The TV Bible.
Even typing the words is daunting. Saying them aloud is downright terrifying. But TV bibles shouldn’t induce the fear or anxiety they usually do. In fact, putting together a TV bible can actually be quite fun.
Developing a bible for your TV series is essentially just developing the series itself, albeit in a structured, print-it-out-and-make-extra-copies-before-the-meeting kind of way.
Follow these 10 steps and you’ll have everything that needs to be included in your TV bible.
Once you have your Bible, make sure you’re prepared for success with this free eBook!
1. PRACTICE YOUR PITCH
TV bibles are made during the process of creating an original show. They help writers and producers get everything about the show laid out in a structure that can (and sometimes does) serve as a reference tool. But bibles also typically accompany pilot scripts when producers attempt to sell shows, meaning that your bible is basically a pitch deck.
In order to create your show bible, you have to start with the basics. This is the “questionnaire” part of your show’s DNA, and it’s vitally important because producers are going to want to know this information right off the bat.
Make sure that you know the following things about your show:
- Genre (i.e. Comedy or Drama)
- Run-Time (typically half- or hour-long)
- Format / Platform (i.e. Is this more of a network show or a cable show? Will there or won’t there be commercial breaks?)
Conveying your show’s basic information in the bible doesn’t need to take the form of a bullet-point list — in fact, I recommend that it doesn’t — but given that the basics are exactly what you’ll need to sell your show to executives and audiences alike, you better know it like the back of your hand.
2. ESTABLISH TONE, STYLE & VOICE
Every television show has its own unique tone and style. No two shows are the same, although they can be similar. Parks and Rec is very much like both The Office and The Good Place, but each show is distinctly different. And, like every show, every writer (or showrunner) has his or her own unique voice.
These qualities appear in the finished product — the series itself — but are also ingrained in every part of the process that it takes to create the show. That includes the bible.
Is your show darkly cynical like You’re The Worst? Is it full of color and fast-talkers like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, or is it grungy and dark like Ozark? Maybe it’s emotional like This Is Us, or toes the line between laugh-out-loud funny and cringingly tragic like Barry. Maybe it’s an epic fantasy adventure set in a medieval world like Game of Thrones.
As a writer and creator, you should have a good idea of what tone and style you want your show to have, as well as what makes your voice unique. When you’re putting together your series bible, make sure that the tone, style, and voice of your show are expressed in some way.
Check out 21 Series Bibles Every TV Screenwriter Should Read to see creative ways these writer/creators evoked the unique tone, style, and voice of their shows in their respective bibles.
3. PAINT THE BIG PICTURE
“What’s it about?”
That’s the question you’re going to be faced with answering over and over and over again when pitching your show. What people really want to know is: “What’s the story?” They’re asking for the big picture. The elevator pitch. The broad strokes. An overview.
This part of developing your show, and your bible, is all about succinctness. Can you explain what your show is about — what the basic story is — in as few words as possible? (Ideally, less than one page.)
It’s tough. In an overview you need to explain the plot, introduce the characters, convey theme, establish locations, and tease future stories. Developing that information is like the old iceberg analogy — there’s a lot more under the surface than appears above water. You need to brainstorm, free-write, sketch, doodle, google, list — whatever method suits you best — and then write it all up in a way that’s easy and engaging to read.
The key to writing this overview is to only include the most essential information. Keep in mind that what’s important to you (as the creator, architect, writer extraordinaire) is not necessarily important enough to include in an overview of your series. Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean your super-important-can’t-exclude detail won’t be in the series at all — it just means it isn’t in your TV bible overview.
4. PLOT OUT SEASON ONE
Now that you’ve dealt with the big, broad picture, it’s time to get granular and dig into the details. What happens in season one? More importantly, what happens in the very first episode? How does it all begin?
You’ve probably got a good idea in your head how the first season — or at least the first few episodes — of your show will play out. That’s great! But now you have to get it all on paper.
TV bibles must must must include some kind of story breakdown for season one. My recommendation is to brainstorm and play around with plot elements and story devices until you have a better idea of what happens in your first season. Then take a good hard look at your show as a whole and decide what the best way to convey your story is. If your series is very character-based, maybe break down story by each character’s individual arc. If your series has a killer first eight episodes, maybe breakdown by episode. Whatever feels best for your individual show is what you should do!
5. WRITE THE PILOT
The TV industry is all about pilots, and the TV bible and pilot script go hand-in-hand. One document is a road-map for the series; the other is the gas tank that starts the engine.
So once you’ve figured out the big picture and plotted season one (or maybe before you’ve done that — the order is up to you), get started on writing that pilot. If you don’t include a pilot script in or with your TV bible, make sure you at least have a detailed treatment of the first episode. It’s important to show executives and producers that your show works well on the page, as well as in the conceptual realm of the bible.
6. INTRODUCE THE CHARACTERS
Characters are the life-blood of TV shows. You better have ‘em, you better know ‘em, and they better be really well developed.
For your TV bible, as well as for the development of your TV show as a whole, you should know the basic characteristics, backstory, current situation, and any defining qualities or important details. You’ll also want to include the character’s arc over the course of the first season (at least).
Before anything goes in your bible, you need to flesh those characters out so they’re more than just caricatures — they need to be living, breathing, incredible people we want to spend time with for hours on end until Netflix asks if we’re still watching.
Answer personality questionnaires, free-write their personal history, imagine what their social media feeds would look like, make lists of their values, opinions, and beliefs — whatever you need to do to know your characters inside and out is fine.
Again, characters are icebergs. You’ll know 99 percent more information about them than what you will include in your bible, but your show will ultimately be better for it!
7. GO ON LOCATION
Where does your show take place?
Like most, you probably gave a one-city answer like “Los Angeles” or “Seattle.” That’s the big picture answer, and that’s fine — you should definitely have that answer in your back pocket, as well as an answer to the question of when your show takes place.
But, in a different, more realistic sense, you should also know the granular answer. This means thinking about where your show will be filmed.
Is it going to be completely on soundstages and studio backlots? In front of a live audience like One Day At A Time? Are you filming entirely on location? Or maybe half and half, like Shameless? How much green- or blue-screen are you going to need for CGI dragons and monsters?
Try to sketch some of these details out. Have a good idea of the primary and rotating sets you’ll need and which locations you might want to use. Including a list or two will show that you’ve given thought to a crucial aspect of production, and will help producers get your material in the right hands (if you have a lot of green screen and CGI dragons, they’re probably not heading to the big five networks, that’s for sure).
8. DEVELOP THE THEMES
Theme = universality. It’s the reason people really want to watch your show — the deeper meaning behind it all. It’s what they can relate to, what gets them hooked, and what keeps them coming back for more. Every show has a theme, and most have many.
The thing about theme is that you shouldn’t overthink it. There’s no need to go all English major serious and write about the theme of Love or Nature Versus Nurture in a way that no one can understand. All you have to do is dig into the heart of your show and find out what’s there — then explain that somewhere in your bible.
Theme is also tricky because it can be expressed (and thought of) in many different ways. “Friends are the family you choose,” “rooting for the underdog,” and even the traditional English-class “good versus evil” are all totally acceptable themes. No matter the form, what you need to know is: how theme appears in your show, how it affects your characters, and what you’re ultimately trying to say about your thematic topic as the creator of the story.
9. SKETCH OUT EPISODE IDEAS
Once you know what happens in your show — ideally after you’ve written the pilot script — you’ll be revving to go with new episode ideas.
The trick here is to not get too far ahead of yourself. You don’t want to be so concrete in your ideas for future episodes — if your show is bought, picked up, and ordered to series, there will be a whole writer’s room of staff members eager to jump in and figure out what happens next.
For the TV bible, include a bullet-point list or short descriptions (and I mean short!) of some episodes you envision. When sketching your ideas out, try to stick with sticky situations or interesting moral dilemmas you can see the characters in. Maybe include an example or two of a standalone or holiday episode, but don’t go overboard.
10. TEASE FUTURE SEASONS
Every interested executive will want to know if your series has “legs,” which is just a fancy way of saying that they want to know if your concept can churn out 100 or more episodes and possibly be part of a Netflix/Hulu/ Amazon bidding war for streaming rights in 10 years. They want to know if it will last.
Now, if you’re the creator of the next “Lost,” you might not know where your show is going at all. In some cases, it’s okay to leave future seasons out of the bible entirely.
But if you do have even the tiniest little slice of an idea of where things are going, go ahead and lead the way.
Once you’ve gone through these 10 development steps, you should be ready to put together your TV bible. As seen in the examples in 21 Series Bibles Every TV Screenwriter Should Read there’s no one way to structure or format your bible.
The best thing to do is whatever feels best for your particular show. If the characters are most important, put them front and center. If you feel really strongly about your pilot script, include it up top. If you have a unique quote or thematic statement of some kind that will set the tone for your show, start with that. For those who are really unsure, it’s usually a good idea to go from big to small — start with an overview, then go into your season one breakdown, character descriptions, locations, episode ideas, and so on and so forth.
Finally, always remember that putting together your bible should be just as fun and exciting as creating any other part of your show. It’s an extension of your series. If you’re excited by it, that will show on the page.
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.