TV is hot right now. Red hot. There are more than 500 scripted series now in active production, with even more in development. Between the major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, and the CW), basic-cable networks (AMC, FX, TNT, Bravo, etc.), premium cable services (HBO, Showtime, Starz, etc.), and the major digital streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, CBS All Access), viewers have more quality shows to binge than there are hours in the day. Disney, Apple, Facebook and Instagram are now looking for original programs to broadcast through their own stand-alone streaming services.
No wonder aspiring writers are now looking to write for TV the way they did movies a generation ago.
If your goal is to create and sell a TV series, there are two realities you have to recognize:
1. While studios will buy spec movie scripts, networks and streaming services don’t buy series from unknown writers. Creating a series isn’t just about coming up with a great idea; it’s about being able to execute that idea on a week-to-week basis. That’s why they tend to buy series concepts from established producers, showrunners, and production companies. To sell a series, you need to partner with a producer or company with an established track record.
2. A key part of selling the series is going to be your series bible. This is a combination sales pitch/instruction manual that details all major aspects of your proposed show so that buyers can understand what you’re trying to sell, and that future writers have a blueprint/roadmap from which to work. In short, your bible is the “How To” book for the series you are proposing.
Here are the key elements every series bible needs to contain:
1. The title. You need a title that is catchy, memorable and, if at all possible, captures the essence of the show you’re proposing. If you’re an established producer, or are creating a spin-off, you can get away with titling your show after your main character (e,g., Ed, Joey, Fraizer, Abby’s), but if you’re an unknown writer with an unknown property, it’s best to get to the point (e.g., Survivor, Broad City, Supernatural, Veep.)
2. Statement of your genre. What “kind” of a show is this? A drama? A sit-com? A science-fiction show? A reality show? A documentary? An anthology? Then break it down further by setting. Is it a medical drama? A legal drama? A family drama? A mystery? A police procedural? Is it a romantic sit-com? A workplace sit-com? A family sit-com? If it’s a science-fiction show, does it take place in the present? The future? On earth? On a distant planet? On a starship or space station? The more specific the descriptor you have, the better. Historically, certain genres have been more successful than others. Since the beginning of broadcast TV, these have been police procedurals, medical dramas, detective mysteries, and legal dramas. What do these all have in common? All involve characters who work in the service of others. This makes them instantly sympathetic, regardless of their individual personality quirks. Who cares of a character is an abusive, arrogant asshole as long as he/she can save your life?
3. Statement of your structure. How long is each episode designed to run? Traditionally, you have a choice of either 30 minutes or 60 minutes. Most comedies are 30 minutes. Most dramas are 60 minutes. But there are exceptions.
Is your series a traditional continuing series, that is, it’s intended to run as long as it garners decent ratings, or is it, by intention, a “limited series,” designed to run for only six to 13 episodes, and then call it quits? Is the show episodic, meaning that, while it has regular characters, each episode tells a stand-alone story? (Most police procedurals are episodic.)
Comedies have to be broken down even further. Are you proposing a classic three-camera sit-com filmed in front of a studio audience (e.g. The Big Bang Theory, Mom, etc.), or a more contemporary, heavily edited, single-camera show (e.g., Arrested Development, Young Sheldon, etc.)
If you’re proposing a reality show, is it a competition-style show like American Idol, The Amazing Race, or The Bachelor, or is it a documentary-type reality show like Ice Road Truckers or Keeping Up with the Kardashians?
4. Statement of your show’s setting in terms of both where and when. For example, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a single-camera episodic comedy set primarily in a Brooklyn, New York, police station. Grey’s Anatomy is a serialized medical drama set primarily in a private teaching hospital in Seattle, Washington. AMC’s Mad Men was a serialized period drama originally set in a mid-sized Madison Avenue ad agency in 1960. FOX’s The Orville is an episodic science-fiction comedy-drama set aboard a starship in the 25th century. Settings are extremely important to a series as they tend to not only reflect the show’s genre, but also its style and content. We know that shows set in police stations are going to involve crimes and mysteries. Shows set in hospitals are going to involve life-and-death medical issues. Shows set on starships are going to involve fantastic alien encounters and cosmic phenomenon. Settings are often as much a character as the people themselves. And having an unusual setting can help distinguish your series from its competitors.
5. Statement of your show’s premise. That is, what is your show about? For example, Chris Carter’s 1993 classic The X-Files was about “Two federal agents — one a ‘believer’ the other a ‘skeptic’ — who investigate cases of paranormal phenomenon that may or may not linked to an decades-long government/alien conspiracy.” HBO’s Game of Thrones could be described as being about “A half-dozen powerful families who use cunning, treachery, magic, and military might to vie for control of the fabled ‘Iron Throne’ that will allow them to rule their continent-sized kingdom.” Back in the mid-1960s, producer Gene Roddenberry sold Star Trek to NBC by simply describing it as Wagon Train to the stars.”
If you are an established producer, you may be able to get away with proposing a generic genre series. (Honestly, is the premise of New Amsterdam really all that different from The Resident or The Good Doctor or Grey’s Anatomy?) But as a new writer/creator, you need to bring something new to the table. You need an idea that distinguishes it from the pack. Usually this comes down to one or more of these four elements:
Setting. As stated above, having an unusual setting — including unusual time periods — can help make your series uniquely interesting. Examples of this approach include Silicon Valley (a workplace comedy set in a 21st century tech “incubator”) “MERCY STREET” (a hospital drama set during the Civil War), and Peaky Blinders (a ganger epic set in 1919 Birmingham, England).
A “Wow” Factor. Many series sell based primarily on a core idea that might otherwise be termed “high-concept.” This means that there is a strong twist or fantasy factor that figures into the plotting of every episode. Some 21st century series that contain an obvious “Wow” factor include Big Love (about a fundamentalist Mormon with three wives), Once Upon a Time (about a town inhabited by fairy tale characters), American Gods (about a pantheon of modern “gods” determined to rule the earth) and The Umbrella Academy (about a dysfunctional family of superheroes). Virtually all sci-fi, fantasy, and horror shows are based on some kind of “Wow” factor.
Lead Character. It is very common for a show to be built around a single, particularly compelling lead character. Comedies are often built around established comedians (e.g., Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carry, Tim Allen, Roseanne Barr, Larry David, etc.) who bring with them a known personality. Others, like Kimmy Schmitt (The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt), Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory) and Michael Scott (The Office) must be built from scratch. Examples of unique characters who are synonymous with contemporary dramatic shows include Dr. Shaun Murphy, the autistic savant in The Good Doctor, Elliot Alderson, the brilliant but psychotic hacker in Mr. Robot, Carrie Matheson, the bipolar intelligence agent in Homeland, and Jimmy McGill, the morally challenged attorney in Better Call Saul.
Irony. Many great series are predicated on strong ironic twists. For example, The Shield, one of the shows that helped kick off the era of Peak TV back in 2002, featured, as its protagonist, a crooked cop. The Sopranos was about a brutal mob boss suffering from a crisis of self-confidence and life-long mommy issues. House M.D. was about a brilliant doctor who lived to cure disease but was openly contemptuous of his patients. Breaking Bad was about a mild-manned high school chemistry teacher who evolved into a ruthless drug kingpin. (Or as creator Vince Gilligan famously put it, “It’s Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.) The Americans was about an all-American couple who were actually Soviet spies. Veep is about public servants who are all out for themselves. Since the beginning of broadcast television, many comedy series have been based on irony, forcing together characters who, by their nature, just don’t belong together (e.g., The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan’s Island, The Odd Couple, Two and a Half Men, etc.)
All of the information above needs to be condensed and expressed in a few simple introductory paragraphs. Be as descriptive as possible without being hyperbolic. Avoid comparing your show to other successful (or worse yet, unsuccessful) series, or setting your concept up as being somehow unique or trail-blazing. (The vast majority of shows that get on their air — and succeed — are shows that put a new or interesting twist on established tropes and genres.) Don’t describe why you created this show or why you think/believe/are so sure people will want to watch it. Just give the facts in as entertaining and engaging way as possible.
(For more information on how this done, go to any network/streaming service’s website and see how they describe their own shows. This is the kind of language they’re looking for.)
6. Character breakdowns. Now that you’ve introduced your series, it’s time to list and describe your main characters. List each character by name, approximate age and race (if relevant), and role (professional title, place in the family, etc.), followed by a one- or two-paragraph-long description of the character’s personality, motivations, strengths, weaknesses, and relationships to the other characters. What does each character want? What are the obvious behavioral peccadillos that make this person interesting? (For example, Dr. Shaun Murphy in David Shore’s The Good Doctor is an autistic savant.) If the character is going to change over the course of the series (e.g. Walter White in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad), how will that change be manifested? Avoid lengthy biographical information. All buyers want to know is who this character is now.
Only list your main characters. Try it keep the list down to six or seven. Spend the majority of time describing your lead characters, less so supporting characters.
7. Episode format. Every show has its own style, rhythm and structure. What does a typical episode of your show look like? How does it naturally begin? How does it progress? How does it end? Does it regularly make use of stylistic flourishes like flashbacks, cutaways, voice-overs, or fantasy sequences? If so, what are the rules for their use? If you’ve created a game show or competition-style reality show, what are the rules? How is the game played? How are the players judged, eliminated, and/or rewarded? You need to include all these details not only to sell the series, but to provide a guide to writers and showrunners if and when it goes into production.
8 List of standing sets. Most series, especially three-camera sit-coms, have a set number of standing sets where the majority of the show’s action takes place. List these sets and provided thumbnail descriptions of each if they contain unique or unusual details.
9. Special terminology. If you’re creating a sci-fi or fantasy series, you should list and describe any special terms or technologies that are key to understanding your show. Before Star Trek, there was no general understanding of terms like “transporters,” “warp drive,” “phasers” or “tricorders.” Pitching Game of Thrones required a cursory explanation of terms like “The Seven Kingdoms,” “direwolves,” “White Walkers,” and “warging.”
10. Pilot episode synopsis. Now that you’ve set your stage, it is time to describe your pilot episode. This is generally a short one- or -two-page-long synopsis that details the principal action that occurs in the first, introductory episode. In addition to description, the synopsis can contain key dialogue and exchanges. Don’t bother breaking the synopsis up into “acts,” as the length of placement of these can vary from network to network, and be absent entirely on premium cable platforms.
11. Episode thumbnails. Next, include three or four thumb-length descriptions of subsequent episodes. Write only about a paragraph for each, setting up the principal A- and B-plots and then describing how they’re resolved. The purpose here is to demonstrate that our idea isn’t just a one-shot, but has “legs” that can carry it over the course of one or more seasons.
12. Season finale. If you have designed a serialized show, or even if your episodic series contains serialized elements that carry over from one episode to the next, then you should end with a short description of how your series ending its first season. Will the main conflict be resolved? Or will there be a cliff-hanger that carries over into (hopefully) Season Two?
13. FAQ section. End with a Q & A section in which you raise and then answer what you expect will be the most frequently asked questions about your show. Focus on the concept and the narrative, not technical issues like casting or budgets, things that aren’t in a writer’s purview in any case.
A series bible is a work unto itself. A typical one can run anywhere from 10 to 20 pages. Your goal is to present your idea in such a way that the reader can easily “see” the show in its entirely and understand what if feels like to watch a typical episode. Between this and your pilot script, you’ll have the tools you need to partner with an established producer and, with luck, turn your vision into a reality. – Allen B. Ury
Check out these show bibles from some of television’s most iconic series: