Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Spark of Excitement

Here’s the situation: You’re sitting at home, watching your favourite show on TV. As the episode progresses, you find yourself predicting every twist and turn. Halfway through, you can tell how the show’s going to end – and you’re right! Which means that you’re either:

A) A diabolically evil genius, bent on world domination.

B) Clairvoyant.

C) Someone who should be writing for Television, and/or creating shows of your own.

D) All of the above.

Let’s say that you have an idea for a TV show. You know it’s great. All your friends think it’s great. You’ve checked around and there’s nothing else like it on TV. It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime (cue Celestial Choir: Aaaah!) MILLION DOLLAR IDEAS!!! You’ve no doubt heard about the guy, a valet at a Vegas Casino ; who came up with the idea of “beautiful people using science to solve crimes” – which made him a multi-zillionaire and launched the CSI TV empire.

So, what should you do with your great idea? You have two choices: You can do the nice, sane, normal thing – ie. forget all about it and get on with your life. Or, if you have any sense of adventure and want to dream really, really big – you can pitch your TV show to the networks. It’s like buying a winning lottery ticket – but it’s a lottery of your own making.

If you’re seriously thinking of pitching a TV show, you’ve probably by now checked the internet and maybe browsed through the bookstores for more information on what you actually need to pitch a show. Unfortunately, there’s very little practical knowledge out there that you can use and adapt. What are the networks, production companies and distributors looking for? How can you communicate the idea of what your show is about – before you’ve actually made the show or even written the script? Since there’s nothing else like it on TV, how can you give them an idea of what it’s about?

Here’s the Million Dollar question:

How do you sell something that doesn’t exist?

Saying that your show is like “Seinfeld with Cowboys in Space” won’t get you in the door (although it’s probably not a bad idea... (Note to self...) You need to express your idea as clearly and concisely as you can in a Pitch Bible.

Obviously you’re asking, “What is a Pitch Bible”? Simply put, a Pitch Bible is a document that tells the buyer at your local broadcaster, studio or distributor what your TV series or movie is about.

The Pitch Bible communicates in very clear terms, the who, what, where, when, whys and hows of your show. It needs to explain WHO the show is about, WHAT the characters are doing. WHERE, WHEN, WHY and HOW they’re doing it. But more importantly, it has to convey what the show feels like – the SPARK OF EXCITEMENT that has you excited about creating and producing this new program for them.

It’s this Spark of Excitement that will keep people interested in your show, after your initial meeting and in the days after you’ve left the building. It’s this Spark of Excitement that will get you invited back for that all important Second meeting – and all the meetings after that. The Spark of Excitement is what your show is all about.

At this point you’re saying, “Hey Steve – how do I get that pesky ol’ SPARK OF EXCITEMENT down on paper so I can pitch it to them big-city TV network fellers?” Easy. Start writing. And keep writing until you can articulate what your show is about – and what got you excited about it in the first place. Got that? Good.

So where do we start?

The first thing to understand is that everything is flexible. Everything that you dream up can and will be changed as better ideas and words come along during the writing process. The secret of writing isn’t the writing – it’s the RE-WRITING. Trust me, you’re going to do a lot of rewrites before you’re ready to pitch your show. Just be thankful that we’re long past the age of white-out and carbon paper. And if you don’t know what white-out and carbon paper are, be extra thankful.


Sit down at your computer, grab a pad of paper, a journal, some sticky-notes, anything you feel comfortable with – and just start writing. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It doesn’t have to make sense – get your ideas out of your head and down onto paper. Get them out fast. Take your inspiration from anything around you and just get going. Like I said, this isn’t anything that you’d want to show to anybody, this is fast and dirty writing. It ain’t gonna win any prizes. Some writers call it “the vomit pass” because you’re just barfing up all the ideas that are in your head. Don’t be afraid of what comes out – we’re going to edit it down later. At the very least, this is Backstory – and trust me, everything that you write down now, will be useful to you at some point later on.

If, as you finish your “Vomit Pass”, you look at what you’ve written and actually like it, you’re either a) delusional, or b) doing something very wrong. The Vomit Pass is supposed to be rough and sketchy. Throw it all up on the page as fast as you can and we’ll deal with it later.

In case you’re wondering, a story “pass” is like a draft. You write your first draft, your second draft, etc. Likewise, “Yo. I did my second pass on the script. Does it look okay to you?”

So, what are you writing? Let’s take a look at what you need.

First up, WHO are your main characters? Just give me the basics for now: Names, backgrounds, likes, dislikes. Next, WHAT are they doing? What is the show about? Are they trying to make something, do something, go somewhere? WHY? Who is trying to stop them? WHY? Everyone should have a reason for doing what they’re doing. Is your hero a cop? A doctor? Does he work in the local bakery? What’s the motivation? Was your hero accused of some crime? How did he/she get into that situation?

Now, go back to your main characters - because you probably forgot to add the bad guys to your list. They’re certainly main characters. Add them in. A good bad guy is just as important as a good hero. Just ask Alan Rickman who’s portrayal of baddie Hans Gruber stole the show from Bruce Willis in the original DIE HARD. He’s made a whole career out of playing Hans Gruber. Before DIE HARD, Alan Rickman made occasional TV appearances. After DIE HARD, he was a movie star. He’ll tell you how good a bad guy can be.

Next, WHEN is this happening? Is it in the past? The future? Present day? If it’s in the past, does it relate to events in the present – as some kind of setup? If it’s in the future, are these events which are being foreshadowed?

WHERE are they? WHY? Do they live there? Did they just arrive there? WHY? Sometimes an interesting location can be as much of a character as a flesh and blood human being. In shows like STAR TREK, FIREFLY or LOST, Serenity, The U.S.S. Enterprise and The Island have their own fan followings. Be clever about it. Find ways to make the locations relate to the characters. Make use of your locations – they can be great jumping-off points for stories.

And of course HOW are they doing what they’re doing? If they’re withdrawing money from the bank, do they do it through an ATM, or do they drill their way into the vault. Why are they doing it this way? What are their choices? Have they tried doing it the easy way and failed? Why?

The first pass at writing a bible doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Getting the ideas out can be quick, dirty and sometimes quite productive fun. It’s exciting – especially when you’re under the gun. Here’s something that I once did – that I DON’T recommend that you ever try...

One bright, sunny morning, I sat at my desk wondering what I should do that day. Feeling extremely brave, I called the Director of Programming at the local Kids TV Network. I told her that I had an ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT idea and that I had to see her that afternoon. I told her that this idea was SO BRILLIANT that it couldn’t wait. Knowing that I’m a complete lunatic – she squeezed me in for an appointment at 2, that afternoon.

“Great!”, I thought as I hung up the phone. I looked at my watch. It was 10 a.m. That meant that I had about 2 hours (not counting printing and binding the Pitch Bible, then lunch and travel time) to come up with “the most amazing TV show” in the whole world... because at that point, I had no idea what I was going to present that afternoon.

I didn’t have a show. I had NOTHING to pitch. Not a single word.

Now let me explain this part because it’s very important: Network TV people are busy. Very, very, VERY busy. If you waste their time – you’ll never get in to see them again. Ever. This was a career-killer – so knowing that, my pitch had to be BRILLIANT!

I wasn’t worried. I was prepared. I’d made up three Styrofoam cups: The First was filled with about 20 little slips of paper, each containing an adjective like “super”, or “amazing”, or “gigantic”. The Second cup had 20 more (but different) adjectives, things like: “atomic”, or “mega”. The Third cup had 20 or so nouns. These were words like “ponies”, “fairies” and “warriors”. Two adjectives and a noun. Words like “Mighty Morphing Rangers” or “Super Space Unicorns”. Got that?

I shut my eyes and pulled a slip of paper from each cup. I placed them in front of my keyboard in the order that I’d drawn them. Then I opened my eyes. The words read:


Well, that sucked. But those are the cards I’d been dealt, so I played them. I started writing. Twenty minutes later, “Super Atomic Squirrels” had morphed into 6 pages of a show called “________________” (Ya think I’m dumb enough to name names?). I had the characters, locations and their mission. I spent the next hour re-writing my Vomit Pass into something that I could actually show someone. Then, because this was going to be an animated series, I needed some graphics to sell it. I called my long-suffering graphic designer pal, Billy-Bob and told him that I needed a logo for something called __________________. Five minutes later the e-mail came in. Usually, Billy-Bob and I fight over logos and designs for weeks. But because time was of the essence, I knew enough to love whatever he gave me. It was brilliant, to say the least. I pasted the logo onto my cover page, printed five copies of my Pitch Bible and grabbed some lunch.

Oh yeah. The Network lady loved the idea. She asked for a sample script. I banged one out in 3 days and was awarded a development deal. A local studio immediately optioned the show. Although it never made it into production, that initial pitch for _____________________ resulted in two solid years of screenwriting and story-editing work on other TV series. And to this day, people who’ve seen the script and Pitch Bible think they’re fine pieces of writing. And all of that came out of three Styrofoam cups.

Now that you’ve finished your Vomit Pass – put it away for a couple of days. No matter how much work you’ve put into it, when you come back with fresh eyes, you’ll see everything that you did wrong. Your mistakes will jump right out at you: “Who wrote this crap??? Oh yeah, right. I did...” On the plus side, with fresh eyes mistakes are easier to spot and fix, and by this point you’ve had even more ideas.

But more important – have you captured your SPARK OF EXCITEMENT? Does your Pitch Bible articulate that special thing that got you excited about the project in the first place? No? When your SPARK OF EXCITEMENT is finally written on the page, that’s when your show is ready to pitch. It might take an hour. It might take years.

I actually have 5 or 6 fully completed Pitch Bibles (including scripts, art, graphics, etc.) that I’ve never shown to anyone. They’ve never been pitched because that elusive SPARK OF EXCITEMENT is missing. There are a lot of people who pitch the first idea that pops into their heads. But if I don’t believe in the pitch, I can’t expect anyone else to either. Look at it this way, you’ll have a better chance of success if you go in to pitch, knowing your project is great!


  1. Thank you Steve .I am glad to see there is some
    order in your madness ,really good advices, thank you .

  2. Mad? MOI?
    Thanks old bean. Love your work. It's been too long since we worked together. Hope that all is well.