Overview What is a Show Bible, also referred to as a show guide, and what is its purpose? The majority of writers I talk to believe that writing a pilot for an original show is the best tool available to convince network executives to invest in a show. But this is inaccurate. For a network executive, the pilot constitutes the reality of the show. It is a finished product. And so you are putting that executive immediately in position to say yes or no. More often than not, unless you have an A-List star attached to the show in this case, they will say no. What you need to do to coax a yes is to create a relationship. You want to get a meeting. And to get that meeting you need to have a "conversation piece."
And that is the Show Bible. And this is why it is drastically more important to have than the pilot. We still write a pilot, but that is specifically to prove that we have writing chops so we end up on the eventual team. But in order to get into the room with an executive, you need to build a marketing document that will allow the executive to also collaborate. The Show Bible is the right tool to put the executive at ease that this is still a work in progress, and that his thoughts on the eventual direction of the show will be listened to.
So that is why we create the Show Bible first. Also, by creating it first your pilot will be pointed in the direction of your first season arc, instead of you writing a pilot and then having to try and come up with an entire season arc that stems from events you wrote for the single episode without the first season arc in mind. So from a purely creative standpoint, this is also very important.
There are various chapters in the Show Bible and we want to have them neatly orchestrated with a table of contents. Here is the correct order of chapters for a Show Bible system that I have created that has been quite successful. You may find other systems out there -- there is plenty of good information in the book "Treatments That Sell." However, I can tell you from my experiences and those of many of my students that have utilized the system I am going to show you in this document that my Show Bibles are very well received by show runners, actors, agents, producers, and network executives. So, do what you feel works best for you, but I do know that this particular system is effective in the current marketplace.
1) The Cover - 1 page
2) The One-Page -1 page
3) Table of Contents -1 page
4) Pilot Synopsis 1-3 pages
5) Major Characters 1 page per major character - up to 6
6) Special Features 1 to 4 pages
7) Minor Characters Half a page for each relevant character.
8) Locations 1-2 pages
9) Season Arcs 1-3 pages
The Cover You only get one chance to make a first impression. Clique but true. You want only the bare essential information on this page for the reader to understand what he is about to read, and how to get in touch with you if he likes it.
So start by putting the name of the show in very large letters, centered. Have a few lines of white space, then in slightly smaller type, centered, Created by Yourname.
Created by is a different credit than Written by. So if you genuinely created this, make sure they know that here. Do not overload with multiple credits for yourself on the title page. That will make you look self-important, and the last thing we want is for the reader to think you are arrogant.
In the lower left corner put your contact information. Email and cell phone is good enough. Don't expect them to mail this back to you, they aren't going to. If you are represented by an agent or if the work has been optioned by a production company, then that is the information that goes in the corner instead.
Art Work: Yes, this is the one page (unless your piece is animated -- more on that in a moment) where art is acceptable. You can have wonderful art on the cover as long as it is professional and relevant. Oh, and don't use art from somewhere else without making sure you aren't infringing on the copyright. You are making this show to sell, and the last thing you want is some squabble later over copyrighted art being used on your marketing documents. So be smart about this. Because you don't need art on the cover. Art on the cover isn't going to be the be-all-end-all of this pitch.
If you do have really professional, gorgeous art though, they might be tempted to pick your show bible up first over the other stuff on their desks. So, there's that. The point is to get read and great art might help that occur as it will give them a nice first impression that you are in business here. You invested money into your cover, and that means something.
But it isn't a requirement. Well, unless your piece is for an animated show. Then it is.
Double Space You should always use double spacing in your Show Bible. This looks much cleaner and easier to read to the potential buyer. You want a quick read, not a thick read. It will also help you contain the content to the most important aspects of your show, and not bog the document down with materials best saved for questions during the meeting.
The One Page I have already provided you with full instructions on how to build the one page but I wanted to discuss it in the context of this document. You may have already noted that it comes before the Table of Contents and is therefore not going to be numbered. You want whoever is receiving your Show Bible to be able to remove it to use to champion your cause and correctly pitch others. Or just hand it to decision makers to read themselves.
So you don't want it buried further in the document. If it is after the cover, but before the table of contents, it will feel like its own individual entity, and that is precisely correct.
So put it there. And yes, even though the industry will allow you two pages, you really do want to keep it confined to only one page. Its obvious why. If people are going to hand it around to other people, and it is two pages, they have to staple it every time they make a copy. And that is work. If you can't pitch your show in one page, then review whether you are attempting to provide too much information into a place where you are supposed to just whet their appetite for more.
Trust me, there is plenty of room for the information in the rest of the body of the show bible. Keep your one-page confined to selling The Hook, and you'll do well.
The Hook is the unique feature that makes your show different from the others in its genre. It is what will make viewers want to see the show. The hook for "The X-Files" isn't that there are aliens and werewolves in it. Plenty of concepts like that. The Hook, is that there is an FBI Agent given full access to the secret files and is allowed to pursue everything in the files. And he is secretly is trying to find his sister, whom he believes was abducted by aliens. His partner is a scientific skeptic who has been given the task of debunking everything they encounter. Until she can't anymore because some of it is real.
That is a unique show. You can see it before you see it. And that show did very well.
Pilot Synopsis This means one of two things. If you are building a fiction or non-fiction show, then this is a blow-by-blow synopsis of the major plot points that occur in the first episode of the show. If you are building a reality or game show, then this is a blow-by-blow synopsis of what will generally happen in each segment of the show, in general terms. So you are explaining the mechanics of the show. Let me elaborate on each item.
Pilot Synopsis for Fiction or Non-Fiction: Remember always that this is a marketing document. You may have more than 2 storylines running in your show right from the beginning, and that is completely acceptable. "Heroes" and "The Wire" showed us that you can have up to 8 storylines running simultaneously if it is well-written.
But, you don't want to describe 8 storylines in a marketing document. That can get very confusing for the reader, very quickly. Instead, focus on the main two storylines, the A and B storylines. You can make quick mention that other characters are involved doing this or that, but only do it if their actions tie in to the A or B stories. Everything else, avoid discussing here.
As writers, we are tempted to try and unveil our entire ball of wax. We figure everyone will be as fascinated and interested as we are. But that is simply not the case. Not at this point in time, in this document. As with all marketing, we are attempting to get the buyer to learn enough to make an informed decision. I tend to use the Character Section to show off the sophistication of the show and display all of my storylines in there. More on that later in this document.
If your A and B plot are great, and you display that here by giving a blow-by-blow of the major events -- and only the major events -- that occur, you will be selling. And that is what this document is meant to do. Always remember that. Writers are not as good at this as advertising specialists. But we need to get good at it, when it comes to paring down the information to only reveal the most juicy, exciting, or emotionally compelling bits.
Pilot Synopsis for Reality or Game-Show: Naturally, you don't have a script. You will be filming individuals live and once the footage is in, you can skew the product to create viable storylines. For a game show, there is no storyline. There is only the game.
So this is about mechanics more than plot. You want to break down the show by what generally occurs segment by segment.
Segment 1: In the first episode we'll get a quick profile of each of the sixteen contestants, but in subsequent episodes we will recap the elimination from the previous episode. Now we'll get 2 or 3 short but emotionally riveting interviews from contestants about the elimination. Some are pleased. Some are angry! With tensions running high, The Host always gathers The Contestants into a location and describes the Quick Challenge and warns contestants who are on The Hot Seat and in danger of going into the Elimination Zone. He'll also mention if there are any special prizes by our sponsors in the Quick Challenge. The segment ends with the game clock about to begin.
Segment 2: The Quick Challenge. This is a short game where the contestants are usually given 10-30 minutes to complete the challenge. Up to three winners are given "Temporary Asylum" and can't be eliminated in this episode. And they each get to select a different competitor who isn't safe, and put that person on The Hot Seat. Emotions will run high as Competitors will feel the sting of betrayal. Who will be picked to be on the cusp of elimination?
I'd then go into further detail about the kinds of challenges that might occur, we want to demonstrate the fun of the kinds of trials that the Contestants will be forced to go through. This should not be a dry read by any stretch. Remember, again, this is a marketing document. If someone reads this and they are captivated by it, if they can see it and it amuses or entertains them, they will want to attach to it and help get it produced.
In general, a half hour show has 3-4 segments and an hour long show has 6-7 segments. If it has 7, then one segment is a very short one that lasts only a minute or two.
You can run your Pilot Synopsis up to 3 pages before you've overdone it. For fiction and non-fiction writers, this means you can take a full page for Act I, Act 2, and Act 3 of your work, but just because you can doesn't mean you should. It is much better to have a short, compact, hard hitting version of your pilot synopsis than a long, drawn out one.
Major Characters This is a vastly underrated section of the Show Bible. But in truth this is the battleground. For television executives the characters of your show are the most important element. If you don't have fascinating characters that will initiate storyline after storyline, you won't be able to keep a viewing audience and you don't have at least fifty episodes. So you need to prove that you do, and here is how you go about it.
For Fiction/Non-Fiction Show Bibles
Most people make the mistake of simply putting the background history and character traits of the characters instead of using this section to show how they will affect the story. I have created a system for making the character section come to life. Use this system, and you should have excellent results. Do not have more than 6 major characters.
Background: 4-5 lines that gives you the most important facts about the character. Do NOT start with his/her childhood unless there was a significant trauma that affects the story now.
Objectives: 4-5 lines about what the character's specific goals during the show will be. Now we're proving this character belongs in the show, and will affect the storylines by making a positive or negative impact.
Temperament: 4-5 lines about the character's personality. Use this to continue spinning the overall web of your story or to prove that your comedy is hilarious.
Tag: Not like the "movie poster" in the One Page, this is a "sum up" line that encapsulates your character for the reader.
And that's it. There is no other information required to entice potential buyers. Remember, this is a marketing document. It is not a novel. We can easily wax poetic about all of the virtues or faults of our characters. Don't.
Also, you need to get all of this information on ONE PAGE per character. Do not extend over one page.
For Reality Shows Your Major Characters are going to be real people. Maybe you have them cast already, or maybe you don't. They might be contestants like in Survivor or Big Brother or they might be cast characters like in the many Housewives franchises. Your job here is to make the reader enticed enough that they want to see this produced. So you want to discuss the kinds of candidates/characters that you would want to select during the casting period. Don't be afraid to discuss specific types of people. If you are going after particular stereotypes (The high school jock bully type, for instance, or the prima donna super model type) then explain WHY you want those kinds of people in the show.
Ultimately, your goal is to show that the character dynamic will lead to drama, hilarity, and/or other kinds of excitement on the screen. You are proving that your characters will be in conflict with one another - which is the true staple of reality shows. Remember, without conflict you haven't got an interesting television program that can last fifty episodes. So that's what you are after during this section.
Special Features This section is where you prove your HOOK to the buyer. The hook is the special aspect of your show that makes it different from every other show in its genre, and will create that special "oh we need to produce this!" feeling.
In a show I created about Zombies, I use this section to discuss the science behind the zombie plague. In a reality one I helped a student create in which human beings would be participating in a variety of game challenges, we used this section to specifically discuss a variety of those games. Also, he had a social media aspect to the show and we focused on that as a true hook to the show.
So you can do multiple items here, but you shouldn't spend more than 4 pages on the entire section. If you are only discussing one special feature, then don't go more than 3 pages. But you do want to discuss all of the special features of your show.
So make sure you give yourself enough room if you have 2-3 special features to discuss. You definitely want to provide insight on everything that makes your show unique.
But like every other section of the Show Bible, you don't want to overwrite the section. Edit yourself down so that you are discussing only the most important aspects of the special feature. Make sure you are telling enough so that the special feature can be completely understood, but that you are leaving room for discussion also.
Minor Characters This is where you round out your characters section. After you've decided which characters in your show are your major ones, the ones who are left are minor characters. They can be recurring characters or only appear for one major storyline.
Do not list every single character that will appear in the show. Just the ones that affect the storylines. This is not meant to be a grocery list of characters. Nobody is impressed by that. Especially people who are doing a sci-fi or fantasy storyline -- imagine if they listed every single character in Game of Thrones in the Show Bible. It would be a 100 page marketing document. So be careful here, and pare it down to only the characters needed.
That being said, I have 17 characters in one of my shows and I did list 6 in the Major Characters section and 11 in the Minor Characters section, and nobody minds because of how brief and important I make every character feel.
You will keep your description of each minor character to half a page, so you will get two of them on each page. Obviously, half a page, double-spaced is not a lot of room. So what do I put in each of their descriptions?
I tend to do one long paragraph to maximize the space that encompasses all three of my necessary components: background, objectives, and temperament in one go. So instead of having 4-5 lines on each aspect, I have 1-2 lines on each aspect. These are minor characters, so we just need to understand why they are important to the story.
This is also true for reality show guides. Your minor characters, if not yet casted, might only take up a quarter of a page and you might be able to squeeze as many as four in. Don't do this if you have plenty to say. Its fine to do two per page in reality show bibles also. But if you are just speaking in generic terms about people involved in the show in minor roles, then you shouldn't have too much to say.
Locations Locations might play a very important role in your story. The city that you set a fictional or non-fictional story in might be a major character in and of itself. Consider how being in London affects the Sherlock Holmes stories, or if you were going to write a television show about George Washington leading the American army against the British, how various locations where major battles take place are important. Obviously, HBO's Rome or Deadwood had both historical and fictional elements, and both focused on the political intrigue involving those two very different yet specific locations.
Conversely, a sitcom might take place in a location that is important. Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia revolves around the cast who all own and work in a bar. Cheers did too, but those two bars are vastly different from each other, as was the tone of each show.
In a reality program, the locations are usually also a big key. Top Chef is a competition reality show, and the chefs have to work in various kitchens to complete tasks. Each season of Survivor is on a different island, remote from civilization, while The Great Race travels from one location to another, often in populated regions, sometimes not.
Where is your show mostly taking place and what do those locations mean to your story? Again, this is not just a grocery list of locations. Make the location a character. I don't spend more than a paragraph usually on a location, unless it is a major component of the story. For shows like Rome, Deadwood, and Survivor I would likely spend an entire page on that major location.
Time Periods If your piece is historical then you should discuss the time period in regards to the locations. If there is a major plot line that happens because of the time period, then discuss this through the character sections, by discussing the motivations of the characters and what they are intending to do. You don't want to spend too much time discussing the time period, or readers will get intimidated that the budget is going to spiral out of control. So keep it focused on storylines, not on interesting tidbits about 1482 that you want to talk about because you think its fascinating.
This is a marketing document, not a dissertation.
Season Arcs/Episodes Episodes for Non-Episodic shows
If you can avoid doing "episode" encapsulations then do so. You don't need to get bogged down in the minutia of your plot line if it is an ongoing season arc, and naturally if this is a reality show then you can't do that at all, since you won't know what the episodes will be about until they are filmed and the producers and editors see what storylines materialize to focus on.
The time to do Episodes is if you have a "re-start" show, meaning your show starts at the same place every episode. Most sitcoms and animated comedies are like this. No matter what happened in previous episodes, the show starts in the same place every time. Because of this, there is no season arc. So, you replace the season arc with fun episode ideas. You want to ramp up the hilarity and comedy and make sure that they see that you can use your kooky cast of characters in a variety of different ways to craft 50 episodes or more, which is the goal of the network because at 50 episodes you can get into syndication. To the networks, that is free money. That's why they want to reach that goal.
One paragraph with no more than 4 lines for each should do it. Just put your main character(s) in great situations, and don't worry about how it ends. You do not need to do a full episode synopsis here. You are listing great comedic ideas for your show.
Season Arcs for Episodic Shows
You want to consider what major points will happen in the first five seasons of the show. If you do a great job with this section, no matter what readers previously might have thought, here you are proving without a shadow of a doubt that you have at least fifty episodes and maybe up to 100 for your show. And that will fill the buyer with confidence that at least taking a meeting with you to find out more is worth it. And that's what you want. Remember, this document will never sell a show concept on its own. Your job is to write this well so that you can get into a meeting and pitch your show and your team to the buyer in person. This document is the first step towards building a team and getting that meeting. So how do we make sure that we get this section written correctly?
Start off with where your main character is and what he's doing through season one. This is about the season, not the pilot. You already did a pilot synopsis and we don't need another. This is a "in a nutshell" about the first part of the full season. Depending on who this is for that may be 10 episodes, 13, or up to 26.
I only take half a page for each Season Arc.
By the end of Season 1 my main character and his allies will have undergone some kind of massive change, and this is what I focus on. If a character starts in point A and ends in Point B, lots of stuff likely happened. I discuss in the main body what those major items are, what the big conflicts in the season are. I don't spend any time on my sub-plots.
There isn't enough room for that and we want to keep this simple and uncomplicated for our readers. As writers, in our heads, our 12 plot lines running simultaneously are easy to keep track of. But not so for someone entering the room for the first time. We talked about those other storylines in our character section. Don't add them here. That is a critical mistake many writers make and instead of enticing the reader, they confuse them.
Don't. You can discuss those 12 plot lines running simultaneously with the creative staff after the network has already dished out the cash! In this document, discuss your major characters' objectives and how that all works out through each of your first five seasons.
So you have a two and a half page synopsis of how your show is going to run through five seasons. You have proved you have a show worth putting money into. You have whet their appetite to discuss those main storylines in a meeting.
That's all you want to do here. Remember, this isn't an internal document for staff. This is marketing. Just give them the best taste of what the show is about. And that's all.
For Reality Shows Season Arcs generally don't happen in Reality shows unless they are the ones that focus on specific celebrities or people like Hogan Knows Best which was about Hulk Hogan and his wacky family, or American Choppers which chronicled a father-son led motorcycle garage. But even for those, it was likely not known where the show would go from season to season ahead of time.
So for my reality writers, this section is not necessary, or expected by buyers. So don't sweat it. It is much better to write nothing at all then to try and manufacture a section that will read as weak.
The End I don't personally do a sum up section or a conclusion section. After my Season Arcs or locations for Reality, I am done with the guide. If you feel like there is something that you didn't say, guess what? You are wrong. You don't need it. As writers, we constantly feel like we need to keep writing, keep talking. That the more we write, the better our sales pitch. And that is just because we're writers. To the rest of the world, less is more.
So don't feel like you need to put a "spin" on your show by having a conclusion section. Don't do things like talk about what demographics the show is for. Don't put fancy pie charts proving you have an audience. These things really bug professional readers who feel their intelligence is now being insulted. You are not better at marketing than their marketing department is. So don't try to be.
Just pitch the show with the sections I've listed. And then end the document without editorial commentary. Trust me on this.
I hope you find this guide on my personal system on how to craft a Show Bible helpful. I know that creating this system when I couldn't find a good one has really helped my career. I hope it will help yours.