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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Q. I am currently working on a spec pilot and have a series bible to accompany it. In the bible, I give synopses of each of the characters--long, one-page descriptions of the major characters, a few paragraphs for the supporting characters, and brief blurbs for the rest.

My question: how much of these descriptions should I carry over to the pilot, and embed into the teleplay?

On the one hand I don't want to clutter the script with a lot of material that is found in the Bible, both because it's redundant and because it breaks up the pace.

On the other hand, just introducing the lead character with "Claire, 23, has long hair, wears little makeup, and tends to favor clothing with a 60's and 70's flair" doesn't provide any context for her actions, and it seems likely that whoever is reading this thing is going to do so before plowing through the Bible.
A pilot should stand by itself. It should read like an episode of a show. It should leave you with a sense of having experienced a great episode of television, while clearly showing the reader what each episode of the series is going to be like (its template).

I keep description down to a minimum. I try to show what the character is like by having them immediately bust out a line that only they would ever say, and do something only they would ever do. So instead of saying, "JESSICA, 16, sarcastic and sulky," better to have Jessica just start in with, "Go ahead, be a dick about it."

Show, don't tell.

I generally avoid physical description of core cast because an actor reading for the part may be perfect, but feel dissed if you said "tall" and they're short, for example.

Try to avoid telling us overall details, anyway. How do we know Claire tends to favor clothing with a 70's flair? Just put her in a tie-dyed blouse.

In the US you generally go out with a pilot script, not with a bible. In Canada, because there's more development money floating around for political reasons, you can set up a project with a one-pager or a six-eight page pitch bible. I use the latter because I find it's hard to sell my ideas off a single page. These both contrast with the kind of bible you might see in a writer's room, which would have synopses of all the produced episodes, detailed character descriptions, etc. You would never go out with one of those. No one has the time to read one unless they're staffed on a show.

I wouldn't overdo descriptions in the bible, either. Tell us who the character is, not what he or she looks like. Tell us what he wants, what he's scared of, what is going to put him in conflict with the other members of the cast. You probably don't need to describe more than the core cast in the pitch bible, unless you have heavily recurring characters. If your show goes into production, someone may or may not put together character descriptions of minor characters, but those will change regularly anyway, so no need to do it now.

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Since the script is what we see on screen, I'm not quite sure what the point of putting extra long descriptions in it would be. If it doesn't come across in the dialogue or action, then who exactly are you writing it for? And if what you want doesn't come out in the action and/or dialogue, then maybe you need to figure out how better to get across the characterizations. How is a viewer going to understand that Beth has a love/hate relationship with men because of issues with her father if it's not somewhere in the dialogue?

I have conjured up pretty deeply layered characters in my scripts, especially for the pilots I've written. But is it realistic to bring out every part of a character in one episode? One thing I find attractive about writing for episodic television is that you can take your time developing characters. In a movie, you might be on page 70 and realize that you still haven't told the audience that the main character likes to collect barbies and have to try and jam that in there. One of the great things for the viewers is to slowly discover more things about the characters.

Of course, I may not be exactly qualified to give advice on this matter, but I thought I'd add my two cents.

By Blogger Tim W., at 2:39 PM  

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