Maybe you have your pilot script, or maybe you just have the idea. Either way, you’ll need to develop your idea into a full-fledged concept before taking it out to pitch and sell.
For many writers, you develop on your own and then re-develop it when you attach either talent or producers. You might even dive in again if you manage to find a platform for your series!
Much like how writing is rewriting, developing is re-developing. It never ends because your series needs to last years, requiring a concept to evolve. To set yourself up for success, you’ll need to lay some well-thought-out groundwork on your own first.
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What is Development?
Many people believe they need the information to fill out the pitch deck or pitch bible and answer significant world questions in a pitch meeting. That’s easy in theory, but how many of us have put it into practice?
You need to do the work of an omniscient presence, creating the world and all of the people, rules, themes, and environments from complete darkness. Here’s how that breaks down:
Start with Blue Skies
If you already have the general idea, start with a free-write. Much like J. J. Abram’s “living document” idea, nothing should hold you back here. No show is complete without the central theme, the character we’re following, the audience’s way in, the genre, the rules of the world, and more. So just allow it all to flow out of you and play with every idea that appears as far as you can take it before moving on to the next one. The words “no,” “I can’t,” “that won’t work,” and the like have no place here.
There’s no particular order as you move into the more specific areas. Go where your idea is already the most potent and continue to build from there. For example, if you’re writing a future society (such as Handmaid’s Tale), go through the message or theme and how that manifests in the world before determining the character at the center. If you’re thinking of a complex character journey set in a simple premise (like Euphoria), consider the characters who will exemplify your message before moving into the big moments that shape the series.
What Message Are You Trying to Convey?
You might not know the message at the center of your show when you’re first developing it. But as you’re looking over your notes, are there any traits or conversations that continue to emerge? Consider the show Succession. It was always billed as a dark family satire, loosely inspired by the Murdochs. When it was first announced and released, it seemed to be about looking at awful people who harm society through business, commenting on the effects the Murdoch family’s actions have caused through their media conglomerate. However, as the show continues, the complex character dynamics and how money creates an emotional disease for those with too much of it make the fictional Roy family a whole lot more interesting than the Murdochs.
Create the World and Tone
Many writers worry about their ideas being stolen, but the main reason you shouldn’t is that your voice has a specific tone that only you can create. As you’re building out the world where your story is situated, whether it’s in a government office or a fantastical planet from your imagination, you will make the series your own.
Consider how many shows are set in police departments, hospitals, or courtrooms, yet they’re all completely different. Even more specific arenas set themselves apart. Just think back a little over ten years ago, when NBC picked up 30 Rock from Tina Fey and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip from Aaron Sorkin, with both shows depicting the behind-the-scenes world of a sketch comedy series. Apart from that basic setting, the shows could not be more different. So make sure that your series’s tone is cohesive on the page, in the deck, and in your pitch.
This is also the part of development where many pilots struggle as it can be difficult to explain so much of the world and how it operates on the page. Look for creative ways in the action and descriptions to show the most important rules of the world with the goal that you will have as few questions as possible from potential producers and executives while also not overwhelming them with how much you include that could bog down the story.
Who Are We Following?
Your central character is how the audience immerses themselves into the world. They can be a fish-out-of-water alongside the viewers, simultaneously learning everything about their new environment (i.e., Orange is the New Black). Alternatively, they could be entering a world familiar to the audience but new to them (i.e., Barry) where the audience is almost holding the protagonist’s hand through the journey. But either way, in the world of television, your characters can make or break a show’s success.
Think of it this way: many viewers get upset with the twists and turns or endings of big watercooler shows like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, but they stick around every week because the characters are compelling. The lead character Piper in Orange is the New Black was tough for many viewers to root for, but there were countless other characters that the show could center on each week to keep people watching.
Even if you don’t know every episode of your show, you should at least have some idea of where your show is headed. One of the aspects of Breaking Bad that made it so successful is that the creator, Vince Gilligan, always knew where Walter White was headed in his emotional journey, the challenging part was determining how fast or slow to get him there.
What’s the “Week-to-Week”
Even the most serialized shows have a “week-to-week” format. Consider shows such as Netflix’s Jessica Jones, where the protagonist has a detective agency, and the first few episodes of the first season each start with a set up from a job. The more she delves further into the show’s mysterious villain from her past, the more serialized it becomes. Similarly, most episodes of The Mandalorian season one start with the titular hero getting a job that lasts for only one episode.
Many writers often lean so hard into the serialized story and setting up the world that the show doesn’t start until the end of their pilot, which is why they often hear the note to get into the story faster. Consider this as you’re breaking your pilot script. Where does the show truly begin: the end of act one or the end of the pilot? Once you know, look at the structure of your pilot and see if there are episodic elements that you can use to set your series apart from others. Brainstorm future episodes with these elements while also showing if the show is wholly episodic or serialized.
Who and Where
There are more platforms than ever to launch new shows, and they have a wide variety of tastes and audience needs. One of the last things you have to determine is your format, whether it’s a half-hour or hour, episodic (may also be called “procedurals”) or serialized, and the kind of network where you see the show.
Because audiences are continuing to splinter, it might be worthwhile to consider developing your concept to be tweaked depending on where you’re pitching, much like you would your cover letter when you apply for a job. Consider the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which was developed for a long time and even shot a pilot at Showtime before getting a pass and being redeveloped at The CW. The CW at the time was building a new brand and was open to that kind of development work, but many shows in similar situations could be looked over.
Since streaming networks are where the watercooler shows are (which is somewhat about the viewing numbers, but more so about the online conversation surrounding a show on social media), writers often think of those platforms first. However, broadcast channels have large mandates to fill and sometimes bigger budgets. And just because a show exists on a streamer doesn’t mean it has to be completely serialized. Just look at the recent success Netflix has found in taking typical half-episodic/half-serialized broadcast series and moving them onto the streaming platform, such as Lucifer. And just because something is serialized doesn’t mean it can’t be a huge success on broadcast, as seen with the juggernaut, This is Us on NBC. This boils down to you have options, don’t limit yourself and your idea to one platform.
You’ve likely spent weeks gathering all of the research, ideas, developing this entire show. You have an idea of where it starts, where it’s going, and how it will end. Now, it’s time to put it all down to sell. You’ll need your script, a pitch deck for those who want the general idea and voice, and a bible with future episode ideas, the themes, and the world explained for anyone who dives deeper.
And now that you’ve done the work, you know it all inside and out… and are ready to develop it again! But this time, if you’re working with new people, it means you sold your concept, and the people who signed on are just as excited as you to make it onto the small screen.