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Spec Writing Roadmap for Girls



By Guy Jackson and Michael Ferris


"GIRLS" is a show composed of ½ hour episodes, created for HBO by Lena Dunham, and produced by Judd Apatow. Through the eyes of the show's heroine, Hannah Horvath, an aspiring essayist and writer, the lives of Hannah and her three closest friends (Marnie, Jessa, Shoshanna) unfold through a filter of confusion over all the girls becoming, or trying to be, what a modern girl can, should, or could be.

Again and again the series returns to a line of dialogue that runs some variation of ‘Become the person you're meant to be'. It's one of the first lines out of the gate at the series' beginning, and it recurs throughout. While the line's very much a surface utterance, the series goes to great lengths and plumbs spectacular depths in discovering the emotional truths of being a girl fresh out of college and on the streets of New York. The series works with very little in terms of plot and theme, to gain very much in terms of depth and emotion.

But unlike other series we could name, there's no Girls Vs. Boys construct at work here. There's no Battle Of The Sexes going on here, where Boys are stupid for leaving the toilet seat up or Girls are stupid for the way they try to change Boys or whatever other surface, Battle Of The Sexes platitudes one wants to utter.

Everyone in "GIRLS" is very much human and their situations are very everyday, and this is the most important thing to realize in writing a spec for the show. The only comedy that arises from the show's situations is human comedy, not obvious comedy purporting a stereotyped idea of Men Are From Mars And Women Are From Venus. The only characterizations that arise from the show are believable ones.

The best example of this is the character of Shoshanna Shapiro (ZOSIA MAMET) whose first appearances in the show are deceivingly surface-oriented, but she gradually becomes a profound tragicomic figure wending to wonderful revelation by the end of the first season. (see CHARACTER BREAKDOWNS below).

So when prospecting a spec for "GIRLS" keep in mind that unlike, say, "SEX AND THE CITY", the show is never ever glib, or reliant on easy reflections of society's surface ideas regarding, well, girls. Or boys. Or anyone.

A quick note: most of the drug and alcohol use in this series happens accidentally or incidentally, and none of the character exhibit much interest in getting loaded. Whereas that's almost expected in a series like this, whereas in something like "THE LEAGUE" you'll always see characters with beers in their hand, there's a refreshing lack of awareness of drugs and alcohol hereabouts. Don't put either in your spec, despite that you're writing for the youth of today.

Also, the series is episodic within each episode, with some criss-crosses between plots, but still very distinct and separate beats, thus making it easier on the structuring of a spec.



The hopelessly, haplessly lost little girl of the show, Hannah's overriding sense is of not knowing what she's doing with herself. She writes, keeps a journal, and graduated with an English degree of some sort, and she has a few crumpled essay pages that are the beginning of her first book. But she's far too busy just trying to live, and get by without knowing her own feelings in any matter. Basically, she's in her early twenties, and fresh out of college, and trying to find her way. As mentioned above, she's trying to find the person she's meant to be.

But as said above, this simplistic description isn't all that simplistic. As said above, the characters are constantly revealing layer after layer. So in the first series we find that Hannah's a bit of a pushover, bowing to the demands of her bizarre, soon-to-be boyfriend Adam (‘sometimes I let him hit me on the side of my body'). When someone makes opium tea at a party, even though she doesn't do well with drugs Hannah murmurs ‘Yeah, I'll have some.'

Hannah is both dumpy and frumpy, carrying on an eternal battle with her 20 extra pounds, her fleshiness. She'll eat a cupcake for breakfast while telling her roommate not to look at her. She'll have a midnight snack. She's always improperly, muckily dressed, and drops her coat on the floor whenever she enters a room.

Hannah will run off at the mouth, often until she talks too much and says something she can't take back. When her diary was read aloud onstage at a music show, this tendency to spill beans was illustrated quite crushingly. But Hannah was also seen at a job interview, for example, where she got jokey and jokey and more jokey with her interviewer, getting along with him in terrific flirtation, until she went too far by joking about what a huge date rapist he was in college, thereby flubbing the interview.

Part of Hannah's failing in giving away too much is her constant leaps to conclusions, evidenced when she accused her ex-boyfriend Eliza of giving her HPV. She fired herself from a great job with a great boss because he was touchy-feely and Hannah wildly tried to seduce him, then shouted that she'd sue him for sexual harassment, and then she quit.

Hannah suffers a myriad of minor breakdowns, fainting when her parents said they were cutting her off financially, bursting into tears after a fight with her long ago boyfriend Eliza, after discovering he'd become gay. She's also always minorly breaking down to her friends, telling of this or that or this failing she has.

The other characters are most often telling Hannah how self-involved she is, and this is true, but her self-involvement isn't selfish, it's just navel-gazing, she just can't figure herself out or figure out what she wants to do with herself. We always know a future, grown-up Hannah will be accomplished and utterly charitable.

Representative Dialogue (to Adam): "I came here to say that I don't think we should see each other anymore. I'm not asking anything. I'm really not asking you for anything. I've never asked you for anything. I don't even want anything, okay? I respect your right to see and do whoever you want. And I don't even want a boyfriend. I just want someone who wants to hang out all the time, who thinks I'm the best person in the world, and wants to have sex with only me. And it makes me feel very stupid to tell you this because it makes me sound like a girl who wants to go to brunch. And I really don't want to go to brunch. And I don't want you to like sit on the couch while I shop or like even meet my friends. I don't even want that, okay? And I don't really see you hearing me and I don't really see you changing so I just summed it up. And I am sorry that I didn't figure it out sooner and you must think I'm stupider than you thought I was already. But consider it a testament to your charms because you may not know this but you are very, very charming and I really care about you. And I don't want to because it feels too shitty for me."


Living an existence of quiet desperation, Marnie forever wears an expression as though uncertainty were burning a hole in her stomach. She's a very pretty girl, but perhaps having evolved based on those looks, and then falling into the safety of a safe relationship with a safe boy (Charlie, whom she breaks up with a few episodes in to the first season) has caused her a distinct lack of self, lack of awareness as to who she's meant to be. Unlike Hannah's writing focus, Jessa's tourism, or even Shoshanna's television fetish, Marnie seems to have little or no pursuits.

Responding to this frustration, Marnie at first took it out on her boyfriend, Charlie, drawing out their relationship for safety's sake until she couldn't stand to be touched by him. Then when Charlie broke up with her, she begged him to take her back until they wound up in bed together, and then she broke up with him, presenting the idea that she had to have that control over their relationship, if nothing else.

Marnie's frustration with Hannah is also a constant, wherein Marnie obviously couldn't stand it when Hannah's relationship with the strange Adam began to succeed, and also finally found a way to get back at Hannah's writing abilities when Hannah's discovered diary was the final nail of the coffin of Charlie and Marnie's relationship. Further, Marnie can't stand being around Jessa, whose carefree, travelogue attitude clashes with Marnie's sense of duty to nothing in particular.

That last bit said, Jessa and Marnie wound up having a great night out together when they were ditched by Hannah, going to a bar and getting picked up by Thomas-John and making out with one another.

In writing for Marnie keep in mind she's going to be forever fed up with those around her, and likely her fed-up-ness will result from something she's not doing. Though she's not doing much of anything. Hannah accused Marnie once of being a social climber, wanting to just be around famous people.

Representative Dialogue: "There's nothing flakier than not showing up to an abortion."


Jessa is the impenetrable brick wall amongst the main characters, disrespectful of all institutions including timeliness. She offers up nothing that allows outside perception. Any attempt by anyone to get past her defenses (which aren't really defenses: she just isn't talking) is met with a cut of her eyes. Her mysteriousness and utter unpredictability came to climax when in the first seasons' finale she suddenly married Thomas-John, a goofy venture capitalist who a few episodes earlier had tried on a ménage-a-trois with Jessa and Marnie, a man whom Jessa at first seemed to hate.

Jessa's a world traveler, au pair-ing her way across Europe, but her tendency to travel is met with especial skepticism by Marnie, who once snarked: "Jessa will just show up in some flowing skirt she got in Greece and sleep with someone's boyfriend."

Jessa spent a large part of the first season au pairing for a yuppie couple, the husband of which fell for her in a blundering, mid-life crisis fashion, the wife of which begged Jessa to come back to the kids even after learning of her husband's pining. Jessa is indeed a great au pair; the only time she got truly emotional in the show was upon losing track of the kids she babysat in the playground (while she was trying to unionize a group of New York nannies), and the only time she lets her guard down is to chat with children.

In keeping with her dedication to children, but in keeping with her system of having no ties, Jessa registered some conflict when she came home from her latest European tour impregnated. She decided on an abortion, which Hannah, Marnie, and Shoshanna showed up at the clinic to support her for, but Jessa never showed, instead going to a bar, getting drunk, having a miscarriage, and making it with a random boy.

Promiscuous, Jessa constantly moves on from her flings and seemingly everyone else, once remarking ‘I never save a number' (meaning in her cell phone). 

Representative Dialogue: "I am not a character from one of your novels, stop staring at me so hard."


As mentioned above, Shoshanna was first seen as a surface person, a depthless, bland girl obsessed with television and not much else. Her first appearance entailed her discussing "SEX AND THE CITY" in considerable detail with Jessa, who'd no clue what the show even was. Shoshanna was someone who could talk a blue streak about nothing at all. When her chatter winds up, it seems some disused remnant of Valley Girl speak, the talk of a dopey jock girl crossed with an empty-headed bubblegum snapper.

But midway into the series she intimately revealed she was a virgin, and once doing so she told as much to all the girls, and from that moment her zippy talk took on an aspect of desperation, of need for humanity, of a well-intentioned desire to simply be close to someone, anyone, or something, anything. A shining example came when Marnie moved out of her shared apartment with Hannah in the series' final episode, and Shoshanna insisted Marnie move in with her: "You're staying. Stay as long as you like. Here, let's find some place to put this."

Shoshanna almost scored with one boy late in the first season, but upon finding out she was a virgin, the boy refused her, and Shoshanna listened wordlessly to this rejection. Then, upon showing up at a party, Shoshanna smoked crack (purportedly thinking it marijuana in a glass pipe) and spent the evening running around the streets of Manhattan's Garment District, being ‘babysat' by Ray.

It was finally the cynical, unlikely figure of Ray Ploshansky who called Shoshanna's bluff, saying to her: "I cannot stop thinking about you since the night we met. You're the strangest person. You're so raw and open. You vibrate on a very strange frequency." The two wound up in bed together.

This utterance of Ray's was prompted by Shoshanna's bitterness at not being in the loop as to Jessa's surprise marriage. As to her feelings on the subject, Shoshanna remarked simply: "Everyone's a dumb whore."

By far one of the most interesting characters of the series, in writing for Shoshanna it's a good idea to weigh in with streams of direct-from-the-id pronouncements aimed at a lonely epicenter. And Shoshanna is strangely unreadable, in her constant seeming puzzlement. She'll get the strangest, distant expression on her face when talking about something that should be emotional and stinging.

Representative Dialogue: "His name is Bryce. Which is, like, hello, a good name."


Hands down the most fascinating, and by turns both the ugliest and sweetest, character in the whole series. It's almost as though Lena Dunham has invented the entire show as a study for an ex-boyfriend, as the Adam character holds such endless fascination. Writers of specs for "GIRLS" are strongly advised to wield this wonderful character because he has infinite depths to plumb and should be a delight to write about.

From the moment he spikes a shoe behind a couch in the first episode, Adam comes to life for the viewer, and at first blush he appeared a weird, even abusive enigma that Hannah went to see because of his willingness to have sex with her, albeit ‘gross sex' as Marnie often pointed out. It was easy to see why Hannah's tales of Adam turned Marnie and everyone else off to him.

The psychosexual relationship between Hannah and Adam, which began with sodomy that Hannah wasn't necessarily up for in the first episode and continued being off-color and off-kilter right up until Adam peed on Hannah in the shower while laughing hysterically, that relationship has somehow been subsumed into one of the most romantic, sweetest relationships in television or movie history.  Maybe this writer is biased toward the show and that's unprofessional, but this writer defies anyone to find a more interesting and profoundly realistic relationship in all of culture. And that's no overstatement.

Because this essay should only be a study aid to help cast reflections on a writer's spec-in-progress, and not as a Cliffs Notes to get out of doing all the necessary research to write a spec, the best recommendation for studying the relationship between Adam and Hannah, and to study the character of Adam, is to watch the entire first season of "GIRLS". Obviously. Because their relationship does beggar description. As you'll soon see when the following attempt at description rings crazy…

Adam seems to be constantly recovering from a deep, dark past; we at least learned that he was such an alcoholic at the age of 17 as to check into a chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. This recovery has made him impulsive, odd, free of any sort of barriers, and a struggling actor who refuses to do any work he thinks is crap. Adam's lack of barriers was visually symbolized (perhaps) by his lack of a shirt; he didn't appear  with a shirt until well into the series, when Hannah realized she liked him and they became a couple. Adam knew, and told Hannah as much, that she was only using him for sex, and so he treated her in kind, and with utmost wickedness, until she told him she could no longer see him. When she went back yet again, after that, and wanted to have sex with him, he turned her down, telling her she'd said they couldn't. And then Adam started masturbating in front of Hannah, until she talked about what a bad boy he was and took $100 from him for a cab and made him come. And THAT was the beginning of their relationship. So you see how it's better seen that retold, but the retelling of it is helpful in the way the writer of a spec must realize they, too, need to write the relationship to defy description.

Adam is indeed a struggling actor, but he doesn't seem to worry about the process like most actors constantly do; once during the course of "GIRLS" a show he's in has been seen, a piece of theater in which Adam talked of being in school and not being able to converse with anyone. But Adam quit said show, then decided to go back to it because Hannah begged him and thought he was wonderful. This was right after Adam peed on Hannah in the shower, then apologized by pasting a bajillion photocopies of the word "SORRY" on a brick wall outside his apartment. (more on this episode below in Plot Skeleton).

Some of this relationship may sound like indie quirk, as well, or strike a viewer as indie quirk, but like everything else in the show Adam and Hannah come off as very much a realistic, artsy couple, struggling to communicate and be the persons they're meant to be.   

Representative Dialogue:

"I'm going to send you home to your parents covered in cum."

"I'm going to do my play so you can watch it."

"I'm going to tie you up and keep you here for 3 days because I'm in that mood."


The proverbial nice guy, Charlie broke off a long term relationship with Marnie a couple episodes into the first season, after discovering Marnie felt he was a soft touch, a wimp, a sort of nothing of a boyfriend, and after discovering as much via Hannah's diary. He ‘performed' the offending diary entry onstage in a spoken song, as he has an up-and-coming band with Ray Ploshansky.

Charlie is a quiet sort, handy with carpentry to the point where he built himself a unique studio apartment with a cubic bed and a bajillion shelves. He was sickeningly sweet with Marnie, but her eventual distaste for him was ambiguous as to fairness. They just sadly weren't mean for one another.


The cynical owner of a very New York-ian, perhaps Greenwich Village coffee shop, Ray brings his acerbic wit and devious point of view to all things, making his stake when he cheerleaded McDonald's in the first episode.

Ray was fleshed out when he was put in charge of babysitting Shoshanna in one episode, just after she'd smoked crack at a warehouse party and was running her mouth and mind at a mile a minute. Ray chased around after Shoshanna, and they shared a tender moment when she first punched him out with a taught self-defense maneuver, then gave him an inner thigh rub on the street.

In the final episode Ray, who'd pretty much done nothing but make acidic remarks on the fringes of everyone's lives, suddenly came on to Shoshanna, and the two wound up in bed together, as detailed above (see Shoshanna).


Hannah's father, who spoils Hannah and does seem a bit flamboyant; Hannah's ex-boyfriend Elijah, who turned out to be gay, once told Hannah in a fit of rage that her father is gay, so that question hangs in the air.


Hannah's mother, a tough, no-nonsense woman who insisted that Hannah strike out on her own.


Hannah's ex-boyfriend who turned out to be gay. He rarely appeared in the series, only once of any consequence (when he had an angry discussion with Hannah over whether he'd given her HPV) but Elijah wound up deciding to move in with Hannah at the end of the season, as she needed a roommate.


In the above example episode, Thomas-John was the venture capitalist who attempted a threesome with Jessa and Marnie. In the first season's final episode's surprise, he married Jessa out of the clear blue, despite Jessa appearing to hate him during the 8th episode. Apparently they met again, hit it off, and were married three days later.

Thomas-John is an incredibly earnest man frustrated by the existence of women, as detailed in a long speech where he basically complained that he couldn't figure out why no one would sleep with him. He also pretends at deejaying, and making mash-ups.


By never being glib, by being much more interested in verisimilitude than in easy gags, the A, B, C plots of a typical "GIRLS" episode arise organically, and without fanfare. A writer of a spec need never worry about hi-conceptualizing or a spectacle of an Inciting Incident, but instead a writer can simply take a page from daily life and find the comedy therein.

So for example, plots in the first season concerned seemingly mundane inanities: what it's like to go back to Michigan and visit your parents after you've been living in New York City for awhile, or how a found diary led to a breakup, or someone's adventure on radical drugs at a party. In this sense of lo-concept, or ‘shows about nothing' as cynics and "SEINFELD" would have it, "GIRLS" is easy to come up with ideas for. Just like life. It's more difficult to endless exploit those boring ideas until great depths of emotion emerge.

Also, in the episodic skeletons of each episode, as mentioned above, the structure of an episode is easy to follow. First an A story, then a B story, then back to an A story, etc.

But all this simplicity and seeming ease is deceptive, again, because a potential spec writer better have a New York-sized wit to capture the perfect exchanges and pinpoint characterizations on show. Consider this exchange, between the harsh cynic Ray, who brooks no shit from anyone and calls things as he sees them, and Hannah, the dumpy, put-upon series' protagonist, a less than one-minute moment where Hannah arrives for her first day of work at Ray's coffee house.

HANNAH: Morning, Ray, I'm really excited—

RAY: Did you bring other clothes with you?


RAY: You'll have to go home and change.

HANNAH: Is there like a dress code that I didn't know about?

RAY: Hannah, you're wearing a white dress. You're essentially begging the world to fuck with you, do you understand that? You're essentially daring a homeless person to wipe their blood on your breasts.

HANNAH: Well, we wear aprons, don't we?

RAY: This isn't a consumptive women's hospital, we don't wear aprons, no. Forget all the BBC you watch at home with your cats and pick out an appropriate outfit. And don't do some shit where you come back wearing gray flannel sweatpants and a Taylor Swift t-shirt to be a dick, okay? I know all the dick moves, don't be a dick. Just a nice cute top.

HANNAH: A cute top?

RAY: A cute top. Stop by American Apparel if you have to. And get a slim leg, jeans with a slim leg.


RAY: I want you back in an hour. Slim leg, okay? Slim leg.

In one minute we get that Hannah needs fashion advice from a coffee house-owning cynic, that Ray controls women, that Ray lays down the law at his coffee house. We get a feel of New York wit and cleverness and depth of knowledge that knows about ‘consumptive women's hospitals'. We get that Hannah and Ray share a cutting cultural language that lets them lord over the likes of not only Taylor Swift and American Apparel, but also the BBC.

It's a very good idea to write a spec for "GIRLS". A writer who can pull it off will hit the jackpot not only with the up-and-coming Lena Dunham, but also the veteran Judd Apatow and the megaforce of HBO. And so when attempting it, do what the writer of this article just did and go on the HBO website and listen to clips and take dictation and type up the dialogue verbatim, until you're accustomed to its cadence and can match its depth and breadth in your spec. Again, the above exchange is only one minute of screen time, and you need to fill 27 minutes with sparkling chit-chat.


Going even barer with the bones, here's how to lay out a beat structure for an episode of "GIRLS": choose your favorite episode, and simply wait for the scene changes. The show is episodic, like "BOARDWALK EMPIRE", and so there's rarely stories occurring simultaneously. Therefore, while crossing over between the stories is perfectly acceptable (as in the episode where three stories revolved around the same warehouse party) the stories are by and large separate.

Here we'll use the 8th episode as an example (entitled "WEIRDOS NEED GIRLFRIENDS TOO"), in which there was only really an A and B story, with a single beat of a C story marking a continuance of one the series' spines, the entropy of Hannah and Marnie being roommates, which begins with them getting on famously as roommates, and by the end of the first season Marnie had moved out. The A story in this episode could be thought of as "The Rise and Rise and Fulfillment Of Adam and Hannah's Relationship" and the B story of this episode could be thought of as "Marnie Adrift In A Confused Funk Over Boys"


  1. 1st beat of A story: Hannah watches home videos of Adam, they grow closer

  2. 1st beat of B story: Marnie looks at pictures of her and ex-boyfriend Charlie, gets pissed off hearing sex between Hannah and Marnie

  3. One beat of C story: Marnie and Hannah's relationship continues getting rocky over Adam, when Adam storms into the apartment in the middle of the girls' conversation


  1. 2nd beat of A story: Hannah and Adam jog, grow closer

  2. 2nd beat of B story: Hannah and Adam talk Charlie with Marnie, thereby contrasting their great relationship with Marnie's fallen-apart one

  3. 3rd beat of A story: Hannah and Adam go to a tech rehearsal of Adam's play, Hannah at last excited to be outside of herself, watching Adam

  4. 3rd beat of B story: Marnie and Jessa commiserate re: Hannah's relationship and how selfish it's made Hannah

  5. 4th beat of A story: Hannah watches Adam's rehearsal, Adam storms out on note of artistic integrity

  6. 5th beat of A story: Adam defends Hannah's honor versus a honking car

  7. 4th beat of B story: Jessa and Marnie bond over shared fed-up-ness, even flirting with each other.

  8. 6th beat of A story: Adam and Hannah in shower, Adam pees on her, Hannah flies into fury over his weirdness

  9. 5th beat of B story: Jessa and Marnie at a bar, get drinks from a mystery man, Marnie intrigued, Jessa not

  10. 7th beat of A story: Adam and Hannah grouch with each other over Adam's play; ‘integrity's all that matters'; Adam gives in, says he'll let the other guy do the play

  11. 6th beat of B story: Jessa and Marnie talk with mystery man Thomas-John, Marnie flirts and Jessa hates

  12. 7th beat of B story: Jessa and Marnie go back to Thomas-John's apartment, Jessa and Marnie wind up kissing, Thomas-John tries and fails to join in, wine gets spilled on his carpet, he flies into rage, the girls leave

  13. 8th beat of A story: Adam apologizes to Hannah for his odd behavior with a piece of artwork, says he'll do the play so she can see him in it

Note that (of course) the A story has more beats than the B story.


As of the first season's end, Hannah has just had a big argument with Adam, who wanted to move in with her out of genuine love and was bummed that she agreed to have Elijah for a new roommate. Jessa just married Thomas-John. Shoshanna just got together with Ray Ploshansky and presumably at long last lost her virginity. Marnie is still adrift, and at Jessa's wedding was looking ready to go home with the obese Master Of Ceremonies, a joking buffoon who couldn't stop telling Marnie how pretty she was. Prediction being that Marnie will embark on a series of odd relationships, seeing as how she was also up for getting together with Thomas-John.


New York. More often than not the show dwells in the cheap, cubbyhole apartments of the protagonists, otherwise most often paying visits to Ray's coffee shop. Modern New York is rarely seen in "GIRLS", everything in the show seems out of time and dated and old, the entire show seems lit like a library, with a lot of wood and mustiness and brick and fashions that are more thrift store and less cutting edge. It's a show uninterested in modernity, and being cutting edge, and when Thomas-Jane's expensive skyscraper apartment put in an appearance, it was rather jarring. But even then, the apartment seemed made of the wealth of the 50s.

This, then, is the New York of Woody Allen, not of "SEX AND THE CITY", and comparisons to that show are unfair in terms of "GIRLS". Like its setting, like the musty, fusty, tweedy, bookish, industrial, brick and mortar and wood and cement New York, "GIRLS" is more concerned with life than with bling or flash. Like its lead character, the series' world has no real fashion sense, no real sense of the outside world, and trundles along, dimly lit, like an absent-minded professor, just talking casually and in low concepts about life.