Monday, August 20, 2007

God Speaks About Bibles...

Heard this from a big-time U.S. showrunner friend (who shall go by codename: God) over the weekend when I asked to see the bible for his show:

There is no bible...I am the bible. Why give them something they can use to produce the show with after they fire you? You want to make them NOT able to fire you.

Oh, to have the power...

TV series bibles are the writing guidelines for a show. Generally, they're a 6-10 page document that provides an overview of the series proper. They will explain the premise and define the arena, outline the series philosophy, clarify the tone, describe the lead and secondary characters, list the 'rules' and plot 'do's and don't's', detail what should happen each week, and give synopsis for existing or possible future episodes.

All the ingredients you need to write the series.

But as God says above, why give the network or studio something they can use to make the show without you?

Series bibles are generally created (by the shows creator) for two reasons: 1) to pitch or sell the studio or network, and 2) for freelance writers to prep themselves before coming in to pitch an episode.

If you can get away without writing one up, more power to you. But most of us don't have that kind of clout or leverage, especially up here in Canada. It will be part of the deliverables for any development agreement you might enter into, along with a pilot script and perhaps outlines for a couple more episodes.

I don't really know if shows like Grey's Anatomy or Brothers And Sisters or House or Criminal Minds have a series bible floating about. If I'm to take my source at his word, maybe they aren't out there as much as they used to be. And bibles are usually only any good for the first season or so. As Alex Epstein states: a series bible is more of a battle plan or prospectus, not a blueprint. Once a show is up and running there's little reason to update or revise the bible because all the current info is in the showrunner and staff writer's heads.

Most of the ones I've come across have been for genre shows. You know, your paranormal, sci-fi, supernatural, fantasy series that need a bible because there are so many rules to keep track of...not to mention lists of unique weapons, terminology, jargon, etc. that are show specific. Some of these can be the size of short novels (see Stargate:SG1; Star Trek NG; or any series with the word Star in the title) if kept up to date, but to come out of the gate with 'everything' is generally a bad move. TV series is a collaboration, and an evolution. Give people a taste, but don't overwhelm or alienate them.

Nevertheless, regardless of your show, it's still a valuable and most often necessary exercise one should go through when creating a new TV series. Even if just to keep your story straight when making the pitch. Speaking of the pitch, Lisa Klink posted today about that nasty bit of nastiness. She drops a lot of helpful hints, but raises something I always find a little irksome.

For a process that is ultimately about getting it 'on the page', why is there so much importance put on the verbal?

We're supposed to be writers, not salesmen or performers. And I've been burned quite a few times by the sparkling song and dance when the pitcher ultimately couldn't write. And I've seen a lot of good series ideas die a quick death because the writer wasn't a natural born performer. It never made a lot of sense to me, but the reality seems to be you have to be a writer AND a salesman.

Anyway, back to series bibles. Klink says:

Should you leave pages behind? That’s a topic of debate among writers. Some think that leaving a synopsis is the best way to ensure that your idea will get passed along properly to the higher-ups. (There are always higher-ups - you won’t be pitching to the decision makers themselves.) After all, we’re writers - isn’t a written document the best way to show off our skills? Personally, I don’t leave a document. I want the execs who heard my pitch to verbally pitch it to their boss, not just drop pages on his/her desk. I’m hoping that the execs will focus on what excited them about my idea, and maybe tailor it to the boss’ taste. I want them to feel personally invested in the idea, not just as a messenger.
Interesting. I get what she's saying, but to not leave even a mini-bible behind seems like something I personally couldn't do. Your mileage may vary.

Others like Alex and Alex and Denis and Denis and Rogers have spoken about or around this topic of bibles much better than I. But there's always a concern that I'm out of the loop.

With freelance writers getting fewer and fewer scripts now, and more and more eps being written in house, does anybody know how prevalent series bibles are today?

Or are they Old Testament as it were, a thing of days gone by?

God seems to concur.

No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that it says what he means. --- George Bernard Shaw


Diane Kristine said...

This is far from definitive, but I don't think there's one for House. When I first interviewed Larry Kaplow I tried to ask something about how they kept track of character backstory and kept a consistent vision and after some confused back and forth he said "we don't." I didn't use (or know) the term bible so maybe he had no idea what I was talking about. That happens to me a lot.

wcdixon said...

Thanks for chiming in Diane...I don't have any idea. And apparently, neither does anyone else.

blueglow said...

I believe "bibles" are a pretty common component of every canadian series pitch. I write them because I fnd them very useful in trying to focus on exactly what the thesis of the series is. all the other stuff about who the characters are and what the stories are going to be about are usually determined by casting and writing but I think that it is useful to really narrow down how the audience should "feel" or what they could be left thinking after they watch an episode.

the bible need not be long but it needs to be clear, even if the statements made in the bible are vague to the point of meaninlessness (is that even a word?)

ie: "this is a show about the death of hope"
"this is a show about a middle age crisis"
"this is a show about the time in your life where you discover that everything you believed to be true was false"

I don't think of the "bible" as a blueprint or a battle plan but as the first attempt to give the viewer/reader a sense of what they are going to feel and experience when they watch you show.

wcdixon said...


1. a message that seems to convey no meaning

Welcome back Blueglow...hope shoot was a success.

I agree that bibles don't need to be or in fact shouldn't be long, just long enough to set the stage, meet the players, and lay some track. Everything beyond that should be in the pilot script (and subsequent scripts).