October 26, 2007 Jill

I can’t get the show out of my head. So at the risk of boring you with more on Mad Men, I’ve put together a handy-dandy list to help you with that spec.

1. Beat out between 14 and 19 juicy sequences to lay down two or more thematically related plotlines. Read some interviews with Matthew Weiner to get a sense of the themes that interest him. The guy talks a lot about existentialism, being a man, wanting more out of life. A Mad Man spec has to carry a weighty theme; you want to say something about the nature of being human.

2. Put in about twice as many A-story sequences as B sequences. If you want a C, devote three to four sequences to it.

3. Write a tease that draws you in with drama but doesn’t provide any direct clues as to where the story is headed. This should be a nice long meaty sequence, like Adam killing himself at the beginning of the episode about the Rejuvenator. Or Peggy and Pete having sex in Pete’s Sterling Cooper office to lead off an episode in which Sal getting propositioned and Don gets a bonus.

4. Include plenty of bank shot sequences that speak to theme but don’t necessarily drive the plot forward. These sequences help to set the stakes by showing us the lives of incidental characters. Joan’s reality as a single woman having an affair with a married man sheds light on what’s at stake for Rachel if she sleeps with Don. Harry’s pleading with his wife to let him come home warns Don and Pete of the consequences of choosing work over family. Dr Wayne tells Don that Betty is consumed by petty jealousies just before he catches Roger hitting on her and takes his revenge.

5. Don’t over tell it. Mad Men scripts invite viewers to figure out what’s going on, they respect their intelligence. They also trust that the structure and technique of the script to tell the story. We see Don catch Roger hitting on Betty. We see him give a few dollars to an elevator man. We see Don and Roger slurping down raw oysters and booze. And when they get back to the office, the elevator is out and they have to walk up twenty-three flights. Nowhere is it spelled out that this is a carefully planned act of revenge. Don’t add the pointers, let the reader find the story. In interviews, Weiner talks about wanting the audience to pay attention so make sure your spec demands attention. Don’t spoon feed the audience.

6. Throw in an insider 60s reference or two: Dr Scholl’s, Desi and Lucy’s second divorce, Bob Newhart’s first comedy album. A lot of Mad Men is in the details.

7. Write some witty, educated and intelligent dialogue. A scene with agency men bantering back on forth is the perfect forum. Or give Roger a chance to wax poetic. Rachel is also great for historical and cultural perspective. These characters are smart and educated and not afraid to show it.

8. Include a 60s product in need of a campaign. And allow Don to come up with a pitch that is not only brilliant but sums up the human condition. “Advertising is based on happiness.” “The Carousel lets us travel around and around and back home again.” Of course this also needs to resonate with your over all theme.

9. Hit us on the head with a little racism, sexism or something else that nails the different value systems between now and the 60s. Make us uncomfortable and squirmy. Then in a counterpoint it with something that reminds us how similar we are. Think of Sterling with the twins — what a sexist. Then he keels over — we’re all flesh and blood. Think of Don saying of Rachel, “I’m not going to let a woman speak to me like that” and then promptly falling in love with her.

10. Provide an ending that is totally unexpected for TV and yet reveals the true nature of the character and seems inevitable.

Good luck. Happy writing.

Comments (8)

  1. admin

    I have a little catching up to do on FNL. But when I get there, okay.

  2. Matt

    Would you recommend writing a spec that picks up where Mad Men left the season off or have the spec fit between episodes of the first season?

  3. admin

    I’d write a spec that existed inside the first season for two reasons. First, Matt Weiner has said the second season won’t pick up where the last one ended and I don’t know how far he’s going to fast forward. And second, if I’m spec’ing I don’t want to imagine a whole new series. Better to study what’s there and try to reproduce it.

    But I know people who have gone the other way with successful results.

  4. William

    Just found your site and find it very helpful especially this post.

    Features I know. The TV vernacular I’m not so acquainted with. Can you tell me what the term “bank shot” is?

  5. Stella

    I was raised in the 60’s. I remember specific things during that era which I don’t see referenced on the show, Man Men. Is there a contact person to write to at this show regarding a few atmospheric details of that area; possibly pertinent to future episodes?

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