Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bible Bashing

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In TV-land, treatments and outlines are sometimes referred to as ‘series bibles’. This is where you lay out the basic tenets of your proposed new show in a clear and inviting fashion. At this stage of the game, however, they’re not really series bibles. They’re more like proposals/outlines. Proper series bibles go into great length about the world and the characters, and normally take at least a couple of hours to read (series bibles for soaps take an entire weekend to get through). Anyway, the point is, sometimes you may get asked to write a series bible as a pitch for a new show/or you may have the inclination to develop a new series yourself, so this series bible-lite approach is what you’re after.

I’ve always fancied myself as being particularly good at writing these documents. After all, I used to teach ‘how to write series bibles’ for a few years as part of the Leeds MA in Scriptwriting. Like all good pitching and writing documents, series bibles have a reliable (and flexible) structure to express the basic set up and detail of what’s required. So, at first glance, it would seem that writing a series bible isn’t such a difficult task. It’s not. And it is. It’s not difficult to throw down the very basics and have a page count between 5-8 pages in no time (a good length). But it is difficult to get it right. More on that later.

So, what’s the basic structure? Title page, natch, that also states the genre, and maybe a tag line. Strapping down the logline or premise is also useful, but not on the title page, we’re into page one now. Then, what’s the show about? Give us an overview, maybe say a little about the format and slot (6 x 30 sitcom, 8 x 60 drama, primetime ITV/BBC). This may lead into explaining the specific style/tone of the show, and, if it’s particularly relevant, saying something about the setting. You could launch into the episode outlines if you like, or present us with character bios of your main players. Or give an outline of episode one, and episode ideas or examples of the remaining series. It may be important to mention something about structure, it may be not.

At the end, you could give an overview of series two, to show how the series has got legs. Visual realisation (how it’s going to look, feel, basic production values) is sometimes helpful, as is a statement of intent, which is basically a fancy expression for theme. A writer bio of yourself could be useful if no-one’s heard of you. And then, you may want to attach a few sample scenes or even the pilot script itself. Voila, your series bible/proposal is complete.

This structure is good but it’s entirely flexible. Sometimes detailing the visual realisation or theme before you explain who the characters are and what the show is about will be more relevant for one particular show than another. It’s just handy to know the general headings as it helps to bash out the basic details. The main thing you want to avoid is making the document too dry. Sometimes, you can get across important detail and information but it reads too much like an instruction manual. The reader may understand the premise, the show and the characters, but they’re not really connecting with the material because of the lack of emotion, flair or humour.

I’ve been working on four series bibles lately, and I’ve noticed that the most important element to convey is TONE. You really want to riff the style and flavour of the series into the document, and all the description you use. This is extremely difficult. And then, another important consideration: what do you lead with? What’s the best piece of writing and information that should kickstart the whole proposal? It’s a pitching document, after all, so you need to grab your reader’s attention and keep them fixed on what you have to say.

And when does detail become too much detail? On one series bible, I went to 16 pages (not including sample scenes), because I thought the concept and world of the story needed detailed explanation. I felt people would have questions, so I answered them all in the series bible. The result: too much detail, which ultimately generated doubt and confusion, the very thing I was trying to avoid. Their suggestion: could we have a neat two pager, please?

The shifting change of modern media and 21st century storytelling techniques is also having an influence on TV proposals. On another recent bible, I had to include sample webisodes and emails for the interactive element, which the producer then went off and actually made a promotional trailer (haven’t seen it yet). People seem to prefer to read scenes/scripts or watch a trailer/clips rather than sit through dull information about character and setting. Not surprising, really, so getting in a sample scene or two, or attaching a trailer/sample clips, is immensely useful.

This week, I was finding one particular proposal a tough nut to crack. I was having difficulty leading with the right tone and information, and it felt a bit stiff and explanatory. It was fine, but it wasn’t right. And then, a eureka moment. I stuck a sample scene at the start of the bible as an intro to the style and tone of the show, and the main character showed you around the basic set up. Nice! This really helped, and I think I’ve cracked it. I can’t wait to see what the producer thinks (if he hates it, I’ll be gutted).

Today, I’m about to start another proposal, and I face the same questions/problems: I know the structure and headings, but how do I get across the tone and information so that it’s fun, interesting, inviting, dynamic and unmissable? Yes, it may be “easy” to bash out the basics of premise, characters and plot but the specific content and presentation can be endlessly redefined. Getting a 5-8 page document together doesn’t take too long but getting it right takes forever. Or so it feels like.

But y’know, you’re pitching a TV show, something that a producer and a commissioning editor will potentially want to make, so it’s got to be good. It’s got to be great. So, don’t breeze through the headings or slap down the basics. Take your time. Revise, redraft and restructure. Play with the form but don’t get too gimmicky or jokey. Stick with what’s right for the style and tone of the show, and you won’t go too far wrong.


David Bishop said...

Cheers for that - most useful as I'm doing prep for a pilot at the moment.

How's life with the vermillion globe, or are you under an omerta?

Danny Stack said...

Mother is the word until the Screenwriters' Fest, where an official announcement will take place and information will sweep the globe, or at least, this pocket of the interweb.

Piers said...

Making with the pluggy: TV Bibles available on the Internets

Lucy said...

Danny!! Were you aware a rather naughty site has linked to this post?? Perhaps they thought your surname was a pseudonym for...Something. I'm too innocent for all that kinda thing don't you know.

Don't all run and look at once, boys ; )

Danny Stack said...

Weird! Nothing to do with me. Honest, officer.

Fiona said...

Thanks for this. I'm doing a TV writing course now and need to put together a series proposal. In my 'spare' time (ha!) I need to do a treatment for a 90 minute film. I've heard varying lengths for this - would you say that 5 pages is a good length?

I'm on wordpress but never seem to be able to sign into these things!

Danny Stack said...

Hi Fiona - I'd say 5 pages minimum for an outline/treatment. 8-12 seems to be the norm.

Garun said...

Hi Danny and thank you for this article. I have the colossal task before me of doing a series bible from 47 books. A story with over 64 main characters and a timeline that spans from 1500 to modern time. I sit infront of the screen every day and think "oh my god". This article helps and I will try my best. Thank god they only want it last week.....hehe
Greetings from Iceland (sorry about the volcano and Icesave)