writing a spec: script breakdown

whenever i write a new spec, i do a lot of research on the show. i watch every episode in order and take notes while doing so. then i get my hands on actual scripts from the show, and proceed to break them down to figure out the show’s structure.

i list all of the sluglines, what happens in each scene, how long the scenes are, and which characters are in each scene. then i color code the scenes so i know which are the A story, B story, runner, etc.

this is a screenshot of the crazy excel file i created before i wrote my 30 rock spec that got me into the nick fellowship.

this is just from one episode. i did it 2 more times, so that i had 3 scripts broken down in the same way. i recommend you do the same thing. why go through all this trouble? because now you can figure out things like:

  • how many scenes are in each act
  • if the show will have the act break on a B story
  • the page length of each act
  • the ratio of A story scenes compared to B story scenes
  • how many flashbacks are in a typical episode
  • how often certain characters appear and interact with each other
  • how often they use certain locations
  • if the cold open sets up the A story, or is an unrelated joke
and so on. then when you write your spec, you can make sure it fits within the boundaries of existing episodes. it’s very time consuming, and it can be hard to get your hands on the actual scripts (especially if you’re not in LA), but i think it’s critical to go through this process to really understand the structure of the show.

p.s. – don’t ask me to send you my spreadsheet. there are no shortcuts. you have to go through the process yourself.

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  1. Great insight as always – Did you have time to do this with the second script you had to submit to the fellowship? If I remember correctly, you were working on a short deadline. (I think it was a Community spec)

  2. Interesting. I have used excel but never for notes on my specs.
    Sounds cool and it must have worked if got you into the fellowship.

    I have to be organic with my notes, beat sheet, and outlines (I write them with paper and pen) And the spec is done on my laptop with final draft.

    But that’s interesting good post kiyong.

    1. That’s why magicians don’t reveal their “secrets”

      the audience is less impressed with the trick when they know how it works.

      So spoiler alert, writing is labor. A labor of love for the pros.

    2. I suppose you just dive right in without a gameplan, huh? Amateur. That excel breakdown is aspiring tv writer porn! If you don’t get a boner from that, that tells me you don’t know how to write, let alone write a killer script. Ya gotta (index) card first. Don’t be afraid of what you don’t understand. Your insecurity makes YOU look uncool.

      1. Wow. You’re an ass. Where’s your script website? Thanks Kiyong. I like the clarity of structure.you’ve suggested with excel and am going to do the same.

  3. I agree. Writing is a TON of work. What you see on the page is just the tip of the iceberg. A lot goes on behind the scenes to get it there. Kudos to you for having a method that works for you.

  4. Hi Kiyong, thanks for the fascinating tip. In this post, you mention that it’s easier to get scripts if you’re in LA. Could you please tell me some of the ways you get hold of them here?

    1. hey jessica. the research i do before writing is me just doing what ellen sandler suggests in her book, and isn’t anything i came up with. in LA, you can read scripts for free at the writers guild foundation library which is a wonderful resource. i don’t know what city you live in, but you may have to buy them if you can’t find scripts online. you might want to check forums and message boards to see if people have scripts to certain shows. it might take some googling to get that info but i think having actual produced scripts to read is critical to writing a good spec.

  5. Hi Kiyong,

    This post is great, as are all of your posts.

    Currently, I’m doing the same thing, (breaking down the structure of the series I want to spec, The Mindy Project) but am having some trouble.

    I read the pilot script, which is available online, and it has three acts. However, when I watch the show on Hulu, it has four commercial breaks. I’m a little confused by this.

    It has the following:

    Opening credits
    Act 1
    commercial break
    Act 2
    commercial break
    Act 3
    commercial break
    Act 4

    The fourth act isn’t a tag, either, so I’m super duper confused.

    Do you know if Hulu has more commercial breaks than if I were to watch the show live on TV? Or is it possible The Mindy Project has four acts? This seems weird to me.

    The only reason I’m stressing about it so much is because I’m applying to the writing fellowships and I want my specs to be terrific.

    Any help or advice would be much appreciated.


  6. Hi Kiyong! Thanks for all your blog posts–they’re really helpful. I’m wondering if you have any advice for getting your hands on actual scripts, especially for people who aren’t in LA? I can’t seem to find a single real script from the show I want to spec online, and I really want to do a breakdown exercise similar to yours, as well as learn if there are any conventions the writers have that are specific to this show. Thank you!

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