I had a conversation recently with a former studio executive turned producer in which I found myself talking about the “spirit of the spec,” essentially when a person chooses to pursue a project or goal entirely on speculation with the hopes of some eventual payoff. Not everybody would make that choice. To many, with the odds so long against success, doing something on spec is not only illogical, it’s also seemingly inane.
And yet almost all screenwriters, TV writers, novelists, short story writers, playwrights, and poets have as some part of their creative self the spirit of the spec.
After my conversation with the producer, it occurred to me this is a subject we should discuss here at GITS because it speaks to the very core of why we’re here and what we’re about as people driven by creative impulses. So today through Friday, I will post something each day exploring what it means for a writer to have the spirit of the spec.
You act on your idea.
Yes, I know this line looks like it’s straight out of an early morning cable TV infomercial, but there is a fundamental truth conveyed in it that every dream-selling hack knows:
In order to make it happen, you have to…
Make. It. Happen.
If all you have is an idea, you are little more than this fellow:
FULL GROUP SHOT A man stands talking, people in groups behind him. Two born like gadgets are attached to his shoulders; he's wearing a bizarre space costume. 3RD MAN Right now it's only a notion, but I think I can get money to make it into a concept... and later turn it into an idea.
You are the equivalent of 3rd Man in the L.A. party scene from Annie Hall, talking about making it happen instead of making it happen.
Fortunately for a writer, there is nothing mysterious about what we need to do to act on an idea: We need to figure out the story, then write it.
As we all know, this process is not easy. We know this not only from our own personal experience, but also from the very way we talk about it.
This is where we crack the story, we break the story, we nail the story, we wrangle the story.
Every single one of those descriptors suggests the same thing: It’s a struggle, a fight, a battle.
So much easier to just talk about your idea, like 3rd Man, rather than act on it. I know this. You know this. But let me lay two thoughts on you.
First if it was easy to craft a story, just imagine how many more people would be trying their hand at screenwriting. Or novels. Short stories. Plays. You think it’s competitive now? If writing was easy, the entertainment business would be utterly overrun by writers, a horde of chattering lemmings with stacks of three-hole punch paper jammed in their teeth, sputtering loglines along the way.
Worse imagine how shitty those scripts would be!
So yes, writing isn’t easy and that is a pain in the ass for those of us who write. But every time we take up an idea and go about the process of nailing the story, we play our small, but necessary role in proving Darwin’s theory: survival of the fittest.
Those with the spirit of the spec take up the fight. Those lacking the spirit, just talk about it.
Second I suggest you take those verbs I noted above — crack, break, nail, wrangle — and use them as scene description (they’re actually good, visual words). Instead in referring to your own process of taking an idea and crafting it into a story, try using this verb:
Find your story.
This way you re-frame the task. It’s no longer a battle, rather it’s a journey. A journey of discovery. And the essence of what you are doing is simply this: getting curious.
Curious about your characters.
Curious about who they are, why they are, what they want, what they need.
Curious about their interrelationships and their respective destinies.
Curious about their goals, particularly those that come into conflict with each other.
Curious about the story universe, the various dynamics and influences at play.
Curious about how this unique mix of individuals and plot elements will evolve into being.
Prepping a story is ultimately about the act of asking questions, each one another step on the path to finding your story.
Now think on this: If there is a path, that presupposes there is an end to the path. So instead of a battle over your story where some random barbarian can spring up out of nowhere and split open your meager confidence with a pole axe, if you are on a journey of discovery, it’s all a matter of taking the time, asking the questions, and walking the steps necessary to get you to that end point, where you do find your story.
And once there, you are ready to type FADE IN. Lights up. That compelling first sentence of your novel or short story.
If someone is truly infused with the spirit of the spec, they are not the 3rd Man at parties, talking about how they are going to take a notion into a concept into an idea.
Rather if you have the spirit of the spec, you act on your idea.
You get curious about it. You ask questions. You learn your way into and through it as part of your journey of discovery.
And miracle of miracles, once you reach the end of that path, you make the most profound discovery of all. That while you were trying to find the story…
The story was — all along — trying to find you.
Part 1: You Get An Idea.
Tomorrow: You Write Your Story.