TV Writer Must-Have: The TV Bible

A few weeks ago, I sat down with a television writer who was making the shift from features, where he had been quite successful, to television, which is where his agent recommended he develop next. The writer sent me his thriller/sci-fi pilot, which was well written and intriguing, but left one too many questions open in my mind to be able to truly win over the support of his high-powered representation. So when the writer and I got together in a Culver City cafe to discuss the pilot at hand, I had to ask: How would the show that he had proposed progress into a season and, ultimately, into a series? To my great surprise, the writer was quite perplexed. “What do you mean?” he said, “Isn’t that up to the network?”

While a network may want to adjust a show’s direction once its been picked up, in its inception it’s ultimately in the writer’s hands to create and communicate the direction of the show he is trying to create. For an example, look no further than “Breaking Bad,” which was sold from the very beginning as a show that would take Walter White, its lead character, “From Mr. Chips to Scarface.” Vince Gilligan, previously an “X-Files” staff writer, had figured out the entire show’s arc before he first pitched it, and that is what ultimately got the show on the air.

While the pilot is the lynchpin of a show, it is the first episode in a much longer episodic story that will span (with any luck) many episodes and seasons. In order to make a compelling case for your show, you have to have a clear understanding of where it is going to go, which means not only having clarity about the pilot, its themes and the story engine contained within, but also about the season and the series arc that the pilot episode will drive us into.

Enter the all-important season bible. It continues to surprise me when writers are taken aback upon finding out that this is something that they are expected to develop and deliver. Every one of my  television writers – seasoned or emerging – who had agents and managers take their original pilots out into the marketplace requested, before the work was exposed in the space, to see and scrutinize a bible. The two – a pilot and a show bible – go hand in hand. Together, they allow you to communicate not only the episode that will kick the show into gear, but also your vision for the season that will follow it.

Before you expose your work, ask yourself this: What sort of show is my show? If it’s a 1/2 hour comedy, is it a single-camera show, like “Girls,” or a multi cam show, like “Big Bang Theory”? And if it’s a 1-hour, is it a 1-hour procedural (i.e. “case of the week show”) like “Elementary,” “The Black List” or “House,”  a 1-hour season procedural like “The Killing,” “24” or “The Following,” or a 1-hour serialized drama like “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones” or “Masters of Sex”? Not only is this information important for how you present your material, it’s integral for the construction of your bible, which would break down 10 to 13 episodes of the first season of your show.

On occasion, writers will share with me that a show can be this OR that. It can be a procedural OR it can be a serialized drama. And I certainly understand this thinking: The more things it can be, the more places it can go. But, despite its apparent logic, this sort of thinking doesn’t ultimately serve the work. The more specific your show is, the better a network executive or a rep can understand where it fits. The better they understand where it fits, the greater their clarity will be about what to do with it. It’s those pilots that try to do one thing too many that end up becoming an anomaly, unable to find a home or a champion to get behind them.

Additionally, one must have a firm grasp of which network, cable or other distribution channel (like Netflix) would be appropriate for their show. This can often be identified by having a clear understanding of what shows your pilot is similar to in tone, subject matter and/or format. For example, you’re not going to see a mutlicam sitcom on HBO. Understanding where your show fits would not only inform its cable or network destination, but also your brand, and the space in which your growing fan base of industry executives would exist.

Consider the emotional core and character arc within your show. This has directly to do with your protagonist, and their evolution throughout the show, be it in one season or throughout its entire course. It’s been said that the internal story of a character in film and television is the progression from living in fear to living courageously, which most specifically can be found in serialized drama. This can be observed over a season (which we often see from Olivia Pope progressing or regressing in a single season) or over a number of seasons, as we saw from Walter While in “Breaking Bad”, where he spent much of the seasons justifying his actions, only to courageously admit in the final episode that he didn’t do it because of cancer or for his family, but rather: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really… I was alive.” The emotional core and the internal journey is what we as an audience are going to connect to.  No matter how cool the world, how edgy the tone, if we don’t have a character to connect with, the show and its trajectory are going to falter. Think about characters like Jax Teller in “Sons of Anarchy” or Dr. William Masters in “Masters of Sex”, and you will see what I’m talking about.

Much goes into an original pilot becoming a show. As we are in the midst of the Golden Age of television, this is one nut that many writers are trying to crack. Therefore, writers serious about making it within this format, whether as a show runner, show creator or a writer who is staffed would be well served by developing a strong understanding and discipline for the work, and the long-term vision and knowledge that would allow them to not only define their original pilots and their brand, but also effectively pave their road to success.