What to Spec – Finding Your Genre Part 2

You can read all about conceiving, writing and selling your spec pilot in my new book, Writing the Pilot, currently available through Amazon.com for the Kindle and Barnesandnoble.com for the Nook, soon in the rest of the known universe…

Last time we talked about writiing a spec pilot in a genre that’s currently working on the networks. The downside of that, of course, is that you’re trying to stand out in a crowded field. It’s easy to get ignored that way.

So let’s look at the next category: Genres that aren’t working, but networks keep trying.

You might ask yourself why networks keep programming shows in genres that fail time after time. Usually the answer is lost in the distant past. Or, more specifically, the answer is Lost in the not so distant past.

What usually happens here is that someone created a show that became a monster hit, but so far nobody’s been able to duplicate it.

If you look at network schedules for the last couple of years, for example, you’ll see a long string of heavily serialized science fiction or fantasy epics: The Event, Life on Mars, Flash Forward, V, Heroes and on and on. What you’ll almost never see is the second season of these shows. (True, Heroes did keep gasping along for years, but that series actually had a successful first year, and NBC had absolutely nothing to replace it with…) But no matter how many of them failed, the networks kept developing them.

The reason they existed in the first place was because Lost was such an enormous international hit.  The reason networks kept trying to duplicate that success after so many failures was because no one really understood what made Lost so huge. Was it the eternally evolving mystery? The big puzzle? The serialized storyline? The promise of a big revelation around every corner? The skillful blending of reality and fantasy? It’s like trying to understand why, for instance, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo became the book everyone across the world suddenly had to read instead of any number of other violent thrillers. Who can know?

So every time one of these series premiered to enormous numbers – and most of them did very well in their opening episodes – and then nosedived, programmers could tell there was still a huge market for this kind of show. They simply hadn’t figured out how to tap it.

So where does that leave you?

In a great position – as long as you’ve got something that looks like it has the right answers. Because executives have already proven that they don’t, and they’re looking for someone who does.

Risks? Plenty. There’s going to be a point where the industry throws up its collective hands and decides that the big hit they’re trying to duplicate is unique and unduplicatable. And when that happens, your script will feel like a relic from a time that no one wants to remember… and believe me, they won’t be interested in the reminder.

A script in a standard genre has to be great if it’s going to get you anywhere. A script in a genre that’s not working has to be better than that. It’s got to excite your readers enough that they’re willing to ignore their awareness that this kind of show always fails. It’s got to be so good it actually makes them brave. If you can pull it off, you’ve got the kind of sample that will open doors all over town, that people will be talking about. But that target is really tiny, and if you miss by the smallest amount, you’ve got pretty much nothing…

Next time we’ll talk about the other two categories.

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