The Story Bible
Elsewhere I have written how it is often useful to be able to describe your idea in a catchy phrase or two. These high concept descriptions are useful in a pitch bible, where you are trying to hook the interest of a prospective buyer or investor, but not much use to someone who is trying to write a script. The story bible needs to have as much detail as possible, and must leave little room for misinterpretation.
There are similarities between a pitch bible, used to raise the production finance for a series, and the bible that is used to brief the writers. They both cover the same ground, and will usually have sections entitled Concept, Characters, The World, Style, and Storylines. Both are subject to change, usually for the same reason. Those same broadcasters or investors who asked you to alter the show in the development stage, will continue to do so once they have committed to it. There the similarities end.
The pitch bible is pithy, witty, easy to read, attractively laid out, and full of colourful visuals. Most story bibles have no visuals, run to several pages of densely covered text, and are written in the style of a car manual. Some even cover the sort of things you need to avoid because of the limitations of budget and technical expertise. You would never find this in a pitch bible! The story bible is essentially a practical resource for the writer, and needs to contain everything he might need to come up with a storyline and script that might navigate the difficult process of the approvals process. They are the animation equivalent of a cookery book. Get the ingredients, the amounts, the timing, or the method wrong, and the result will not be what is required. It might be to your taste, but that doesn’t cut it.
It is important that the story bible is written by the story editor. A big responsibility rests on the shoulders of the story editor, and for this reason, it is important that he or she feels ownership of the scriptwriting process. The story editor needs to know the thinking behind what is written in the bible, because he or she will later have to defend it, explain it, and probably change it.
I’ll talk more about the role of the story editor later.
A story bible will traditionally start with a page or two about the concept. This will include something about the basic idea… It’s about a Fireman stationed in a small Welsh town…. It’s about an ingenious Viking boy who solves problems calmly by using his brain… It’s about a wilful cavegirl who wreaks havoc as she pushes the boundaries of a toddler’s world… and so on. It will also talk about genre. Is this action, comedy, or both? It might reference other shows. The series for which I am writing at the moment refers to Baron Munchausen , MacGyver, and Mission Impossible. It will try and pinpoint where the appeal of the series lies, and may talk about the relationships of the characters, or their relationship to the world around them. If it is a preschool show, it may talk about an underlying moral thread or message. Maybe it’s about teaching children about safety, about how problems are best solved without resorting to violence, or about the building blocks of language.
Our bible for Fireman Sam will have said, early on, that it was an action comedy with elements of soap, that it was aimed primarily at boys, but girls should enjoy it too, that every episode should involve a call out of the fire engine, because that was where the main excitement was, but that the engine should not be called out unless there was a bona fide reason for it. It would have spoken about the need for research into how fires start, what equipment might be used, and how the fire should be put out. It will have said that the fires shouldn’t be so frightening that they give children nightmares, and point out other reasons why a fire engine might be called into action, to rescue a dog trapped in a locked car, perhaps, or a boy stuck on a cliff ledge. It would have talked about the safety messages that should be inherent in the rescue – Don’t panic. Get quickly out of a burning building. Don’t pour water on an electrical fire etc. It will also have talked about another underlying message, about the heroism of the fire service, an ordinary, everyday sort of heroism where people got on with saving lives in a calm and understated way, quoting Sam as a role model for all children, and possibly trying to claim that Penny was more than just a token, but a feminine equivalent of Sam.
This first page or two will be different for every series, but will always try and answer the question What will I be writing about, and how?
Next week: More about the story bible.