I still have some questions too. In fact with the help of Josh Berman, I've put together a short list of do's and don'ts for the TV Spec writer. Here we go:

1. Be True To The Show.

"The most important thing for your spec is to be true to the show." Berman states. "For example: if you're writing a spec for say, the X-Files, it shouldn't be focused on the guest character, it should focus on Mulder and Scully. Common mistakes (occur) when people try to break form and make their scripts stand out. What generally happens, is it could be great writing but it can still stand out in a bad way to the Executive Producers who want to know you can duplicate their form."

2. Mind Your Five Elements.

If you want to write an "A" spec, make your; Story, Structure, Tone, Pacing and Characters as perfect as you are able to do. Berman offers this example: "From the basics it's just structure. If you're writing a half hour sitcom spec, you need a terrific teaser - which gets you motivated, a strong first act with a great act-out and another (solid) act followed by a tag. It should be a story (we haven't) seen before - which is hard. You should have an A story and a B story, if the series has them. Characters should sound authentic. Pacing should be quick. They're shouldn't be any scenes that are extraneous. In dramas every scene should not only add to the story, but tell us a little bit about our series regulars."

3. Know The Show.

I mean really know the show. Watch episodes. Tape episodes. Watch them again and again. Try this. Tape an episode and watch it several times, each time focusing on just one of the series regulars. Focus on the way they speak, the way they walk, the way they think. Fast forward the tape over everybody else. Only watch the scenes of the one character you are studying. Try it. I dare you. Berman offered this advice: On CSI, "Grissom, our main character, speaks in certain ways, and Catherine, another main character, speaks in other ways." This is the kind of subtleties that become apparent when you examine a show - one character at a time.

Now that we can all master our TV specs (and some of us may need to start a second one as well) what will our life be like after we sell them? When we are working as staff writers on our shows. (Think big, people!) Well you may be surprised. It certainly isn't sitting in a posh office, in front of a computer and gently massaging the keys until prose slides out of your printer like that yellow-butter like grease the kid at the movie theater slops onto the popcorn. Find out what it's really like when we talk to Josh Berman again next week in Part Three of our Spec Script Trilogy: "Spec Trek III: The Wrath Of Creativity."

WEEK SIX STEPS: Now that we've heard from a pro and know what our TV Spec needs, go watch your show again. And again. Then, start that rewrite.

c.2001pdb

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