If you drank a gallon of gasoline and then sat in a hot tub filled with napalm to have a cigarette, your chances of survival would be better than your chances of selling an original series idea to television.
The best way to do it is still to work your way up in the world of episodic television by successfully peddling scripts to other people’s shows, then become a staff writer on a series, then a story editor, an executive story editor, an associate producer, a supervising producer, a co-producer, a producer and finally an executive producer. Why, in five or ten years …
Despite these odds, creating a TV series is not categorically beyond the realm of freelancers. You will, however, most often be working on someone else’s ideas.
The Nature of the Beast
Development is a strange beast in the show-biz jungle and without it, there’d be a lot fewer professional writers making a living. It is, in effect, the R&D division of the industry. For writers it’s a way to pick up some survival bucks while waiting for the next script job; for producers, it’s a way to keep a good writer close when there are no scripts to be written. As a bonus, producers also get ideas–or even complete treatments–for salable projects. Some of the shows I developed were produced, but they weren’t original ideas.
A development deal is a first step in the series process and it invariably involves people who have “Great Ideas” or a “Presold Concept”–and the writing talent of a dead chipmunk.
These folks (who may be established producers, studio executives, toy company reps or just idiots with money) hire a writer to develop their great ideas into a pitch bible. This is the prime tool for presenting a series idea to those who can buy such things.
The pitch bible is a magic act performed by writers for people who know how all Hollywood tricks are done. You must use TV Guide phrases like “groundbreaking” and “provocative” to describe your series. Other industry folk like to call it “sizzle,” as in “Sell me the sizzle, not the steak.” Whatever one calls it, it’s basically bull and everyone involved is aware of it.
Characters Are All
The presentation of the bible’s elements should run something like this: A page or two up front that synopsizes the series, descriptions of your protagonists and antagonists including the relationships between them (if any), a summary of the continuing story (if any) and a series of sample story lines. The number of story lines is variable; I usually shoot for 6-13. If you cannot come up with six story lines fairly easily, you better rethink your series, it’s obviously not inspiring you.
The real meat of the bible is the description of the characters and the setting they appear in. If these are presented with careful regard to commercial appeal and project cost, you have a better-than-average shot to go on to the next phase. This is usually a second bible (expanding on concepts in the pitch bible), a pilot story, a pilot script and–if you’re lucky–a pilot show.
Let’s set aside business considerations and talk about the actual process involved in writing a show bible. In the beginning is the concept: A family copes with modem life, two vice cops work the streets, an interspecies crew pilots a starship lost in an unknown galaxy, a mythical hero has adventures in ancient New Zealand, five young friends cope with modern life, etc. Such one-line descriptions are the foundation on which every television series is built. They tell you, without frills or hype, exactly what you have to work with. So now you get to work.
How hard you must work depends on the nature of the concept. Most mainstream series concepts, whether comedy or drama, involve contemporary characters in contemporary settings. In this base, writers spend no time at all worrying about how their fictional world “works,” and can concentrate on characters. These series are the easiest to create, sell and produce.
On the other hand, if you have something in the fantastic genre such as a Star Trek or Babylon 5, you must build a world in which things do not always happen as they do in New York City or a small town in the Midwest. In this case, your setting (and the time and cost of creating it) becomes almost as important as your characters.
Falling somewhere to the right of that genre is the series with a fantastic element in an otherwise recognizable setting. Most Twilight Zone episodes and comedies like I Dream of Jeannie fall into this realm. In these instances, the writer need not create a whole new world but merely set some sort of rules for the handling of the fantastic element.
Finally we have the period piece like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and Anne of Green Gables. Anything that deals with the past requires careful handling. Writers must pay attention to historical detail and speech patterns, while at the same time giving the characters appeal to contemporary viewers.
If your show bible does require more attention to the setting (or arena as we Horyweird types call it), build it with great care. It’s not enough to create economics, politics, language, morality, technology, transportation, history, culture, recreation, and so on, that merely seem different, they must also work effectively within your story context.
Here’s an example from the original Star Trek series. The creators had a simple problem to solve–how to move the characters from the Enterprise to other locations, They decided to create the “Transporter,” a device that scrambles molecules and transmits them intact to other locations. This idea was nothing new, but applying it to a TV show in which timing is all important was a master stroke.
Its benefit was obvious; it moved characters quickly and seamlessly into the action, a big plus for what was at heart an action show. This solved many story problems, but in the bargain created one as well–if the Enterprise could literally move its people at will, any sense of jeopardy was effectively scotched. The solution was to find a variety of ways in which the transporter could be nullified, such as ion fields, magnetic storms and force shields. Transporter technology even generated stories as writers asked questions like “what if the transporter malfunctioned while one of the crew was being transported?”
Thus a small piece of the Star Trek universe creatively expanded that universe.
Characters to invite In–Every Week
Characters in a television series have a much tougher job than those in a feature film. The characters in a movie have you trapped. You pay to see them, you’re sitting in the dark and they’re ten feet high and glowing. Plus, they only demand your attention for two hours.
Characters on a television show compete with constant interruptions, are a helluva lot smaller than even their youngest viewers, and you can remove them with a click of a button. Moreover, they want you to stay. with them week after week; they want, in essence, to become part of your life. Tall order.
You’re the person who must fill this order. Start with your lead. This is the character you’re counting on to hook viewers. He or she is crucial to a comedy series and invaluable to a “lone wolf” show (a show that concentrates almost exclusively on a single character, such as The Fugitive or Nowhere Man). Even when writing an ensemble show such as E.R, there are characters who are considered leads.
A lead character must have a variety of layers–physical, psychological and, above all, emotional. A lead must be active. And if he or she is a one-note character, the finest troupe of supporting players will not save the series.
The writer must know his or her lead in great depth. Beyond what goes down on the paper, you must always be able to answer the question “What would so-and-so do if . . . ”
Much of that if has to do with the supporting cast. Supporting characters should be as lively and colorful as you can make them, so long as they don’t overshadow the lead. In order to prevent this, always view supporting characters in relationship to the lead. They may be relatives, friends, lovers, allies, rivals, neighbors or colleagues of the lead, but whoever they are, their strength is in illuminating the lead’s position and creating complications in the story. For this purpose, you must also consider their relationship to each other. A good bible will follow each individual character description with a brief summary of the character’s relationships to all the other characters in the show (if any).
Your lead and your supporting characters together constitute the protagonists. Characters directly opposed 3 to them are antagonists. Description of antagonists depends on the type of show you’re doing. In comedies, the antagonists are usually foils for the lead and his supporters, and are part of the support cast (Newman on Seinfeld, for instance). Dramatic antagonists vary. In a police or hospital drama they’re often guest stars involved in the crime or medical dilemma of the week; in a prime-time soap they’re often regulars who fall into the category of folks you love to hate; in a legal drama they are often attorneys opposing the lead (such as D.A. Hamilton Burger, Perry Mason’s eternal foe). Science fiction shows often opt for whole species of villains (such as Star Trek’s Klingons).
If your antagonists are not regulars–or at the very least recurring characters–then the bible need not go into great detail about them. If they are, then they should be described in as much detail as the leads. If such antagonists have a regular crew of henchmen as well, they should be treated just like the lead’s supporting characters.
Now is the time to reiterate what I said about TV characters wanting you to watch them week after week. There is only one way to make this happen: The protagonists must be likable. Let me take a radical example of this from All in the Family, a past groundbreaking show. Archie Bunker, the bigoted, sexist head of the household, is on the surface an unlikable character. Yet the show and the character were monster hits. Why? Archie, for all his faults, was likable. His bigotry and his sexism, though perfectly serious, never became harmful and were always played to be mocked. In addition, he truly loved his family in his gruff way and this was apparent throughout the show. He was, in a nutshell, a man with all the shortcomings of humanity, but with some real measure of the positives. This was why we liked him, even when he said things that made us wince. It is this spectrum of humanity you must strive for in creating characters for a series.
So What Will They Do?
The next step in writing a show bible is story lines. This again is dictated by the type of show.
In a pitch bible, story lines are generally eschewed for a simple summary of the types of stories the show hopes to do. This is generally a better way of working, because things will change in the development process that will affect story lines.
In a full show bible, the writer may still write a small summary of types of stories, but will then follow this up with several story premises, usually about a paragraph each. This sets a tone for other writers to follow, something that’s necessary only for a new show. Once a show has been on for a season, the tone can pretty well be viewed on the air.
If the show has a continuing story the bible should also contain the key points in that continuing story and how they’ll be handled from episode to episode. You might even consider including a time line for the various events that will take place throughout the telling of the story.
Outside of those nuts and bolts there are a few extras you can throw into the bible. The first is artwork: It you’re developing a project through a production company, there will no doubt be graphic artists about who can turn the verbal into the visual to help buyers get a clearer vision of the series. If you’re creating a series on your own, then you’ll have to con an artist friend into helping you out (or hire one).
The second extra is budget and production speculations. It helps to have some idea of what the show might cost and how hard or easy it will be to produce. One of the selling points of Babylon 5 was a production cost of less than $1 million, an incredibly low figure for a science fiction show. Beginners won’t know the ins and outs of budget; it’s something that one picks up through experience. However, common sense tells you whether or not a show is doable, and if you manage to break through to a buyer you better have some sound answers as to whether or not your vision will cost $500,000 an episode or $3 million.
What you must strive to turn out in the end is a good read, a summation of your series that excites readers and indicates the show has legs–that is, good characters and a range of stories. If you are new to the industry, I strongly urge adding a spec script to go with the bible; not a pilot but a “typical episode.” This can give prospective buyers a clearer idea of the series and your ability to write it.
Yes, it’s tough. But if you’re one of those demented souls who nurtures a passion to add one more show to the hungry maw of television, I say go for it. And may you be always in bocca al lupo.