Can We All Calm Down with the Series Bible?

Can We All Calm Down with the Series Bible?

Lately, it’s all writers want to discuss.

They’re obsessed with perfecting this arbitrary document more than the pilot or the story itself, putting themselves through so much stress in the process.

Hot take: writers can skip the series bible.

Maybe the word “bible” makes people attach weight to it, as if their bible alone will make execs believe in their show with religious fervor. Collective focus on this document points to what every writer must be thinking: “maybe my bible holds magical powers!”

Shows used to create bibles as seasons went along, with notes compiled into a binder for new staff writers coming into the room. Then came the success of the Stranger Things’ pitch, with their deck written like an 80s horror novel in the vein of Stephen King. The unique style makes us feel what we’ll experience when we watch the series. (And even still, it took seven years for Netflix to sign on after countless no’s from every network ... keep going, people.)

The series bible then came to be part of the pitch. It makes sense—writers bring in visual aids. But now, writers rely too heavily on their supplemental pitch documents. The series bible’s best asset is that it helps the writer focus the pilot. Making this document can be more like an outline the writer uses to restructure the pilot. But what’s happening is that writers defend excessive setup in the pilot because they have their pitch documents to show where the series is going.

If the character lives the conflict of the series in the pilot, writers won’t need the bible to show execs the engine. Audiences won’t get to read pitch documents. The pilot alone needs to hook the audience and the execs. Some execs won’t read the bible because they want the pilot to stand on its own. I have yet to have a manager or agent ask me to forward a writer’s deck, bible, or one-sheet. They only ask for the pilot. The bold move here might be for a writer to announce that their pilot stands on its own.

The bible can overwhelm any wonderful exec that will read supplemental materials, such as sending a pitch deck with a longer page length than the pilot itself. Writers can build lengthy documents when world-building a sci-fi like Battlestar Galactica and Dr. Who. Directors build epic look-books such as Handmaid’s Tale. We heart you, film hero to all, Reed Morano, visionary feminist icon cinematographer/director. Be this spectacularly unique, and you can make the pitch as long as you wish.

Exceptions aside, writers who make long pitch documents usually don't know how to compress. This document's primary purpose is clarity, clarity, clarity. You want to get the yes and get out.

This obsession with the series bible puts the focus on the wrong element during the process of selling a script. The ultimate goal of meeting with the exec is to talk with them even before sending documents. Repeat after me: “My goal as a writer is to TALK with execs about my project.” It’s crucial to get a phone call, a Zoom, or a face-to-face, if possible. A writer’s energy, passion, and excitement for the story will come across, and they’ll pick up on that. They'll know this project is going to succeed because the writer believes in it.

I read countless scripts and bibles each week, but I remember projects where the writers excitedly discuss their stories. Joy, heartache, and love of the story make all the difference.

Writers can develop their bible after they’ve sold the pilot. The WGA hosted a PSA campaign called No Writing Left Behind, which states that writers should be paid for crafting these documents.

If you still want to make a series bible, even after execs likely won’t read them and the WGA warns against it …

Actually, I know you’re still going to make the series bible, so here’s a formula.

There are varied versions of the pitch document: a one-sheet, series bible, pitch deck, or a look book.

A one-sheet is short and sweet—stick to one page, front and back. The heralded series bible is this same information expanded and includes season one episode ideas. A pitch deck is this same information with images. And less often, there’s a look book, which directors use to pitch their vision, including information on color palette, lighting, tone, etc.

Inge Brege has the coolest look books, but she is a graphic designer that made these for production. Do hire a graphic designer if you’re going the pitch deck images route because so many are unreadable. Red font vibrates on a blue page, with crammed information, eight-point font unreadable on even a 24-inch monitor, accolades too small to decipher, etc.

Pitch documents boil down to this outline:

Logline: Characters listed by dominant trait, what they want, and what’s in their way. (Make sure you’re not using the characters’ names as we don’t know them yet.)

Comps: It’s "this meets that" series. This sentence is for TONE, not story idea or structure. What two shows feel most like yours? It’s best to use shows that are current and successful.

World: This can be a description of the literal settings, as well as the figurative world. Theme, societal expectations, how characters treat each other, etc., can be explored.

Character Breakdown: Characters listed by name, dominant trait, and what they want. The secondary characters can be developed to show pressure on the main character. How are they opposite in some way from the main character, whether it’s a flip side of the coin or having a varied opinion on a theme? This pressure ensures built-in conflict that lets us know the characters won’t move forward on anything in the same way. Backstory isn’t that helpful because execs want to see the current conflict and story goals.

Pilot Synopsis: Can highlight story structure tracking the main roads of each act. Consider writing the exact amount of paragraphs to match your pilot, so execs will intuitively understand the act structure. Writers often make the mistake of listing every moment that happens, and the synopsis reads as this happens and then that happens. Instead, the synopsis can hook the reader with the character’s goals, what’s in their way, and what significant event occurs at the end of each act.

Season One Episode Loglines or Synopses: This is only for a series bible and pitch deck, not for a one-sheet. Can keep these short.

Series Arcs: Can list the character’s goal of that season, what conflict they will experience, the main thing they’re going through, or their A to Z change. Who were they in the beginning, and how are they different at the end?

For example, in Season One of The Handmaid’s Tale (spoiler alert if you haven’t yet seen it), she’s separated from her family and trying to be a “good” handmaid to stay alive for her daughter, but she’s pretty bad at being obedient. In Season Two, she’s pregnant, has a chance to escape, but stays for her daughter. (It is so much more complicated than this, but this is the key arc.) In Season Three, she learns to stage a rebellion and escapes eighty of their children because they won’t give her back her one child. In Season Four, she gets out of Gilead but can't be happy because she hasn't saved her daughter yet and now wants revenge.

In comedies, especially traditional ones, you might not have such a large arc but can focus on the main thing a character will try for that season. How I Met Your Mother is about Ted stuffing down his feelings for Robin and highlighting how their relationship ends that season. In Brooklyn 99, the arc is about his hidden feelings for his co-worker, and at the end of the season, when he’s fake fired and going undercover, he tells her how he feels. In Hacks, season one is about them learning to like each other and hooking us with the question "can she keep her from sabotaging her career?" In Dave, his arc is about how he finds success in music but loses his girlfriend and friends at the end of the season.

Writer’s Statement: This is a chance to show your passion for the project and another place to discuss the series’ themes. Again, this is better in the room if you can TALK with people about you and your ideas. But on paper, it’s a place to discuss why you’re writing this, how it’s relevant to who you are. It’s also for why now, why today, but make sure you’re not writing too much about the market, financials, etc. The "why now" question is more about cultural relevance or how it's thematic to what the world needs for catharsis, escape, humor, etc.

Add anything else that highlights your voice. Writers aren’t likely going to drop this series bible obsession just yet, so make sure to write pitch documents that highlight your vision, tone, darkness, humor, etc. You want these pitch documents to be in the same voice as your show.

The structure is essential, but writers get lost in the “supposed to” details and forget to be amazing on the page. If you can break from formula, do it! The Stranger Things pitch deck gets circulated as THE EXAMPLE, but it won’t work for anyone else. They wrote that to give the feeling of an 80s horror novel, much of it is prose. That deck made a splash because it is special.

Which should be your goal.

Find your brand of magic on the page. Try to show how truly spectacular you are in your series bible. Put the boldest, weirdest, funniest, darkest version of yourself into the bible and your pilot. Write what you want execs to know (not what you think they want to hear).

The document is mostly for you, anyway. Because who even wants to read these?

*Feature image by Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)

Karin is a screenwriter and a development exec at Script Pipeline and the JK Studio. She writes horror, party films and TV.
More posts by Karin Partin Wells.
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