Selling a TV Series: The Role of the Show Bible
Today we are going to talk about what it takes to sell at TV series, and specifically the role of TV Show Bible and the way it works together with the Series Pilot to make the sale. We’re going to answer the questions: What is a Show Bible? Why do you need one? What does a TV Bible supposed to do? How do TV Bibles relate to Pitch Decks? And how do you actually know if your TV Bible is working or not?
How does a TV Bible help you sell your TV pilot?
There’s an interesting history to TV Bibles. Back in the day, the TV Bible used to be a document that was put together by a young staff writer, story editor or assistant. It was a cheat sheet for new writers when they came onto a long running show.
For example, Jerry Perzigian, who teaches our TV comedy writing workshop here at the Studio, were talking about the difference between what Show Bibles used to be and what they are now. Jerry is an Emmy Award winning showrunner. He came up on shows like The Jeffersons, The Golden Girls and Married with Children. These shows ran for a really long time, which meant that often they would lose their original staff writers as those writers moved on to bigger and better things (or, at least, different things).
A new flock of staff writers would come on, and these staff writers hadn’t necessarily watched every episode of The Jeffersons. They didn’t necessarily know what had happened already in the show, what was happening, what could happen, what couldn’t happen– they didn’t necessarily fully understand the engine of the show.
The Show Bible was created for these writers.
Back in the day, the TV Show Bible wasn’t a sales document. It was an internal document, a cheat sheet that these writers could read like a training guide.
They could look at the TV Bible for whatever show they’d just be hired on, and realize “Oh, I get it. This is how the show works. This is the secret recipe, the secret sauce for the show.”
But today, a TV Bible has evolved into a different kind of creature entirely. Today, a TV Bible is a sales document.
If you imagine your TV Pilot is the thing that gets the big fish to swallow the hook, the Show Bible is the thing that sets the hook and reels them in.
Without a great pilot, the idea of writing a TV Bible is just silly.
Unless you are already a famous writer, the chances that you can sell an idea with just a TV Series Bible are close to zero.
The producer is not just interested in buying a great idea (they get lots of those). They’re interested in buying the successful execution of the idea. And they can only see that execution in the pilot that you write.
The most important element in selling a TV Series is writing an amazing pilot.
Having a pilot that has a clear voice, a clear point of view, that feels like something we have not quite seen before, that is disruptive in some way, that grabs someone, shakes them a little bit, demands their attention and takes them on a journey– that is the most important element of selling a TV Series.
Your pilot allows the reader to fall in love with your characters, with your world. It makes them want to invite these people back into their living room again and again.
That doesn’t mean your pilot has to have nice characters in order to sell.
If you think of shows like Breaking Bad or BoJack Horseman. These aren’t nice characters, but they’re fascinating characters going on incredible journeys.
You also don’t have to have really dark or twisted characters.
If you think of shows like Ted Lasso, or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, these are incredible shows that have lovely characters at the center of them.
What’s important is not whether your character is nice or mean dark or light. They don’t have to “save a cat” or kill a cat. What’s important is that they are a captivating character going on a powerful journey, surrounded by a cast that’s like a family– a family that you want to connect to week after week.
A successful TV pilot also does one more extremely important thing: it captures a blueprint for what the series is going to be.
Just by reading the pilot, an experienced producer should be able to say to themselves, “Oh, I get it. This is how you make the series run forever. This is how you make the series work. This is what I have to brainstorm or research or imagine to generate the series for 5 seasons, or 10 seasons, for as long as I want to run it. I can keep on generating ideas in the same way, in the same format.”
A pilot is an incredible thing. On the one hand, it does all the work of a feature film, taking a character on an incredible journey that changes them forever, launching them into a world, captivating an audience and taking them along for the ride with the character.
A successful pilot is doing everything a feature film does (faster), but it’s also doing something else at a more meta level. It’s showing the reader on every page, “this is how it works, friends, this is how it works! This is the shape of what this show looks like, and how it’s put together.”
The average executive is going to read your pilot, and if your pilot is really good, if your pilot is really working, and if they’re the right target for it, they’re going to have a visceral experience, “I love this. I get this, I think this is going to work.”
But then, because producers are human, they’re going to have doubts.
Especially at the beginning of your career, you’re usually not actually getting your script read by the person who can say, “yes.” You’re probably getting your script read maybe by their assistant, by the director of development, by a junior producer. You’re getting the script read by somebody who got to run it up the chain of command, who’s has to pitch it to their boss and pitch it again to that person’s boss, and get feedback and notes.
As a new writer, the person who reads and falls in love with your TV pilot is often early in their career. Which means they’re often making mistakes.
They might have pitched a show last week, and their boss chewed him out and told him there was no engine it wasn’t going to work.
They might have pitched a show a couple months ago that they thought was going to be so great, and maybe it rose a few levels, but it didn’t get all the way up to the person who says “yes.”. They didn’t make it all the way. Or maybe they did make it all the way, and the person they made it to hated it. And so, and because they’re early in their career, they’re terrified.
They don’t want to lose their job, they don’t want to pitch something their boss doesn’t like, they don’t wanna get chewed out, they don’t want to be wrong.
When they first read your awesome pilot, and they got excited, just like you would if you read a great pilot. But then, just like for all of us, the doubts crawl in.
Just like you have self doubts, producers have self doubts, agents have self doubts, managers have self doubts. They second guess themselves: “Is this really going to work? Am I right? Or am I wrong?”
The most important thing a successful TV Bible does is reassure that self-doubting producer, who loves your pilot, but is afraid that it’s not going to work.
In one short, sweet document, your TV Bible reminds that producer: You were right. This thing is awesome. Not only did you properly guess how the series was going to work just by reading the pilot. But look at all the other cool tricks I have up my sleeve. Look at all the other exciting things that are coming. Look at how much is promised, that you didn’t even see yet, that I’m going to deliver. Look, I’ve got the secret recipe. I’ve got this all worked out.
The second thing your Bible does is it makes it much easier for that producer to pitch your pilot at the next level.
Remember, these people are reading hundreds of pilot scripts, hundreds of TV Bibles, hundreds of ideas, they’re getting barraged by them, all day, every day. And it might be two weeks before they actually get to go pitch your pilot to their boss, which means they’re probably not going to read your pilot, again. They probably don’t have time to.
They are going from memory, and they have probably already forgotten a lot about your pilot, as they’ve had to read a lot of stuff between then and now. And now they’ve got to go pitch this thing that they remember really liking, but it’s kind of vague in their minds.
We assume that everyone who’s a producer or an agent or a manager must be incredible at sales. But this is actually not true. Especially early in their careers, many aspiring emerging producers, agents, managers, financiers– they’re still learning the ropes, they’re still learning how to pitch.
What the TV Bible does is give them a quick cheat sheet: Oh, yeah, I’ve got this. That’s right. That’s how I pitch it. That’s how I talk about this script. That’s what I loved about it.
For this reason, you want to make sure your TV Bible is short.
I always feel sad for writers who write really long TV Bibles. Because the longer the TV Bible is, the harder it is to write, the more that the reader can potentially object to, and the less helpful it is in making the sale!
A nice short, sweet Bible, two pages, four pages, write a nice short, sweet Bible allows a newer producer to quickly read it in a couple minutes before their meeting with their boss, and then totally nail it by cribbing on the essence of the series and it’s engine as captured by the best possible person to do so: YOU.
The third thing a successful TV Bible does is give the young executive that you’ve just pitched, or that just fell in love with your pilot, a short, sweet document they can pass up to their boss.
And that boss can pass it up to their boss, that that boss can pass up to their boss, and up to their boss until you finally get the boss big enough to actually greenlight the project.
The Bible tells the reader:
#1- You were right, this pilot is as good as you think. I’ve already figured out how the series works and how it can run forever. And guess what it was even cooler than you expected.
#2 – You don’t have to reread it and formulate your own pitch. This is a cheat sheet to pitch my script to literally anybody you want. Because I’ve distilled everything that’s awesome about my series, the way the engine works, the way the structure work, the secret sauce, the formula, the way the characters connect to each other– I distilled all of that into a short, sweet, powerful document.
#3 – Can’t get the boss to read the whole thing– don’t worry, you’ve got a short sweet document that you can pass on to your boss that captures just how awesome and well thought out the series is.
The fourth valuable element of a Show Bible: if you’re going to create a Pitch Deck, the Show Bible is basically your cheat sheet for the Pitch Deck.
That’s because the Show Bible is a distillation of the concepts that you want to develop as you are building your Pitch Deck.
Now, be aware, your Pitch Deck should have far fewer words than your Bible.
Your Pitch Deck is designed to capture the feeling of the series with images: what does it look like? What does it feel like? What’s the mise-en-scène? Who are the actors who could be cast in these roles.
What the Bible does is give you the structural elements that you’re going to use to cultivate your pitch deck.
Pitch Decks are about bullets, not about paragraphs. So a Pitch Deck, in a way, is an even more distilled version of your Bible.
And what those bullets do, by keeping it really simple, one idea per slide, is give you the freedom to pitch your script with a visual aid, but to be flexible as you pitch so that your listener isn’t reading your pitch while you move your mouth.
Rather, they are seeing something cool that sticks in their mind, and then they’re hearing you– and because you haven’t locked yourself into text, you can be flexible.
If they look bored by the Lover in your script, you can move past the Lover and get to the Mother.
If they’re fascinated by the Lover, you can drill deeply in and talk about all the complexities of that relationship.
The beauty of having a Bible is it reminds you: This is what it’s about. This is how I talk about it. This is how I put it together.
The final value of the Bible is one you might not expect. A Bible helps you rewrite your pilot.
Because, invariably, what happens when you’ve written your pilot and you start to sit down to write your Bible, you are going to realize, “Holy crap! A lot of these ideas are not in the pilot yet!”
But as you start to make your Bible better, you might realize a character, who you thought was just a throwaway, is actually going to play a major role in this piece. But she’s barely in the pilot! You might need to do a rewrite,
Or, you might realize as you develop the Bible and start to think about what the seasons of your show look like, “Wow, this idea that looks so good in the pilot, it’s kind of run out of steam after a while. I can’t generate enough episode ideas before it starts to get boring or redundant.”
So you realize while writing the Bible that you need to give it a twist. And that might make you realize, “Wow, I need to go back and rewrite the pilot to set the seeds of that twist.”
Remember, your Pilot is the blueprint for everything. And your Bible is the document that translates that blueprint so anyone can see the full picture of what that blueprint is promising.
As you’re writing your Bible, you might realize, “Wow, my comedy starts to turn into a dramedy as I build these characters. Maybe I need some tonal differences in the pilot.
For example, if you think about Ted Lasso, a great pilot of recent times, the first three quarters of the Ted Lasso pilot is just pure, silly fun.
But then we get to the very end, we get that beautiful call to his wife who no longer loves him, and suddenly this character who was just a clown, who we, like Roy Kent are looking at like “Ronald McDonald,” this character suddenly becomes humanized. We start to feel his pain in a way that surprises us.
So you might realize, as you imagine the structure of the season in your Bible that you actually want to get into some deeper stuff.
So you need to create a scene in your pilot, like Ted Lasso does, that makes the audience feel something they didn’t expect to feel. They need a taste of that feeling in the pilot, so that feeling becomes part of the blueprint.
If you think about Ted Lasso, that’s what they do with all the characters. All the characters start out cartoonish, and then they get humanized as the show develops.
Each episode is loaded with laughs and fun. But each episode finds a way to pull your heartstrings a little bit.
What they’re actually doing is simply replicating the formula of that pilot, again, and again, episode after episode, so that every episode of the show feels both the same, and also different.
What actually happens is the Series Pilot and the Show Bible become two different sides of the same coin.They start to have a dialogue with one another, where changes you make as you edit your Pilot start to have an effect on your Bible, and changes you make as you edit your Bible start to have an effect on your Pilot. The two documents start to speak to each other, complete each other, carry each other forward.
And this becomes the core of your sales pitch when you are talking about the show. And the structure of your pilot script and the feeling it’s delivering when the producer is reading this.
A really strong pilot that shouts “Yo, this is what the story is!” And then the Bible that goes with it says “Here’s how it work…. And yes, you were right. This is as cool as you thought.”
Now, there are a million techniques that can go into building a great TV Bible. In fact, I teach a four week online class, my Write Your TV Series Class that is all about understanding how to write a great Pilot-Bible combination. We look at some of the greatest series of all genres: comedies, dramas, dramedies, limited series and everything in between, to really understand the elements of a great show, a great engine and a great Bible.
We can’t get into all of that in one podcast. But I do want to give you the most important element of a Bible. And this is the one that is most often forgotten.
A TV Bible needs to feel like the show.
I’m going to say that one more time. Because it’s such an important thing. A TV Bible needs to feel like the show.
Your TV Bible can have all the elements of the show put together in a perfect clear formula. But if it reads like a recipe, it is not going to work.
The Bible needs to feel like the show.
If the show is funny, the Bible needs to make us laugh.
If the show is dark, the Bible needs to disturb us.
If the show is complicated, the Bible needs to be complicated.
If the show is twisted, the Bible needs to be twisted.
It needs to feel like the show it needs to capture the tone of the show.
Of course, it also has to capture the elements of the show and how they’re put together. But remember, the Bible is no longer just a cheat sheet for existing writers. The Bible is now a document you use to sell your script.
And buying a TV pilot is not a purely rational decision.
Yes, you have to deliver the thing the producer is rationally looking for. You have to deliver a show that’s got legs, or the producer is going to think, “well, it’s a great idea. But how do I make it work?” You’ve got to deliver the practical. But it’s not because of the practical that someone buys a show.
Think about how much money it takes to produce a show.
Think about how many years of work, it’s going to take this producer to deliver the show.
Think about, if it’s successful, how many years the producer is going to be working on this show, giving their life to this show.
And you start to realize that buying a show, just like buying a screenplay, just like buying any piece of art, is not a purely intellectual decision. It’s an emotional one.
It’s a decision that comes from a feeling: I need to have this.
And that is why both the Pilot and the Bible need to feel– not just like an episode, but like the whole show.
You want the feelings of the whole show to be contained (even in just some small way) in the pilot. And you want those same feelings to be cultivated and developed in the Bible, so that together, they feel like parts of a whole.
When a producer reads either document, you want them to get that feeling again. Oh yeah, that’s why I want it. That’s why I needed it.
If you want to learn more about the technical aspects of the Bible, check out my Write Your TV Series class.
But in the meantime, ask yourself this question.
Does my pilot feel like the whole show or just like the pilot? Does it just tell a great story, or does it give a sense of a blueprint for what could be an ongoing series?
Does my Bible feel like the whole show, or does it feel more like a technical document? Does it just capture the idea of a cool show, or does it capture the secret sauce of the whole series?
Are these two vital elements in selling your series really ready to go? Or do they need a revision?
*Edited for length and clarity