Craig Miller gives readers a basic course on the development process from a writer's perspective.
When it comes to the creation of a television series, there's a process that takes place. The process is different for each series. No two happen in just the same way. Yet, in certain ways, it's the same for each one.
From the writer/artist/creator's point of view, it starts with "development." As creators in the entertainment industry, we pretty much agree on what the term means. But it does seem to have different meanings to other people. Even to other people in the industry. Especially to studio and network executives, who start on development only after we've finished. And after we've finished pitching! Which is why this article has three parts.
For those on the outside of the industry, development is a mystery, exemplified by this scene from The West Wing episode "20 Hours in L.A.," written by Aaron Sorkin. Who certainly knows what development means. The show's protagonists are at a cocktail party fundraiser for people in the entertainment industry. At the event, a studio executive-type comes up to CJ Cregg, the White House press secretary.
Exec: I think that there's a place for you in our company.CJ: Doing what? Exec: Development. CJ: Of what? Exec: Development of projects.CJ: What's that mean?Exec: You'd be developing feature projects.CJ: Movies.Exec: Yeah.CJ: You know what? You want Toby or Sam. I'm not a writer.Exec: Oh, no, we have writers.CJ: Well, I certainly can't direct or act.Exec: No, you'd just be in development.CJ: And what's that?Exec: Shepherding projects -- developing them.CJ: I thought a guy writes a movie, and a guy directs a movie.Exec: Sure.CJ: And in between there are designers and technicians and actors.Exec: Yes.CJ: So, tell me what I do again?Exec: Development.CJ: Okay. Well, at the moment I have a pretty good job and I understand what it is, so, uh, I sure appreciate... [spots Sam walking past] Sam! [to Exec] I'm sorry, I've got to talk to Sam about a thing the President wants me to... [She walks away with Sam] Pretend you're talking to me.Sam: I am talking to you.CJ: Walk me outside.Sam: Did he offer you a development...?CJ: Yes!Sam: Me, too. Do you know what it is?CJ: No.Sam: Me, neither.
Development, in its most simple, basic terms, is coming up with and/or shaping the elements of a television series or movie. From the series creator's perspective, it's creating the world and the people who live in it.
Part 1: Development
While there have been instances where someone with half a page of written material and a couple drawings sketched on a napkin has sold a television series, that ain't the way to bet. Not that it can't happen, but it's easier to be among the 999 than the one in a thousand. Most series are sold from presentations (or show bibles). Six- to 20-page documents, telling all there is to know about your series. As part of developing your show, you have to create one. But before that, you have to come up with your show.
Usually, the person creating a series will have an idea: "Aliens! A show about aliens!" Great. Or at least it's a start. "Aliens on Earth." Better. At least it narrows it down a little.
But a television series -- be it an animated series aimed at preschoolers or an hour-long drama for a cable network -- is, in essence, a giant story. It doesn't matter if it's an "arc show," where each episode is a chapter in a single continuing story (like 24 or Heroes) or if, at the end of an episode, the show's universe "resets to zero" and it's as if the last episode never happened (which was the case for most television throughout history, and still is for most animated series). The show itself is a like story in this particular way: it's about the characters.
A lot of people think stories are "this happened and then this happened and then that happened." They're not. Stories are "there was this guy -- or this woman or this talking dog -- and then this happened to him and he reacted by doing this and then the other guy reacted by doing that." The thing that makes the story interesting is who what happened happened to and how they reacted.
So when the show's creator starts "developing" the series, one of the first things to be determined is who is this show about. Among other things, who the show's about will tell you what's going to happen in the series.
So who are those aliens? What are they like? How many are there? What do they want?
How do you figure that out? A good question, and one for which there really isn't an answer. It doesn't actually matter. Who they are -- nice guys, nasty meanies, practical jokers, studious nerds -- is completely up to you. Who do you want them to be? What sorts of stories do you want to tell? What do you think will make them interesting to other people? Wacky comedies will probably be better served by aliens other than ones with death rays. (Unless, of course, they're facing Bugs Bunny, in which case all bets are off.)
You want characters you understand, because all of the stories of all of the episodes will -- or should -- come from who your characters are and what they want. What happens in the stories will also come from there. So you need to know a lot about these characters. Some writers I know create entire dossiers on their main characters. Who their parents are. What city they were born in. Where they went to school. What they eat for breakfast. Unless those things are important to your stories, I think that's taking it too far. But if your character's parents were spies, and that informed the character's personality, then it's important and you should know it.
And once you know who your main characters are, who else is in the show with them? Good guys and bad guys. Heroes and villains. And side characters. The ones who'll turn up in small ways in every -- or in most -- episodes. You need to be careful to not have too many. It's hard to tell stories about 10 characters. And too many characters get in the way, especially when you're trying to sell the show. People sometimes get confused and can't keep straight who your show is about. That's a definite problem. So only a few main characters and, likewise, only a few recurring ones.
The majority of any presentation will be material about the characters. Probably anywhere from three to six pages, depending on the show, how many characters, how much detail you go into, etc. And artwork. A lot of artwork isn't necessary, but I'd suggest at least a cover piece and, if possible, drawings of your main characters.
You also need a section on "the world." What's this show about? Where's it set? What's its tone? This can be anywhere from a few paragraphs to a couple pages, but probably no more than that.
And you'll need to have several story ideas. Six to ten is a good range. Not necessarily fully worked out stories, with beginnings, middles, and ends, but a paragraph or two each, that gives an idea of a story your characters can be involved in. The basic reason for this is that television series are many episodes long. Probably 13 to start, if your show sells. Maybe 40. Maybe more. The executives need to know that the characters and situation you've set up can sustain that many different stories. Are there places for these characters to go? Stories to be told about them? And have you thought this through enough to know where and what they are?
And that's basically it. When you develop a television series, you need to figure out the world, who lives in it, and what's going to happen to them. And put it all down on paper in a way that's interesting, entertaining, and will get people excited enough to put up millions of dollars to turn it into a television series. That's all. Not much.
Part 2: Pitching
It doesn't do you any good to create a show and then keep the presentation in a drawer. You need to get it out into the marketplace, tell development executives (the people who make deals with creators for shows) about it, and see if anyone wants to make it.
Meeting with an executive and telling them about your series is called "pitching" and the occasions at which you do it are called "pitch meetings." How you get such a meeting is the material for a different article, but once you have a meeting, here's what's likely to happen.
You'll go to the office of the studio or network, where you'll wait in the lobby until the executive's assistant comes to fetch you. While you're waiting, or, sometimes, after the assistant comes, you'll be offered water or a soft drink. That's pretty much a given. Far more likely than that they'll validate your parking. Feel free to take them up on the offer. If nothing else, it will help keep your mouth from getting dry while you're pitching.
You'll be escorted to the executive's office, which will be smaller than you expected. (Sometimes you end up in a conference room but I actually prefer meeting in their office. It's more personal and friendly.) Offices for animation executives in particular are usually decorated with artwork from shows they worked on and with toys.
You'll have no more than half an hour to pitch, so don't waste time. You don't have a lot and the person you're meeting with is busy. But don't be all business either. If you don't already know the executive, you want to make a connection, and it's okay to spend a couple minutes talking about the shows they've worked on (as evidenced by the decorations in their office). People like working with people they like, so be personable.
Fairly quickly, though, get down to pitching. Bring two or three copies of your presentation and give one to everyone in the room. Including the assistant, if they're still there. (Always treat assistants well. You never know how much the executive relies on their opinion. And if they see you treating their assistant badly, they won't think well of you. Plus, you never know when the assistant will get promoted to executive. And if you were a jerk to them... )
Tell them about your show. It's about this character and his friends. He's this sort of guy/dog/robot. And his friends are like this. It's in this sort of world. And they'll have adventures of this sort. It's fine to use your presentation to guide your pitch, and to remind you of things you want to cover. But never read your presentation to the executive. They don't need you for that. They want to hear your voice, hear your enthusiasm for the material. And you want them to get just as enthusiastic.
There'll be questions. You should know your material well enough to be able to answer them. Sometimes the answer can be "I don't know; I haven't worked out that detail yet. You'll never hear "yes" in the room. The answer you'll get is "no" (usually with an explanation) or "maybe" (usually phrased as "I'll read over the material"). No one has the authority to say yes. No matter how much they like your idea, they'll have to talk to the people they work with.
Usually, you'll hear within two weeks. If not, call. But don't call too often. You call too often and they'll tell you no just to stop you from calling back.
Part 3: More Development
"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.'" -- Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking Glass.
When creators say development, we mean developing an idea into a series concept. Whether it's an idea original to me or one I've been hired to develop, I'm talking about taking the underlying concept and turning it into a full-blown, fully worked-out world, populated with characters with lives and personalities, and with situations that will make good episodes of a television series. When studio and network executives use the term, they generally mean "taking the idea you had and changing it into something we like better." Sometimes it's as if the work you did never happened. It didn't exist until they breathed life into the property. But not always.
Sometimes you get good executives and the changes they want actually are for the better. If not to better the concept or the characters, at least they'll make the show more marketable and will help get it made. Unfortunately, not all executives are good executives and sometimes the changes they want are just because. Some people feel they're only earning their pay if they make you change something, whether it needs it or not.
There are things that we can't know when we're coming up with the series. To get the series made, the company you're working may need to make a co-production deal with a company in, say, Australia or France. Or ones in Australia and France. That other company will be putting up part of the money and wants a say in the show. And for their market, they may want a character who is Australian (or French). So suddenly your English teashop owner will need to become the operator of a French patisserie or an Australian surf shop.
Sometimes a change will be because the executive -- who likes your show -- has noticed that there's a problem with how your hero manages to sneak out of work all the time. The logic isn't there. So they try to help you fix it.
Sometimes the executive just doesn't like the color blue, so your "blue fairy" is now a "green fairy." (Not all changes are good changes.)
Part of the trick is knowing which things are important -- important to the integrity and the quality of the material -- and which things aren't. Some things are worth fighting for. Some things aren't. Does the fairy's color really matter? If not, don't fight. If it does matter, maybe there's a compromise that works for everyone. Or maybe you can convince the executive of why it's important that it stay blue.
You need to know which battles are worth fighting. You won't win them all, so make sure you win the ones that count. The ones that make the show better. When it's all done, you'll all have a show you're proud of.
Craig Miller has been writing, developing, and pitching animation for a while. He makes most of his living developing series, sometimes from his own ideas and sometimes based on ideas brought to him by companies in the U.S., Australia, China, or other places with televisions. He also teaches writing for animation and games at colleges like the Art Institute of California and Woodbury University, and he has been a guest speaker at the Annecy Animation Festival in France, Cartoons on the Bay in Italy, and the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival in Scotland. He also enjoys pop-up books.