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Author Topic: CREATING A SERIES BIBLE  (Read 36739 times)

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Offline Rob

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CREATING A SERIES BIBLE
« on: November 14, 2010, 10:24:05 PM »


By Kurt Hathaway of



WHAT IS A SERIES BIBLE?

It's a handbook of guidelines that allows the writer [or writers] and the creative team to create a consistent universe over a number of issues or even years of issues.

It's often written by the creator or co-creators of a series concept.

Series bibles are standard for sitcoms, animated TV shows, and prime-time dramas.  I don't watch much reality TV, but I suspect they all have at least an outline that serves as a series bible.  Network shows require series bibles to get outside writers [those not connected with the creation] up to speed quickly on what the property is about, who the characters are and the types of stories that the producers are looking for.

Series bibles aren't standard for every comics series that comes along, but I do try to create one for every series or mini-series I pitch.  I find it extremely helpful in focusing my ideas in a general way... and it guides me in story creation as the issues get underway.  Editors and publishers may never see my bible, but it's very handy in the process of creating the parameters of my series' world and my characters.

Depending on the concept and its presentation, the bible could be 6 pages... or 30... or more.

The longer-running comics series can definitely benefit from a series bible, especially if the characters are a huge corporate property and are handled by different artists and writers for different media.  The Batman and Superman bibles are probably an inch thick or more.  Same for Spider-Man and other worldwide-popular characters.

I suspect even many web-comics have a bible of some kind... even if it's just in the creator's head.

A bible is a lot like a series pitch... but with way more information.  If you can create a solid series bible, it's only a matter of trimming your bible to its essential parts to create a solid series pitch.  Rather than pad out a thin pitch to make it interesting, write a full series bible... THEN trim it [make a copy first] to an appropriate pitch length.  You'll get good at figuring what the series is ABOUT... and what you think SELLS the series concept.

The bible may be used if, when, and after the pitch is picked up, and it will serve to flesh out a good concept come story-creation time.


A series bible may include:
  • The overall concept
    Ongoing characters - main, supporting, villains
    The setting
    The rules of the world you're creating
    Gadgets and gizmos [if any] and how they work
    What CAN'T happen in future storylines
    Format
    Series tone
    Series theme
    An opening story
    Story suggestions

Let's look at these one by one.

THE OVERALL CONCEPT

This would be the basic series idea.  Probably the one that first popped into the creator's head that got them excited in the first place... then it's fleshed out here.

It's a mix of all the other bible elements presented in a few short paragraphs.  The characters, conflicts and setting all rolled into one dynamite concept.

    The Bat-Man is a series feature about an avenging night creature who stalks and punishes criminals.  By day he is Bruce Wayne, a wealthy layabout in the east coast's Gotham City... by night he is the avenging Bat-Man, feared foe of the criminal underworld.  Dressed in a bat-like costume designed to strike fear in the hearts of criminal cowards, he seeks out crime and metes out punishment to those who dare to defile his city.    

By today's standards, that seems pretty tame, but before the newsstands were stuffed full of super-hero comics by 1940, that was enough to get a publisher on board.

These days you need something fresh, with a new twist on old ideas, or something that's so new, it must be set in motion and presented to the hungry public.

ONGOING CHARACTERS - MAIN, SUPPORTING, VILLAINS

Your bible should include a list of your main characters, their supporting cast, as well as a rogues gallery of main villains.  

Each character may be summed up in half a page or less.

What are their motivations in life, their worldview? Biggest flaws, greatest strengths, etc.  Important physical characteristics, sexuality, habits, likes and dislikes.

The supporting cast may include the nosy neighbor, the secretive hitman living next door, the hero's jealous girlfriend.

The key to compiling the list is to create characters in which conflict can be implied and imagined... before any story is written.  If everyone's happy-go-lucky, you can't expect much conflict.  But if you have a jealous girlfriend character, or a vindictive brother character, your stories have a better chance of popping with conflict when your characters are interacting. When you create characters with built-in conflict among them, the stories practically write themselves.

Same for villains, but even more so... is there a past between the hero and villain?  Is it personal?  The more personal, the better.

Working out the various characters and their personalities is a ton of fun.  Especially when it all fits together in the end.

I also like to create a handful of quotes that the character may utter... something that sums them up in a few words... but in THEIR words.

The bible may or may not include a character sketch, but "official series bibles" almost always do.

It may help to "cast" your roles with real people.  As you create, keep an image of that person in mind.  Or use actors you like, or an actor in a specific role from a specific movie as a template.  Modify that character to suit your needs.  Create an amalgam of people to create an original character.  Maybe Bruce Willis from Die Hard, but with your sister's mania for cooking and cookbooks.

POWERS

Outline the main characters' powers, if any.  If you have a bunch of folks with powers, you can add the powers to the characters' list.

Try to be as specific as possible.  Limit their powers in some way.  Remember when Superman burst on the scene in 1938?  He couldn't fly... but he could leap an eighth of a mile without busting his shins.

Compile a list of all the powers... what the hero can do with them and how they may inhibit the character, too.  The best powers are those with a down side.

Sure, your hero can run faster than the Flash... but then he needs a half-hour nap to make up for it.

Play around with different down sides to see what has the best potential for more stories in the future.

THE SETTING

Is it the underbelly of 1920's Chicago? Or the far-flung planets of Tatooine and Hoth? Or a mystical, magical place between light and shadow that never really existed?

One doesn't have to think very long to see this is especially important to TV shows... especially sitcoms where the main action takes place on 3 or 4 sets [the apartment or home, the workplace, the diner where the characters hang out, etc].

While your comics series will probably allow the characters to romp almost anyplace you want, there is usually a short list of locations that will be used often.  Maybe the team's headquarters, or the hero's home gym, or the corner bar where your detective meets his street-level operative.

Create that list and try to create an atmosphere, or a decor for each.

THE RULES OF THE WORLD YOU'RE CREATING

This is especially important for otherworldly places you're creating... science-fiction or fantasy worlds where the rules of life here on planet Earth in 2010 may not apply to your series.

Racism may be at an all time high in your alternate future... or mankind may be subjugated by an ape-led society.  Maybe vampires are in charge, maybe giant robots are wiping out the last vestiges of humanity as the series opens.

Each one of these concepts would need to be thought out to include a series of rules as to how your world operates.

These are all spelled out in the series bible.

But even a "real place" can have its own rules... at least as they apply to your series.  If your series concentrates on a criminal, underworld family in modern-day Bronx, you'd need to spell out the code of conduct by which they live... a code that is outside the understanding of polite society.  A code that readers need to learn through the characters, because it's a code they're not familiar with in their own lives.  A code that's spelled out in your series bible for your own use or the use of other writers.

Take the corner bar that was mentioned above... maybe it's always empty expect for 3 or 4 other patrons besides your hero and his informant.  And no women are seen there... ever!  It's THAT kinda place!

GADGETS AND GIZMOS [IF ANY] AND HOW THEY WORK

Again, this is much more important if your characters' world has a sci-fi or fantasy bent.  

Futuristic ray guns need parameters [what they do, how effectively, etc.]... magic wands are handy, but they also need limits to their power.

Futuristic airships have top speeds, down sides in their use, etc.  As with characters, conflict must be a priority in creating the parameters of gadgets.  They can't be cure-alls that are undefeated each time it's wielded.  Every weapon must have a limit or weakness that allows stories to be constructed.

If Green Lantern's ring had no weakness, the stories would be mighty short!

WHAT CAN'T HAPPEN IN YOUR STORYLINES

The NO-NOs of your new characters' world plays an important part of defining what CAN happen in your world.  

On the sitcom Cheers, writers were instructed never to show Norm's wife on screen, Charlie Brown can NEVER kick that football or have lunch with the red-haired girl.  Charlie B is a loser who never wins.  If he was allowed by his creator to win... even sometimes, the flavor and theme of the strip is lost.  It must remain consistent.

Seinfeld had a "no hugs" rule... no "special episodes".  They left that to other shows to do.

You may decide that your main character will NEVER marry his girlfriend... maybe to keep sexual tension alive in the series, or simply to portray your hero as a non-committer.  It may be a flaw in his personality.

There are lots of rules you can set up that limit what happens... partly to maintain the series theme, but also to create conflict and character.

FORMAT

Sometimes even a format decision can be made and slipped into the series bible.  Maybe the creator wants every first page of each issue to be a full-page splash with the story title and credits.  This would be outlined in the bible.

Same for a decree that says all issues must end with a cliffhanger... or that all issues be self-contained stories... or that all issues must open with the series hero at the gravesite of his murdered wife.

If the creator wishes to leave the format open, he's free to do so.

SERIES TONE

The tone of your concept may say a lot about the salability of your series.  It is straight drama?  Cartoon violence with heavy dollops of over-the-top action?  Is the concept a satire, a farce, or a reflection of the underbelly of a corrupt city?

You may go into the concept stage with a specific tone in mind, only to discover later that making your series about a private eye a satire on 21st-century politics is a better take than straight detective-noir themes that we've all seen a million times.

A fresh tone may actually be the main selling point of your subject.  Take something familiar and lay in a tone that seems incongruous to the subject.

Say, maybe a concentration camp during World War II... oh, except it's a funny camp run by an inept German officer [the 1960's hit show "Hogan's Heroes"].

Your super-hero concept may fall flat if you present it too seriously.  A comedic approach may make it different from the pack that already overloads the comic racks.  

Play around with tone before nailing it down in the bible.

SERIES THEME

Series rarely start out with a theme in mind, but one usually seems to pop up as you focus your concept.

The theme of Spider-Man was "With great power comes great responsibility."  This theme relates directly to Spidey's origin.  Because of his failure to use his powers to stop a robbery, his Uncle was gunned own.  The theme became his credo, his motto that led him to selfless acts rather than the selfish one that caused him so much heartache.  It's a great theme.

Yours would be something different... maybe: "Secrets are a way of life."
Or: "True strength starts with falling down first."

As you develop your world, your concept, your characters, a theme is sure to emerge.

AN OPENING STORY

Here would be a simple plot outline of the opening story arc that introduces the series character and his world to an unsuspecting public.

The opening arc is where you take the ingredients you've created: the concept, the settings, the hero, the other characters, the conflicts, the gizmos... and create your story stew.  Blend them together in a dramatic form.  And while you're doing so, you may decide to go back and tweak a few characters to better fit the world you've created... or the tone you've decided to use... or up the level of conflict through character.

Until the bible is "done" all parts of it will be in flux and subject to change if it makes the concept and property that much better.

STORY SUGGESTIONS

A short list of possible stories here suggest the kinds of issues that "future stories" [beyond the opening story arc] may deal with.

If your bible is solid, your characters, setting, and conflicts should suggest quite a few quick, one-line, what-if story strokes.

They may be full-on A plots, or even a handful of sub-plots to explore.


<><><><><><><>


Any of the various categories may alter over time as the series progresses and as fans ask for certain kinds of stories that may not fit the first version of the series bible.  Every series [especially long-running ones like Batman and Superman] morphs over time [anyone familiar with the 1950's Batman?  Nothing like the character is now.]

But the more focused the bible before launching the series, the better formula for success in the long run.  At the very least a bible can suggest if your idea has "legs"... that is, enough at its core to keep the idea running over many issues... or does it collapse at issue 3 when the concept has run its course?

About the author:
Kurt Hathaway studied art & design at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and studied film and screenwriting at New York University's world-famous film department.

He's been a comics freelancer for 25 years. His client list reads like a who's who of publishers: DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, Eclipse, Malibu, and tons of others. He has thousands of lettering credits including two for Newsweek and Esquire magazines. A DC editor nicknamed him "The Comics Commando" for his timely delivery of deadline work.

He letters the webcomics "Master Jesus" and "Chicago 1968" both written by Len Kody.

In addition to lettering and logos, Kurt Hathaway's Cartoon Balloons Studio does custom font design, page/book/magazine design, pre-press (setting up press files for the printer), and animated motion graphics for video projects.

He's written material for Image Comics, DC Comics, Antarctic Press, Electronic Arts Playstation Division, and ABC/Disney Television. He wrote the Sci-Fi farcical webcomic "Doc Atomic" - now offline.

He's currently writing the comic series "Dawn of the Dread Force" for Jaran Studios. Dreadforce.com

Also, anyone with comments, gripes, huzzahs or those who just want to get in touch to pick his brain, can reach him at: khathaway1@socal.rr.com

Kurt's online lettering gallery of samples.

His studio's promo video:

Kurt's demo reel of Animated Motion Graphics.

His short-projects video Editing Reel.

A short horror web-comic he did waaay back.

Offline Gar

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Re: CREATING A SERIES BIBLE
« Reply #1 on: November 15, 2010, 05:34:24 AM »
Good article! I've taken on a co-writer recently, I should make one of this for his (and my own) benefit :D

Offline Rob

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Re: CREATING A SERIES BIBLE
« Reply #2 on: November 15, 2010, 09:44:50 AM »
I've had a bible for Remedy since before I had an artist to draw it. And I update it periodically so when I make radical changes to the story progression (as I've been known to do) things move along properly. It's a great tool but before my next rewrite I'm going to re-read this article and make sure it's everything it could and should be. Thanks Kurt.  ;)

Offline Cary

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Re: CREATING A SERIES BIBLE
« Reply #3 on: November 27, 2010, 05:30:27 AM »
Yeah I'm big on series bibles honestly. They help me keep my ideas in line, and it makes it SO much easier to pass on the vital info to someone you're working with, be it artist, guest writer, or whatever. I've even sent mine to colorists because I've got full body shot drawings included in the bible. The time savings alone makes it well worth it.

Offline wendyw

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Re: CREATING A SERIES BIBLE
« Reply #4 on: December 08, 2010, 03:23:34 AM »
I don't have a series bible, but I do have a character bible I'm building up instead.
It lists things like phrases that characters are likely to use, ones they rarely use and ones they'd never use, their exact address, list of known relatives, various likes and dislikes, jobs they've done before and stuff like that. Some characters are better fleshed out than others of course and if things come up in the comic that aren't covered then I'll add them in.

I should probably do a general series bible as well.

Offline Rob

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Re: CREATING A SERIES BIBLE
« Reply #5 on: December 08, 2010, 11:36:53 AM »
I have something like what you do in that I have a page or so description for every major character that includes their physical description as well as history and personality traits... but then I also have a series bible because it helps me keep my thoughts on what will happen in the series organized.