This Post originally appeared on the blog ScreenCraft. ScreenCraft is dedicated to helping screenwriters and filmmakers succeed through educational events, screenwriting competitions and the annual ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship program, connecting screenwriters with agents, managers and Hollywood producers. Follow ScreenCraft on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
Laurie Scheer has been a television industry d-girl, producer (ABC, Viacom, Showtime, and AMC), and network executive (former Vice President of programming for WE). She is currently a media consultant, author, and director of a major writers' conference. Her latest book The Writer's Advantage: A Toolkit for Mastering Your Genre addresses storytelling and pitching for our 21st century transmedia marketplace. Learn more about her HERE.
An idea for a television series just isn’t enough.
With so many platforms producing and distributing content commonly known as a "television series" -- a collective set of episodes that run under the same title -- it seems everyone and his brother has an idea for a television series, however, not every idea for a television series can be made into a television series.
Whether you are intending to pitch your idea to a broadcast, cable or digital network, the elements of a potentially stable and popular series need to be in place. Let me give you an example of an idea for a television series vs. an actual television series.
As a former network executive and a current media consultant I can tell you that I have been pitched the following idea hundreds of times from individuals in just about every major city where I've presented as a speaker.
There are five to seven 20-nearing-30 somethings who know each other from collage who are now working in the big city and experiencing the lows and highs of their professional and personal lives -- cue a sizzle reel showing these people in bars, offices and bedrooms.
And to that I say, "So what?"
Why? Because there's no series there within that description, and no substance whatsoever within that pitch.
Just having a small group of young adults in close proximity experiencing the hassles of the workplace and the joys/disappointments of their love lives is not enough. This idea has not only already been done -- think Friends (even Seinfeld) to 2 Broke Girls, New Girl, How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory to Broad City, but it has also been explored over and over again.
There's a good aspect to the fact that the idea has been reincarnated a number of times -- that means there is something in the idea that resonates to viewers from decade to decade and season to season, but there's also a challenging aspect for those of you with an idea for a television series that is similar to this one -- you'll need to make sure your idea can be expressed in a way that shows me, the media exec, how the idea will work as a television series and why your idea is unique to the genre.
If we look at each of the shows listed above that involve a group of people working, living, and existing together either professionally or personally -- or both -- we will see the following distinctions:
Seinfeld -- Three friends of Jerry, a stand-up comedian in NYC in the 90s experiencing life.
Friends -- this show can be looked at as a younger version of Seinfeld -- and because of its place in television history beginning in the 90s and bringing us into the new century, it seems to be the precursor for this genre.
2 Broke Girls -- waitresses and roommates in contemporary Williamsburg.
New Girl -- Jess, a teacher (and the "new girl") moves into a loft with three men in L.A.
How I Met Your Mother -- Ted and a group of friends in Manhattan tell the tale of how the friends met from the year 2030.
The Big Bang Theory -- Five characters living in Pasadena, the two leads are physicists at Caltech.
Broad City -- Made for cable (Comedy Central), two women in their 20s living in, you guessed it, NYC.
Do you see a pattern here? The young friends (the number of friends change a bit from show to show), are either in the NYC or L.A. areas and are experiencing the joys and hassles of their professional and personal lives.
There's that same idea again -- the one I've heard pitched to me over and over. However, there are also specific details and traits that differentiate each series from the other -- and that is when the "idea for..." becomes an actual "television series."
So before you pitch an idea for a television series make sure that you have done the work to make that idea into a television series by completing these four steps:
1. Compose a Bible for Your Series
This is a creation document that explains the background of your premise for a series. It tells us why your characters are in the situation they are in when we meet them in the series. The bible supports and defends your idea -- think of the conflict involved from the very beginning of your series -- i.e. Raymond of Everybody Loves Raymond fame would not have been a series if his parents didn't live next store. Every good series has a reason for being, has something to be solved, and/or it has something to be attained. Tell us about your series scenario and how your characters will navigate that scenario.
2. Character Breakdowns
These are short paragraphs that explain each of your main characters -- in the idea presented above I would need to have the breakdown for each of the 5 to 7 main characters of your show. Make sure each character represents different ideals and goals -- both internal and external -- otherwise you will not have enough conflict to sustain a complete series and multiple seasons of the series.
3. Future Episodes
Write short paragraphs describing the flow of your series -- how are the characters embracing their internal and external issues and problems. As an exec I should be able to determine character arcs and seasonal arcs of your series by the way you present your episode breakdowns. Please include an A, B, and C story in each episode (the main scenario of that episode with supporting subplots to flesh out the episode). If your episodes do not flow and move through changes for the characters and the show, then your idea is not alive, it is not realizing its total potential, and you do not have a television series -- you have only an idea.
4. Pilot Episode
Write it. Seriously. You would be surprised how many individuals pitch an idea and present a sizzle reel without actually writing the pilot episode. If I do not have a pilot episode then I know for certain that your idea is just that -- an idea. Show me how you execute your series -- the tone, the subtext, and the action of your characters as they go through the scenes you have written for them. I need to read the dialogue exchanges, the pace and flow of your story and any unique aspects that may shine within your script.
Do not assume that I'll be able to know or figure out where your characters are headed by just your idea and your technically well produced sizzle reel. I'm interested in substance, I'm interested in a series that my audience will binge on and discuss in social media and in person until they demand new episodes of that now sought-after new television series.
Yes, steps 1 through 4 entail a great deal of work; however, a television series is born as a result -- not just the idea for that series.
Once you have secured the above details there's one more step and that is to assure that your idea is new, fresh, bright and different and that it does not address any of the exact same scenarios, character traits and issues seen in the various popular series listed above.
Pitch something new and authentic to me -- take all of the good elements that are seen in those well-loved series above and make it all better -- make it yours. By doing the research and doing this work you'll be able to defend your television series and as an executive I'll be able to visualize and see that you have an actual series -- not just an idea.
And by all means, do not produce a sizzle reel without doing the work listed here. A sizzle reel is useless. It does nothing to help me understand why an audience would follow these characters into their 3rd or 4th season. Put your energy into these steps listed above and the exec will assist you in getting the idea produced.
So next time you think you have an idea for a television series, sit down and do the work to actually visualize and compose a television series. Don't waste your time and the exec's time on just an idea and a sizzle reel -- be prepared.
If you need to learn how to properly structure and format your TV pilot script, start with The Screenwriter's Simple Guide to Formatting Television Scripts!