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Does Your Show Need A Bible?
By Jacob Krueger
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What the heck is a TV Series Bible anyway? How do you write one? And why do you need one?
The truth is, the idea of a Show Bible, as many people talk about it today, is total fiction.But like many fictional ideas, it’s become a reality that we now need to deal with as TV writers.
If you ask Jerry Perzigian, who teaches our TV Comedy Classes, he’ll tell you that in his entire thirty-some year career as a show runner on The Jeffersons, The Golden Girls, Married With Children, and about a dozen other hit shows, he never once made a bible.
Wondering if it’s different in TV Drama? Ask former Showtime Executive and Pulitzer Prize nominated writer Steve Molton, who teaches our TV Drama classes, and he’ll tell you the same thing.
In fact, on these shows the bible’s weren’t made by the writers at all. The show bibles were made by the assistants. And only after the show was up and running for a good long time, when the old staff writers were moving on, and the new staff writers started coming in to replace them.
Since new writers joining the writers room likely wouldn’t have had a chance to see every episode, and even if they had, they certainly wouldn’t know them in the same detail as the original staff who wrote them,the assistants would compile old episodes into a document which could be given to new writers on the staff. It was a quick way to acquaint them with what had already been done, what will never be done, the kinds of things that generally happen in an episode, and the rules of the show that make the show’s engine run.They called this document The Show Bible.
What ended up happening was, people who weren’t in the industry or had never worked in television (the people who all too often end up teach TV and screenwriting classes) started to hear about this thing called a bible, and realized there was money to be made teaching people how to write bibles. So a whole new field of TV Writing teaching bubbled up about creating your Show Bible.
At the time this started, it was especially ridiculous,because at that time you couldn’t even sell a pilot unless you were already showrunner. You could really get someone to read a spec episode for an existing TV show, and hope that it got you staffed on this show. But you could never get anyone to read a pilot from a new writer in those days.
So, this was craziness. But in an interesting example of the tail wagging the dog, what happened next was that festivals started popping up for TV Writing. And hearing about this thing called a bible that everyone was talking about, a lot of them started to require writers to submit a bible along with their show.
To me this is a fascinating example of having festivals who are run by people not in the industry, who are getting their information from teachers who are not in the industry. And somehow that all coming together to change the actual industry!
Because it’s gotten to a point where now a big change is happening in the industry. And,this is actually a very exciting change, as far as I’m concerned. Today, producers, agents and managers are asking for pilots. They’re excited to sell pilots, because we’re having a renaissance in TV Writing right now, and there are a lot of new markets with Amazon, and Netflix, and other internet based networks with a huge demand for content in television.
Suddenly, we’re finding ourselves in a market where we’re not only seeing great writing is happening in Television, but also a market in which you can sell a pilot, or get staffed on a show based on a pilot, even if you don’t have showrunning experience.
Agents, managers and producers who used to insist on spec episodes for existing shows, are starting to ask for these original pilots instead. And along with them, they’re actually asking for Show Bibles.
So, it’s an interesting situation in which something that completely fictional turned into something that was real. Where the teachers and the festivals, many of whom didn’t even know what they were talking about, actually changed the industry.
When it comes to creating a bible for your original pilot,it’s important to remember that bibles are bullshit. That in the real world of Television as it’s existed for generations, you would never make up a bible at random, before you’d even written a single episode. That a bible is supposed to develop naturally from producing a show for years, until you get to a point where you’ve got to bring new writers on, and you need a shorthand for explaining it to them.
So, in that context, when a producer asks you for a bible for your brand new show, what are they actually asking for?
When a producer asks you for a bible for your show, they are really asking for the answer to one simple question…
Can it run for five years?
Producers make their money when shows run for a long time. And when shows go off the air early, they lose a lot of money. Which means every producer is terrified of running out of material.
For this reason, TV shows are built around a concept called an Engine.
The Engine of a TV show is the thing that allows you to replicate episodes. It’s the area of research where you focus your energy in order to easily generate episode, after episode,after episode.
So, for example, if you think of Arrested Development. What’s the engine? In every episode of Arrested Development, Michael comes up with a new plan to save the family. And Mom and Dad play Brothers and Sister against each other until the plan isdestroyed.
What’s interesting is, we’ve seen this Engine before. We saw it on Gilligan’s Island. Every episode, the Professor comes up with a plan to use a bunch coconuts to get them off of the island, and in every episode Gilligan messes it up.
That’s right, Arrested Development is really just Gilligan’s Island in snarkier clothes. They have the exact same Engine.
For an example from TV Drama, let’s talk about Breaking Bad. What’s the engine for that?
In every episode, you’re going to watch Walter White corrupt himself. You’re going to watch his desire to protect his family lead him to do something horrific and manipulative so that he can keep on building his drug business.
In fact, the obstacles they’re going to face, in each season, and in each episode, are the same obstacles every entrepreneur will face in every step of the development of their business.They’re a startup, gaining market share. It’s just happening in the violent world of drugs, and the powerful world of science.
In fact, at the end of each season, science is going to win. There’s going to be a big showdown, and science is going to kick the ass of whoever the bad guy is.
As you can see, Breaking Bad’s engine is slightly more complicated than that of Arrested Development. Because the episodes are much less contained. Rather than existing as relatively isolated entities that could be watched in any order, the episodes of Breaking Bad need to work together to form a larger narrative. So this show needs an Engine not only for the individual episodes, but also for the overall narrative of each season.
And at the same time, you can see how simply that engine works.
All you have to think about to generate an episode, or a season, of Breaking Bad are the answers to the following questions: What phase of business are they in now? Who’s the bad guy? And what’s the business equivalent he metaphorically represents? In this episode, what is the morally horrific thing Walter White is doing? And at the end of the season, how is science going to save the day?
And then next year, all you have to do is take the business one step forward, and ask the same questions all over again.
Law and Order is a much simpler procedural drama, but it has an Engine as well: an area of research that allowed them to generate episodes for two million seasons. You pick any random torn from the headline event. You create a series of interviews in the first half to track down the bad guy. And in the second half, you deal with the conviction. It’s the same thing every time.
So, why is this necessary?
Remember the first season of Treme? They had the best of the best on their team. These were the writers who did The Wire, one of the most successful shows in TV Drama history. What’s the engine of The Wire?
Each season,we’re going to look at a different aspect of Baltimore. The first season was the drug trade, then we had the docks, the press, the schools, the city council…
Each season would feature an out-of-the-box thinker on the side of law, and an out of the box thinker on the side of crime. And, we’d watch as those thinkers changed the world,only to be destroyed the system that doesn’t want to change.
That’s how Season One works. That’s how Season Two works. That’s how Season Three works…
This is how they got away with killing off all of these important cast members! They got away with it because the Engine didn’t change! This is the opposite of Game of Thrones. In Games of Thrones, the whole first season, the Engine was Daenerys Targarian, who has been married against her will to a savage brute named Drogo. They are unexpectedly falling in love, and she is turning from a girl into a warrior queen. The engine is the loyalty of Ned Stark, and the way that loyalty is going to cost him more and more in each episode, because he refuses to break his own code of ethics.
At the end of Season One, they kill off Ned Stark. He breaks his code of ethics to save his family, and he dies. And they kill off Drogo as well. And once they’ve done that, you can see what happens in Season Two.
It takes them so many episodes just to get the engine started again! Because they didn’t just kill off characters who could be replaced with the same Engine. They killed off characters and killed the engine with them. And while they still had the external engine of the game of becoming king, they didn’t have the internal one that made us care about these characters and their journeys. So they had to create a new one.
They learned it again by Season Three, which was much better than Season Two, because they realized the Engine had to grow from the characters that mattered, from Daenerys and Tyrian. They built a new engine, and then were able to make it great again.
Treme lost its engine in another way. One of the writers literally died on set. And you can see what happened. They started off and they were building something really interesting.They had the John Goodman character, who loves to hate the system, who loves being at the center of a firestorm, driven by his rage as a victim of Katrina. And then you have this completely irresponsible DJ dude, who decides to run for office. You can see what they’re building. They’re building this messed up thing that’s been created in the wake of Katrina, and the forces that are racing to fill that vacuum.
And then what happens is, this brilliant writer dies. And it becomes very clear, at least to me, that he was the only person on that staff who knew what the Engine of that series was.
So they suddenly start undoing a lot of the work that he was so carefully creating. Suddenly, the DJ doesn’t seem that interested in politics anymore, and John Goodman who is in his glory being the victim, is succumbing to depression and suicide. And none of it makes any sense. But the showrunner was gone, and they were in the middle of a season, and they still had to generate episodes.
The just didn’t know how to generate the right kind of episodes, without the brilliant showrunner behind them.
And that’s why Producers started asking for bibles. Because unless your name is David E. Kelly or Aaron Sorkin,it is pretty much impossible for one person to write a show. And even if you’re lucky enough to have a genius at the helm who can bang out every episode, as a producer, you never know if your showrunner will have a nervous breakdown, or end up in rehab, or leave the set, or even die.
As a producer, if you’re going to run your series for five years, you need to know that if you took a moderately talented group of writers, and gave the man area to research for brainstorming as an Engine, that they could generate episodes from now until forever. That the hook will always work.
And that’s really the only thing a producer is asking for when they ask for a Series Bible. They’re asking “can it work for five years?”
The biggest mistake writers make when creating a Series Bible is to take the request too literally. They spend forever working on the most frustrating document ever, wondering how they’re going to take a bunch of boring character bios and plot synopses, and turn it into a form that anybody wants to read.
They’re confusing the form of the series Bible with its actual function.
Yes, your bible has to look like it’s a bunch of character bios and synopses. But what it needs to deliver when all those bios and synopses work together is a lot more than a bunch of information. What it needs to deliver is the Engine.
You have to pretend you’re writing a Show Bible. But you have to deliver the compelling hook that demands your reader’s attention, and answers their fears.
Want to find out what that kind of Bible should look like? Then tune in for the next installment of this podcast. Or step into your own writer’s room in our TV Drama or TV Comedy classes, where you can experience what it’s like to be part of a writing staff, and develop your own series under the guidance of a master showrunner.