STRANGER THINGS – Part 1 – The Show Engine & the Bible
By Jacob Krueger
Stranger Things - Part 1 - The Show Engine & the Bible
If you haven’t already seen all of Stranger Things, don’t worry. We’re going to limit this podcast to really looking at the pilot and we’re going to do that for two reasons.
Number 1: to avoid spoilers for the people who haven’t seen it.
But Number 2: Because pilots are like bibles. And what I mean by that, there’s a concept called the “Show Bible” which is probably one of the most important concepts if you want to sell a TV show.
So what the hell is a bible? Well, the concept of a show bible actually began as a very different tool than it is now. Back in the day, the bible was a tool for new writers coming on to the show. What would happen was this shows are run really long time usually they will develop by a show runner and a team of writers. But eventually after many years, show runners or a writer might leave the show and new writers would be brought on. And as an existing writer, you don’t want to spend all your time explaining to the new writer, “No we already did that in Episode 14. These are the things that can happen. No, this character would never do that.”
So what happened instead was TV shows are built to run for a really long time and the producers didn’t want the nature of the show to change. Because the whole reason that an audience comes to a show is because they want a certain feeling.
They want a very specific feeling delivered to their living room every single day. And if suddenly the feeling of the show changes or suddenly the rules of the show change with a new writer, the audience may associate feeling they’re not getting that feeling anymore.
And when they do that, they’re very quick to hit the channel button and change the channel on their television or their streaming. So the idea of a show bible is: We’ve educating the new writers about what already happened on the show. What the rules of the show were that it evolved over years and years and years.
What are the kinds of things that the character does? What are the kinds of things that the character would never do? Those little secrets that you get, that you develop as you get to know your characters over many years.
What’s interesting is that back in those days the show runner would never dream of writing a show bible. In fact, the show bible was created by the assistant who would just sit and take notes on the episodes as they aired and the conversations that were held in the writer’s room. And in this way, the bible was a naturally evolving document that kind of documented the life cycle of the show, rather than what it is today.
Today, the TV Bible is really a sales document. When a producer buys a TV show, they’re not just buying a great pilot episode and that means when you, as a writer, sell a TV show, you have to do more than just write a great pilot episode.
TV pilots are almost entirely different than feature films in that feature films are a contained unit, TV is a series, whether it’s a comedy, a drama, even a web series or a miniseries is a replicable unit. Meaning when a producer buys your pilot, they’re not just buying the first episode and they’re not just buying season one.
They’re actually buying the first five seasons, maybe the first ten seasons. They’re buying the ability to replicate a very specific feeling and a very specific kind of drama or comedy every single week (or every single episode if it’s more than that for its releasing model). And today, more and more, they are buying the structure that’s going to force the audience to binge-watch, to keep on clicking to the next episode, next episode, next episode.
Just like back in the day when all series were released once a week rather than all at the same time. They were designed to leave you waiting for the next episode.
Feature films are built on a feeling of completion, whereas TV series are built to leave you feeling just a little bit incomplete. To leave you longing for just a little more. But they have to then, in the next episode, fulfill that longing or you’ll going to change your channel.
So what a show bible is today is a way of explaining that what happens in the pilot is not just a one trick wonder. That you as a writer already have a system and a plan that will allow you to replicate this series for episode after episode after episode, giving the audience something that feel at once different but also the same. And the structure that allows that replication to happen is something called an ‘Engine.’
When a show has a great engine, that show can run literally forever. Think about Gilligan’s Island: perfect engine. We know exactly what each episode needs to be.
And if you read my articles about Arrested Development you know that Arrested Development actually had the same structure: the same engine each episode.
The only moral member of the family, Michael, is going to come up with a different plan to get the family off that island. Each episode, the parent are going to play all the brothers and sisters up against each other until finally Michael ends up compromising his own morals and his plan gets destroyed. It’s just Gilligan’s Island all over again.
If you think about a show like Seinfeld you can see that even Jerry Seinfeld has an engine. Even the show that’s supposed to be about nothing has an engine. And the engine is: each episode Jerry is going to meet a girl with a completely normal little oddity and each episode Jerry’s going to be completely unable to deal with that little quirk.
And in fact you could see if you watch Curb Your Enthusiasm that Curb Your Enthusiasm is just the same engine without the charm.
In each episode, Larry David is going to find himself in a situation that anybody else in the universe could easily deal with, and his own neuroses are going to turn that situation into uncomfortable hell.
The engine of the show is the area of research around which to build the show: the thing that you have to think about in order to generate episode after episode after episode and if you simply think about that one little area of research, that one little area of brainstorming, you should immediately be able to imagine how to make up episodes forever of your series.
So if you’re writing Gilligan’s Island, what else can you do with coconuts to get off the island? And how’s Gilligan going to screw it up? If you’re researching Arrested Development, what is Michael going to do this week to try to save the family and how are the parents going to screw it up? If you’re researching Seinfeld, who’s the girl he meets this week and what’s her little thing that he just can’t deal with?
And of course, TV Drama series also have an engine but the engines of TV Drama series tend to be more complicated. TV dramas do something that most traditional sitcoms do not and that is that their characters arc. And we can see that wit in a dramatic comedy like Orange Is the New Black or BoJack Horseman.
We can see that those engines are built around character journeys just like we can see it in a widely successful franchise like Breaking Bad where the engine is actually much more complicated but also incredibly simple.
Because the characters arc, the engine of Breaking Bad is built not only over each episode, but over each season.
Each season we’re going to watch that business grow. And each season we’re going to be watching them defeat an increasingly large corporate foe as they do with all the same problems that every little start up business will ever face except in terrifying action-thriller terms.
We also know that each season is going to end in the same way; each season is going to end with the triumph of science. Walter White is going to use science to overcome his foes. But there is also a thematic thread to each season, and that thematic thread is about corruption.
Because what we’re really watching is the corruption of Walter White. That by the end of each season, Walter White is going to cross the line a little bit further. He’s going to go passed that place where we thought he could never go.
So you can see how this gives us a framework, we know how to build each season. All we have to think about is what are Walter and Jesse doing with their business this season? What level are they at and who is the street drug dealing equivalent of their corporate rival? And ultimately how is science going to win in a way that corrupts Walter just a little bit further?
But there’s also an engine to each episode: an engine that allows each episode to feel the same. That engine is always about the relationships.
Great TV Drama and great TV Comedy is not about plot. Great TV Drama and great TV Comedy and a great Web Series is about structure. And structure grows naturally from character, from relationships, from choices. So the journey that we’re watching inside each episode is also going to be the story of Walter White’s corruption.
We’re going to watch how this man moves from doing a desperate thing to protect his family, to an evil thing that he needs to do for himself.
We’re going to watch him move from having to do it, to loving to do it. We’re going to watch him manipulate the ironically most moral person in his universe, his drug-addicted former student, Jesse, manipulating him away from the right thing and further towards the wrong thing.
We’re going to watch him alienate his wife. We’re going to watch him grow closer to his son who doesn’t really know him. And we’re going to watch a cat and mouse between Walter White and his brother-in-law who’s trying to catch Heisenberg not even realizing that Heisenberg is Walter White.
So you can see when your characters arc, your engine becomes more complicated because your engine becomes not only that how do you build the same but different in each episode. But also how do you build the same but different over the season?
How do you keep the same feeling, the same set up, the same engine, without losing theme, or without losing the feeling? How do you keep the same structure, the same set up, the same engine without losing your momentum as your characters change? Without losing the feeling that your audience is tuning in for each week?
By now you should have a pretty strong understanding on what an engine is. An engine is that area of research- the thing that you refer back to to say, “Hey, how do I generate the next episode?” And you can probably understand why this is really important to a producer.
These things are really important to a producer because they don’t know what’s going to happen to you. You don’t want to make a series that’s dependent upon one person to succeed: on the genius of one great writer.
For example, just think about Treme. Treme was written by one of the greatest writing teams of all time. This is the team that brought us The Wire, another show with a really great engine (which I should probably discuss in a future podcast).
So we’ve got some of the greatest writers ever, and HBO doesn’t bother to ask them what their engine is. HBO trusts them. They’ve seen The Wire; they know what these guys can do. But literally half way through the first season, one of the show-runners slumps over in his director’s chair and dies of an aneurism.
If you watch the first season, you can see what happens to that whole show. The whole darn thing falls apart. And the reason the whole show falls apart is because no one knows how to build it.
The engine was a secret in that show runner’s mind, rather than a very simple formula that anybody could follow.
Similarly, the producer who buys your series probably has no experience working with you. They don’t know if you are going to run off. They don’t know if you’ve got a drug problem. They don’t know if you’re going to get hit by a car, and they certainly don’t know if you’re capable of generating episode after episode.
So you can see that the stakes are very high for a producer. They don’t want Treme to happen to them. They don’t want their whole season to fall apart if, somehow, you lose your way.
They want to know that they can build at least five seasons because it takes five seasons to really make your money in series television. So they’re investing a lot of time, years of their life, a lot of resources, and if you’ve seen the pilot of Stranger Things, you probably already have a sense of this.
A pilot, a good pilot, a great pilot, is already a Show Bible. A great pilot, the way it is put together, already contains the elements of a Show Bible.
In fact, when a person reads your Show Bible after watching your pilot, it should simply be a confirmation of the fact that, “Wow, I can actually run this thing forever, and I know exactly how. I can replicate this feeling, even as the characters change. Even as the plot unfolds, I can deliver the same, but different episode after episode after episode. I can keep pulling my audience further and further down the rabbit hole, getting them to binge from one episode to another episode to another episode. Giving them that feeling, and then leaving them just hungry enough to get that feeling again.”
So, in the best hands (and if you’re going to sell a pilot, you’re going to need to write a pilot that can do this), the pilot for a great show is already a bible. And in this way, the pilot for a great show is built just like a bible.
What I mean by that is, even as it captures the dramatic elements of the story, the pilot for a show is already launching us into the structure of that show. It’s already demonstrating the engine of that show. It’s already building the character conflicts and relationships and dynamics that are going to drive that show. It’s already establishing the visual language and the thematic world of that show so that, by the time you sit down to write your bible, your pilot has already laid out all the rules for you.
You barely need to invent anything, you simply need to codify it in a language that confirms what the producer wants to hear. Because here’s the thing: as a new writer, you’re not selling your script off of a bible. You’re not selling your show off of a bible. You’re selling your show off of a pilot.
If a producer is reading your bible, it means they already loved the pilot. They want to make the pilot, but they’re afraid. They’re afraid that maybe the pilot isn’t going to be replicable. Maybe you’re going to run out of ideas. Maybe Episode 47 isn’t going to feel like Episode 1. So when you’re building your pilot, one of the things I recommend is don’t just write the pilot. Write a couple of additional episodes.
Write Episode 2, but also write Episode 40. If you’ve got your engine right, if you’ve actually built your engine the way you need to build it, you should be able to instantly generate a logline for episode 40. You should be able to instantly generate a structure for Episode 40.
You should be able to automatically know what each of your characters is going to be doing in Episode 40, and how that conflict is going to be building. If somebody asks you randomly to pitch them Episode 256, or Season 72 of your series and you can’t do it, what that means is you don’t actually know your own engine yet. It means you’re still getting to know your characters, you’re still getting to know the structure of your piece.
So just think for a moment of what happened when you watched the pilot of Stranger Things. You actually started telling yourself a story, didn’t you?
Your story may have been right or it may have been wrong, but you already started to pitch yourself the kind of things that were going to happen in future episodes.
You already started to covet a feeling: that’s why you binge-watched. That’s why you kept going. That’s why you told your friends. Because it delivered a very specific feeling that was slightly different than anything you’d seen on television before, but also familiar enough that you know where it lived.
Stranger Things delivered not only the pulp horror-thriller elements that made you fall in love with it, it also delivered the character elements that made you fall in love with it. That made it relatable to you, that made it matter. Because we’ve seen these horror elements in a million much less successful movies and much less successful TV shows.
In fact, Stranger Things even references nearly all of its inspirations inside of each episode as the kids talk about their D&D game and the horror movies that they’ve watched. But what makes Stranger Things wonderful is not just the monster-in the-house structure that we’ve seen a million times. It’s not just the Jaws feeling of the creature that we can’t quite see being scarier than the one that we can.
The actual thing that makes us fall in love with Stranger Things is the characters. The relationships between the characters.
The way those relationships are changing and growing. How those characters are bumping up against each other in each episode in relation to the structure, in relation to the conflict, and in relation to the theme.
Jerry Perzigian, who teaches our TV Comedy classes, always talks about the idea of proximity being so valuable in TV Comedy. The idea that, in most TV Comedies, characters live in the same house or work at the same work space, they have a certain proximity. And this exists for two different reasons. Number 1, it exists to force the characters together so that they have to deal with each other in each episode. It also exists for financial considerations, which is you’ve got to shoot episode after episode after episode. And that means those episodes are going to take place in certain locations.
As Steve Molton, who teaches our TV Drama classes, speaks about often, in TV Drama those locations are a little bit more complicated. It’s not just going to be the coffee shop from Friends or the apartment from Seinfeld, or the office from The Office, it’s going to be a slightly more complicated structure but you’re still going to see us coming back to the same sets again and again and again. And in fact, a really great pilot is also establishing those locations.
And you can start to think about the pilot of Stranger Things and notice the locations that get established. The location of the laboratory, specifically that crazy elevator and the room around that elevator where the gate is created. The basement at Mike’s house where the kids play their Dungeons & Dragons game, and where eventually it’s going to become so important for their future relationship with Eleven.
Will’s living room, and the phone, and the wall, and the garage, and that little club house where Will used to play that are going to become so important later in the series.
And Mirkwood, that scary forest-lined road. And you can see if you watch future episodes of Stranger Things, that in fact we keep coming back to those same locations. Those same locations become important again and again and again.
And this is valuable not only thematically, but from a budget perspective because coming back to these same locations again and again and again and again allows you to afford to shoot a series like this because doing 80’s ain’t cheap. You’ve got to buy 80’s cars, you’ve got to find 80’s phones, you’ve got to find 80’s costuming: it’s not like doing a show set in the present day. There are expenses there. And especially when you’re building a horror series, we need to know we can afford to shoot this. And one of the ways to afford to shoot this is by using the same locations.
Of course this also does something on the creative end and on the thematic end, and when we come back to those same locations again and again and again, those locations become infused with value. With importance.
And when you watch the series pilot of Stranger Things, you’ll see that that element of the bible is also present. That by coming back again and again and again to the exact same locations, that in fact, nearly every important location with the exception of one, which we’ll get to later when we talk about future episodes, and if you’ve seen the whole series, you know exactly what I’m talking about. With the exception of one location, every important location already exists in the pilot. And in fact, even in that other location, those initial locations that have become so important in the pilot are going to be in some way present.
In this way, the pilot is like the first pages of a screenplay. It establishes the things that are really important, but it doesn’t establish them in a way that sets things up. And this is one of the things that’s most important to understand about pilots, because a lot of students make the mistake of thinking that a pilot is a place to set things up for your series. Or think that a bible is a place to write a bunch of character descriptions and a bunch of summaries, and nothing could be further from the truth.
Character descriptions, character bios are boring.
Description is boring. Set up is boring. And if your pilot is boring, if your pilot doesn’t deliver the feeling that the audience is looking for– not by page 30, but by page 1– the audience is going to flip the channel.
If your series doesn’t deliver what the reader is looking for on the very first page, your reader’s going to click right off of that very first page. Your reader is going to start skimming. Your reader is going to say, “This is not for me.”
And the same thing is true in your bible. If you write a great pilot and follow it up with a bible that just kind of sits there like a bump on a log (that just kind of explains and sets up a bunch of stuff) rather than grabbing the reader by the lapels, shaking them and saying, “Hey, you’re coming on a journey with me!”
If your bible doesn’t do that, it is not a bible. And what I mean by that is it’s not a sales document. And the same thing is true of a pilot. If your pilot doesn’t do that, your pilot is not a sales document.
So when you watch the pilot of Stranger Things, you will notice how that pilot grabs you by the lapels on the very first page, establishing the genre of the pilot from the very first page, establishing the feeling that the audience is going to be coming for by the very first page.
It even establishes the visual language of the piece on the very first page- the visual language of light and darkness- about bright lights and things that you can see and things that you can’t.
From the very first page you know that this is a horror-thriller. You know the world you’re in and you know the feeling that the episode is going to give you. And the way you do that is by launching your characters into your pilot and launching your characters into your bible with powerful wants that are in conflict with one another.
If you’ve watched the pilot of Stranger Things, you’ve seen that there is virtually zero exposition in that entire pilot. There are really only two things we learn in an expository way. We learn that Hopper has a child who died, and we learn that Brenner has lost a little girl.
Those are the only two things that we really learn in an expository way. Nearly everything else we learn, we learn along the way as the characters pursue their wants. Nearly nothing is set up or explained.
In fact, with each character that gets introduced, we pitch ourselves just a little bit more of the show. And this is how a real TV Bible works. A real TV Bible works just like a pilot, starting with a really strong log line that locks us into the world, that promises us a very interesting show. Then introducing one character after another, and with each character that gets introduced, deepening the conflict, deepening the irony, deepening the problem of the story in order to suck us into the world and allow us to pitch ourselves just one more layer of what makes this show cool.
So how do you build your pilot like a bible, and how do you build your bible like a pilot? How do you transform a bible from a boring document that explains a bunch of stuff about your characters into an attention-demanding pitch that sucks your audience into your world?
How do you build a pilot that grabs the reader by the lapels, sucks them into a journey, but also serves as a sales document itself. Also serves as a promise to a producer that there’s more where this came from.
How do you turn your pilot and your bible into the kind of click bait- into the kind of binge-bait that makes your reader demand that next installment?
That doesn’t come from setting things up. That comes from revving the engine, pulling the ripcord, and getting your engine started from the very first scene.
I hope you enjoyed this podcast. Next week, I’m going to be back with Part II of this podcast where we begin to break down the actual structure of the pilot of Stranger Things…