How To Write a TV Bible
By Jacob Krueger
As we discussed in Part 1 of this podcast, when TV producers ask you to write a TV Bible with your pilot script, they usually request it in a pretty strange form. And a lot of writers get confused about what producers are actually looking for when they ask for a TV Bible and what’s supposed to go in it.
Most TV Bibles include a series logline, character bios for all the main characters, episode summaries for the first season, and often summaries of the future seasons as well. But the truth is, if that’s all you deliver, your TV Bible’s not going to take you very far.
Because producers are never really asking for a bunch of boring information about your TV series. What they’re really asking is proof that you know what you’re doing, and that your series pilot not only has a fabulous premise and collection of castable characters we’d want to spend our time binge watching, but also has the kind of ENGINE required to run for at least 5 years.
They don’t want you to tell them it’s going to run for 5 years. They want you to show them. By putting together your loglines, characters, and episodes into a short sweet document that they can’t say no to!
So what should that document contain? And how exactly do you write it?
Well, you’re going to start off with a killer logline. But how do you know if your logline is actually killer?
On the simplest level, the best loglines start with a character who’s got a very specific dominant trait, and then simply put that character in an ironic situation that would be very difficult for a character with that trait to handle.
This helps anyone who reads your logline see exactly what your series about, how big your character’s journey could potentially be, and that there are enough complications there to sustain a series.
So, for example, if you’re writing a logline for a TV Drama like Breaking Bad, you might say something like this:
Logline: A law abiding chemistry teacher finds out he is dying and teams up with his own worst student, to start a crystal meth business that can provide for his family after his death.
And you can see that that’s a big ol’ ironic situation right there. But it matters because of the character. If you just said “a guy creates a crystal meth empire” you don’t have a logline. The story matters because of the dominant trait of the main character, and the exceedingly difficult and ironic situation his desires lead him to in light of that dominant trait.
If you’ve studied with me in my Write Your Screenplay classes, you’ve probably realized by now that these are the same underlying elements we build upon as we build the structure of our screenplays. What’s it about? Who’s the main character? What’s their dominant trait? What do they want? What’s the best, worst or most ironic thing that could happen to someone with a dominant trait like this.
In a logline, it’s dominant trait plus ironic hook that leads a producer to “get it” right away, to say to themselves “I see how this can generate episodes forever.”
If you’re going to pitch Arrested Development. You might use a logline like this:
Logline: When the patriarch of a wealthy family ends up in prison for illegally building houses in Iraq, his morally upright son must wrangle the rest of his ridiculously self involved family to save the family business and for vie mom and dad’s love.
And you can see from the pitch that there is enough there, a character with a clear want and dominant trait, an ironic situation, and enough complications in his attempts to get it to sustain a series.
You know you’re on the way to a killer logline when anyone who reads it can instantly tell you “what’s it about” in a way that is nice and short and clear and big enough and ironic enough to sustain a whole series.
But there’s another very important thing you need in a killer logline: it needs to feel like the show.
So if your logline says “a romantic comedy,” or “a comedy,” or “a thriller,” if you have to say those words for us to know, your logline is not a logline.
Your logline is a logline when the logline feels like the series without even saying it.
If it’s funny, the logline should make you laugh (or at least crack a smile). If it’s sad it should make you want to cry, if it’s twisted it should feel twisted.
So, what we want to create is a logline that feels like the series, that feels big enough and ironic enough to run for 5 years, and that is tonally doing what the series is doing.
The next thing we need for our TV Bible, is characters.
Now when we’re writing character breakdowns what we’re actually writing is not breakdowns for a casting service. It’s a completely different job.
This is not John Smith is a tall, handsome bald man. This is not about Mary is twenty five years old, pregnant, black hair, green eyes, and can dance the waltz.
This is about the layers of the hot relationships of the story, the interplay that’s going to create the drama or the comedy. Each character breakdown should feel like another layer of the onion, helping us better understand, with each character breakdown that we read, the overall series engine, and the wonderful ironic elements that make it awesome.
A great character breakdown is about these elements: What is her want? What will she do to get it? What happens if she doesn’t get it? And what are the challenging and ironic obstacles she is facing?
So, when we’re building characters, character breakdowns are our sneaky way to say (without ever even saying it) “this is the main character, this is what she wants. This is her mom. This is what she wants. Do you see how that fucks up everything for the main character? And this is dad, and do you see how what dad wants complicates what she wants? And this is the crazy best friend and do you see what the best friend puts pressure on?
So, we’re using the character bios to gentle the reader into telling themselves the story, so before we even get to the part of the TV Bible where we describe the individual episodes, the producer is already saying to themselves “I see how this series works.”
Just like the logline for the whole series, each character description is like a logline unto itself. It’s always about the dominant trait and the ironic complications.
So, in Breaking Bad, a description of Walter White might look like this:
Walter White is a family man, a once great scientist who’s been reduced to teaching in a high school. But when he finds out he is going to die of cancer and has no way of taking care of his family after his death, he hatches a plan to team up with his own worst student and starts selling crystal meth to build his family’s inheritance.
And Jesse’s character description might look like this:
Jesse is Walter White’s student. Walter hated him in class, but Jesse secretly admired Walter, wanted to please Walter when he was a teacher, and still does now. Walter constantly manipulates his power over Jesse to get him to do the things he is not willing to do. Strangely, it’s Jesse who is the moral conscience even though he is a drug addict. Walter’s need to grow the business is constantly at war with Jesse’s desire to get off drugs and clean up his life.
Do you see how we’re already into the story, even though it technically is set up like a character description?
Do you see how I’m showing you “wow there is a lot of dramatic material here.”
Do you see how we’re already generating episodes in the reader’s mind?
Let’s add another layer:
Skylar is the wife that everybody wishes they had, and she and Walter have had a lifetime, if not of blissful happiness, then certainly of contentment. She doesn’t care about money and doesn’t know about any of the nefarious things that Walter is trying to do to save the family. All she wants is to save her husband’s life, and she doesn’t understand why he is refusing treatment, or why he seems to be slipping away from her, even as his days on Earth are expiring.
And another layer
Walt Junior is Walter’s son. To him his father walks on water. Walt Junior doesn’t understand what his dad is really doing, and because of the secrets between Walter and Skylar, Walt Junior is constantly turned against his mother by his father, until he starts to realize who his dad really is.
Hank is Skylar’s brother and Walter’s brother-in-law. He is an FBI agent whose job is stopping the drug cartels. And as he gets sucked deeper into the darkness of cartel violence, he keeps missing the evidence right in front of him that his brother-in-law is actually the key to the crime ring that he is trying to destroy.
Do you see how there is even more conflict now? Even more ironic complications?
I didn’t pitch any individual episodes. I pitched “What’s the want? What happens if he doesn’t get it? And what’s the ironic journey of the character.”
But you can already see the series, right?
By the time they get through the character bios, the producer better be able to pitch themselves a series. If they cannot pitch themselves a series from the character bios alone, then you can rest assured they’re not making it any further. They’re not going to read your episode descriptions. In fact, if they’re not pitching themselves the series from the very first bio, and realizing it’s even better with each bio that follows, there’s a good chance you’ve already lost them by bio number two.
TV Bibles, when they’re put together with “just the facts” are as boring to read as they are to write, and they make producers fall asleep and want to stop reading.
But if you can actually deepen the story and make it better than they expected with each character you add, you will not only suck them into your story, you’ll also know for yourself that each of your characters is actually contributing toward your engine. That you have the raw material you need to build your episodes, and tell the best possible story you can tell.
What comes next is simply your opportunity to prove to the producer that you can execute what you promised in the logline and the character bios.
You’ll start with an overview of Season 1, which is really just a paragraph. By this point your overview should just be a restatement of the things they’ve figured out by reading your characters.
Season 1: Over the first season we watch as Walter White loses his moral center, loses his connection to his wife, his son, his relationships, his health. But in the eyes of his business competition, another side of Walter starts to emerge, a bad-ass alter ego called Heisenberg, who is as powerful as Walter is weak. In this way, Walter starts to find himself even as he loses the moral compass he’s always lived by.
You see how we can see the whole First Season?
Then you’ll want to break down the Season 1 episodes. You maybe have thirteen episodes, you maybe have eight episodes. All you’re doing is proving that you can do what you said in the overview.
There are obviously many hours we could spend breaking down the details of how this works, and if you’re curious about the structure of an episode, and how they’re developed in a writers room, you should definitely check out our TV Drama Classes with Steve Molton or our TV Comedy Classes with Jerry Perzigian. But to get you started, here are a couple of things to think about.
First, the title of each episode.
When you write the summaries of these episodes, make sure your episodes have awesome titles. There’s a good chance you’re not actually going to have written every episode when you sit down to write these summaries. So the important thing is, it better feel like an episode of the series, and a good title can go a long way in delivering that feeling.
If it’s an Arrested Development episode, the title better sound funny, just like a Breaking Bad episode title better sound dark and twisted.
Then, as you develop a short paragraph about each episode, you want to make sure it’s super clear what your character is going for in the series, what the ironic complications are, and how each of those complications grow out of the dominant traits you established when you wrote the character bios. You want to keep on hitting those dominant traits as characters make choices in each episode. And, you want to do it in a way that feels like each episode is cut from the same cloth, even as different things are happening.
When you’ve made your way through all those episodes, you want to look at how the Full Season is functioning as a whole. Is it following the shape you laid out in your logline and summary? Are the characters displaying their dominant traits, and going on the journey you described? Has the irony of the logline fully found its way into the story?
Finally you’re going to have to repeat this process with Seasons 2, 3, 4 and 5 of your series. You’re not going to list every episode (no producer wants to read that many pages). You just want a quick paragraph about each season, or about the overall arc of the show, so the producer can see how this continues.
For example, with Breaking Bad, you might quickly cover Seasons 2-5 like this:
Seasons 2-5: In each season Walter’s business will expand, from tiny crime startup to a multinational concern. His relationship with his wife will become more complicated as he tries to hide his secret at first and then slowly in subsequent seasons begins to reveal who he really is and pull his family into his madness. In each season a bigger villain will appear. As he gets closer to the top we will move from the low end cartel madman to the highest echelons of corporate America, all of the entities that fuel the drug trade. And in this way we’ll see the journey not only of Walter in crime, but of the Capitalist system of America, and where our system leads when followed without conscience.
No matter which choice you make in how you break down the subsequent seasons, you’re going to make it short. By the time they get through the first couple of episodes in season one, they should already be generating future episodes in their minds. By season one, episode five, you want them skimming. And by the time they get to season two, they should barely need to read it at all. They should already get it. And you should use the pages you’ve got to surprise them. To show them it’s even better than they expected.
Along the way of doing this, there’s a good chance you’re going to realize it gets really frickin’ hard. And most likely the reason for that is that there are things you haven’t yet figured out in your pilot, holes in your engine that are keeping your story from running smoothly.
The pros get to figure this stuff out during Season 1. But if you’re going to break in, you’ve got to figure it out now. If you make it through your whole TV Bible without realizing your pilot needs a rewrite, the truth is you probably didn’t push it hard enough. Remember, you’re competing with the best of the best. Don’t leave opportunities on the table. When you show up, you want to show up with something that blows people away.
If you have trouble generating episodes off the top of your head you know your engine isn’t strong enough yet. Practice generating episodes. Make up a title for episode 242. Blow out a random logline. If you can’t do it in 2 minutes, neither can they. It means your engine isn’t clear enough. And it means that even if it were to be produced, it’s going to fall apart in the First Season, just like so many promising shows do.
What happens in the writers’ room is you guys are going to be behind all of the time. Because in the real world these seasons are not perfectly planned. As Jerry will tell you there was never a season where they knew exactly what was going to happen on Married with Children. Or as Steve will tell you about his many series at Showtime, producers and executives often show up at the last minute with new ideas that change everything, and the writers end up making it up at 4 am.
So it’s the engine you fall back on when you need the idea. And if your engine is not clear enough to generate a 2-4 page document that says it all, then it’s not going to be clear enough to help you when you get into the trenches. It also means that your pilot isn’t working yet– because an effective pilot is not just a good story, it’s a blueprint for everything that follows, a pattern so good and so simple that it can sustain five years of storytelling.
To a producer, the primary value of the TV Bible is a selling tool. It’s a way of convincing themselves and the people they report to that the show they want to make is in fact going to work, both creatively and financially.
But you’re not going to sell your series off your TV Bible.
You’ll sell a series with the pilot script. They’ll read the script and hopefully like it. Then they’ll look to the TV Bible, to make sure there’s enough there for them to safely take it to their boss and know that they’re going to have the answers when the hard questions are asked.
As an emerging writer, the TV Bible also has a completely different value. It helps you as a writing tool, to identify the real problems in your script before you expose it to industry eyes. Write a great script and a lousy TV Bible, and you just might survive. But do it the other way around, with a great TV Bible and a lousy script, and you’re going to really wish you’d done another revision.
You only get one read by the kind of person who has the power to say yes. So remember, you’re a writer, not a salesperson. Yes, you need to create a great TV Bible. But make sure you put your real focus on the writing.