Early this month I was asked to speak about Bibles at the Writers Round Table (sponsored by Women in Animation at The Animation Guild). I didn’t think I had enough material, but I wound up talking off the cuff for two hours. There was much more to say than I thought! So I’m gonna share some of those tidbits with you over the next few days.
Five Main Elements
I shall go into more detail later, but bibles (or Show Compendiums or Series Guidelines) basically cover five main elements.
1) An overview of the show, describing the main situation (7 people set off on a 3-hour boat tour and wind up shipwrecked on a deserted island) and the tone (a slapstick sitcom, a courtroom drama, a cop buddy dramedy). Basically, the “pitch.”
2) The Characters: Who are the main protagonists? The antagonist(s)? What are they like? How do they speak? How do they interact?
3) The Settings: What are the main locations we’ll be dealing with? A treehouse. A girl’s bedroom. A school. A flower-decal-covered van.
4) The Nuts-&-Bolts: Episode length. Target audience. Specific requirements (educational curriculum, 3-camera set-up, re-useable animated bumpers, etc.)
5) Sample stories: Some premises that describe what situations our characters get into. Something that reveals the flavor, the possibilities, and the arc of the series. (In other words, proving that the basic idea of series can support 13, 26, 52, 100 episodes.)
Sure, there are lots of other elements to a bible, but those are the big five. Today I’m going to comment briefly on point 2 – CHARACTER.
It is easy to fall into the “too brief/too shallow” category here. “Susie is the inventor of the group. She wears glasses and doesn’t talk a lot.” The flip side of the coin is writing too much about each character, almost like you’re writing a biography. That’s why it helps to find clever, concise clues that tells the reader a lot… without bogging your entertainment venture down like a over-filled cement truck in quicksand by the unnecessary use of excess verbiage, pretentious vocabulary, and painful purple prose (Like that!). One of the best tricks is utilizing smart dialogue. Like a picture, a simple phrase can paint a thousand words. There are hundreds of examples, but right now three in particular spring to mind.
1) In the wonderful film A League of Their Own, league manager Ira Lowenstein has just reprimanded washed-out ball-player Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) for not coaching his first game well. Jimmy spits out some chewing tobacco, which half-accidentally lands in an juicy heap on Ira’s shoe.
IRA: If we paid you a little bit more, Jimmy, do you think you could be just a little more disgusting?
JIMMY: [brightly] Well, I could certainly use the money.
This simple 7-word reply reveals that Jimmy is humorous, impervious to criticism, and… well, broke. Anyone else might have answered, “Screw you.” or “You think that’s disgusting? Well try THIS on for size!” or “Gee, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend.” However, none of these responses reflect Jimmy’s ability to dodge criticism. At a deeper level, Jimmy is detached from his job, his female players, and, in a bigger sense, his life. So it’s only natural that he’d give a reply that was detached from Ira’s sarcastic barb. Jimmy doesn’t engage – he detaches, avoids, jests. In fact, he hopes (like a tale-wagging dog) there’s a reward at the end of the conversation! See how much was accomplished with seven words?
2) Another great film, PARENTHOOD, offers us the return of prodigal son Larry Buckman who’s been off gambling, hustling, and doing god-knows-what for several years. When he reunites with his family, he hugs his granny.
LARRY: Jeez, Grandma, you got short.
GRANDMA: I’m shrinking!
Instead of seven words, the writers have whittled Larry’s response down to one! Here’s another detached individual who’s all superficial smiles and back-slaps, but his brain is forever wheeler-dealin’. So when his own white-haired grandmother states her physical plight, Larry eschews all sympathy, and tosses her a throw-away bon mot like he’s joking with a frat brother. (“I just got a DUI.” “Bummer.”) Granny takes it all in good humor, but it’s just so Larry! It is also a presage of his detached feelings for his own young son, Cool. Larry is simply and totally absorbed in his own slick-as-snot persona.
3) My last example comes from the most recent episode of MODERN FAMILY. (If you’re not watching this hilarious sitcom, get off yer butt!) Anyway, senior citizen Jay Pritchett is married to a much younger Hispanic hottie, Gloria. Because she is always nagging Jay by hollering his name, a neighbor mistakenly thinks they own a loud parrot. (“Jay! Jay!”) The writer tops off this gag with Gloria screaming Jay’s name outdoors and setting off a car alarm. Now this isn’t really a “dialogue” example, but here’s how you would insert this gag into Gloria’s bible description: “She keeps Jay in check with a nagging screech that can trigger car alarms.”
Naturally these are lines pulled out of film dialogue, but I’m sure you can see how similar lines could be used in a bible Character Description. There’s a metric ton more to talk about here, but I’ll dole that out another time. I’m trying to keep these blogs short but steady. So I’m cuttin’ this one off now.
Th-th-th-th-th-that’s all, folks!