I wonder how much I can get into this without spilling the beans on the semi-secret project I’ve been working on, but suffice it to say, I’ve been reading a lot of bibles lately.
A writer’s bible is an interesting beast. Predominantly used for television series*, it attempts in a few pages to define the parameters of a show.
A writer’s bible almost always features a breakdown of the main (and some recurring) characters. There is often a brief discussion of the pertinent events that led up to the pilot, which might influence episodes to come. As the primary audience for these tomes are prospective freelance writers for the the series, it can also feature a breakdown of what type of stories the producers have zero interest in buying.
It can also help keep the regular writers of the program on the path they originally set out. In practice, however, a bible is a case study in early rules made to be broken, or obvious mistakes that had to die in order for a show to find its eventual greatness.
Some shows never really had a real bible. Some, like The West Wing, were so tied into the voice of one creator, that there wouldn’t be a lot of traffic from freelance writers**, and Larry David once boiled down the rules of writing for Seinfeld to the commandment “No Hugging, No Learning” before he went on to create a show that eschewed scriptwriting all together.
Many show bibles are available to read online, and here’s just a few of the more interesting.
~The writers guide for Batman: The Animated Series is an interesting artifact of the series birth in the wake of the Burton-directed feature films. Little did the show know that it would surpass those earlier entries in the bat-canon and become the definitive version of The Dark Knight for many.
~The bible for The Real Ghostbusters is an interesting artifact in how it wants to turn its episodic entries away from its cinematic progenitor. For that matter, it’s also a stark reminder in how those years leading up to Ghostbusters II cemented the fact that Slimer had become not only the star of show, but the franchise as a whole.
~The most useful of the publicly distributed writer’s bibles came from the far-flung reaches of the final frontier. In the 90s, various Star Trek bibles were in wide distribution, largely due to the franchise’s unusual open-submission writing policy. While opening the flood gates in this way likely lead to a lot of cranks shuffling their ramblings over to the Paramount lot, the process did yield some terrific episodes (like “Yesterday’s Enterprise”) and gave careers to some truly wonderful writers like Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore. An early version of The Next Generation’s bible can be found here. This pre-dates the open-call policy, echoes the bible for The Original Series, and goes to great lengths to tell the reader what type of stories the show doesn’t want to do, and that they are only interested in submissions from established TV writers. Most people view the early years of TNG as the nadir of the franchise’s writing, but far be it for me to draw connections between the two situations.
The producers simplified things greatly for both Deep Space Nine and Voyager, perhaps in hopes that the more valuable freelance writers would preternaturally be able to write the better, more produceable Star Trek stories, and would only need a general reference volume for names, locations, and backstory.
And before you ask, yes. Somewhere out there, conceivably on a set of 3.5 floppies or spiral-bound notebooks, are my twelve-year old attempts to put together teleplays for Voyager and Deep Space Nine. They were going to make me a huge TV writer before I turned twenty. It is one of my deepest fears that they might eventually see the light of day.
Most people wanted to be sports or music stars when they were kids. Maybe they wanted to be something important like a lawyer or government official. A few might have wanted to be something useful, like a plumber. I, on the other hand, wanted to be a mid-level script writer working on the Paramount lot. Are you like me? Is there a show you always wanted to write for, but for want of a time machine, can’t? Let me know in the comments.
* Although other long-form, no-end-in-sight stories, like comic books use some version of the document.
**Also, Sorkin—genius though he was—would throw the show’s continuity out the window and just wing it (pun accepted, if not intended).