Now that you’ve finished your logline, what do you do with it?
If you’re a pro and have an agent or other contacts in TV, now’s the time to get on the phone and send some email. Set up meetings with Suits you and your support team of Those-In-The Know think will be open to a pitch of your idea. In other words, the right network/studio development executive or the showrunner of the series for which your premise is intended.
Use the logline to get the meeting by integrating it into your conversation so that the potential buyer will want to sit down face-to-face and hear more. But don’t go to the meeting without your leavebehind.
What, exactly, is a leavebehind? The word itself is simply the current showbiz name for a synopsis. A synopsis, though, is created after the fact, boiling existing written material down to something that’s shorter and easier to read, and a leavebehind is written beforehand, when it’ll do you, the writer, the most good.
Like the logline, the leavebehind has two purposes. It’s both a sales tool and a creative one.
Saleswise, just as a logline exists to get an executive’s attention, a leavebehind exists to keep it by showing that there’s some real substance behind your original concept. It’s a short 3-5 page expansion of your logline, giving it a beginning, a middle, and an end. This gives you the basis for your presentation at a pitch meeting, and something to actually “leave behind” when you’re finished, so the exec will be able to refer to it, or, if things go well, send it on up to the boss.
By giving your idea a shape, you’re also moving forward creatively because you are forced to think everything through and see how viable it actually is. You start to know a little about your main characters – their names for one thing, since you’re going to have to refer to them here and there – and probably their occupations.
You’ll know their problems too, especially the problem that’s the central core of your soon-to-be story. And, believe me, there’d better be one. All television shows, as well as plays, novels, films, and epic poems, are about someone we think of as the hero trying to solve a problem.
Not just any problem either. It has to be a tough problem, a meaningful problem, and, most importantly, a perilous one. There has to be an element of risk, with something important at stake. If the hero or heroes succeed, good things happen. If the hero or heroes fail, we’re talking way, way bad stuff going down.
Once you know your main characters and their main problem, your next step is to design the opening of the show. Whether it’s a TV movie or a series episode, write it out just as you would if you were telling the story to a friend, saying a little about the characters and what they’re involved in. Tell how the problem starts.
I think this is worth repeating:
TELL HOW THE PROBLEM STARTS.
If there’s a “B” story, AKA sub-plot, mention that it exists in a sentence or two and move on. Where you’re moving to is the middle of the story. Tell the major turning point and the crisis it causes. This can involve the villain’s escalation of his or her plan, or the hero’s moral dilemma, or dire trouble for someone else our hero cares about, or the annihilation of the whole planet. It should be something logical but unexpected. Because we have to keep the exec from stopping the meeting or the reading to take the next phone call, and, eventually, keep the audience from pressing another channel on its remotes.
Let’s say that one again too:
THE MIDDLE ACTION SHOULD BE LOGICAL BUT UNEXPECTED.
Now it’s time to get your characters to the end. This means creating a new situation of heightened conflict and jeopardy. Whether it’s a drama, an action piece, or a comedy, the situation in general terms is always the same. I’ll capitalize it now, so I don’t have to repeat it:
THE CLOCK IS TICKING. THE WORLD IS GOING TO BLOW UP IN 30 SECONDS,
COURTESY OF A NEUTRON BOMB ATOP MT. EVEREST. THE HERO, WHO’S THE ONLY
MAN IN THE UNIVERSE WHO CAN DEACTIVATE THE BOMB, IS BENT, STAPLED, AND
MUTILATED SEEMINGLY BEYOND ALL REDEMPTION, LOCKED IN A TRUNK AT THE
BOTTOM OF THE ATLANTIC.
Tell the set-up that gets us to this point. Then, if this is a TV movie, you’re done. You’ve baited the hook. If this is an episode of an existing series, go one step further and tell the clever resolution of the ending.
Why the difference? That has to do with the sales tool aspect of the leavebehind.
For a TV movie you’re looking to pique the interest of the powers that be and make a deal based on what you’ve given them for free so far, or at least get another meeting to discuss the project more fully. And they’ve got to make that deal or have that meeting if they want to hear the complete ending. Besides which, the more you say or write, the more there is for a potential buyer to disagree with or dislike, so play it close to the vest.
For an episode of a current series, you give away the ending now because its brilliance is one of the most important things for which a showrunner will need you. Just as the writing staff is exhausted from coming up with premises, its members also are burned out on great resolution stratagems. A writer who can come up with a truly new and clever way for a current series hero to solve the big problem is worth his or her weight in contracts.
If you’re trying to sell a new series for broadcast/cable TV, you have to take a whole different approach. That’s because you’re not trying to sell one individual story. Instead you’re creating the series concept, the overall context in which stories will be set. If you get to write a pilot, you’ll sit down with a group of Suits and work out the story for it together, which you’ll do following the rest of the steps in this section.
Over the years, I’ve found that the best way to handle the leavebehind for a series concept – AKA a series proposal – is to begin by presenting the general nature of your show. In essence, this opening is a half-page elaboration of the logline, telling the genre, theme, and general idea.
Then it’s time to name and describe the main characters and the general tenor of their relationships with one another, and the kinds of situations in which they’ll be involved. Tell as clearly as possible the kinds of things you see happening every week and what the effect of those happenings will be.
Is your lead a single father struggling to raise his 87 kids? How did he get those kids? What kind of person is he? What’s he do for a living? What kind of people are the kids? How do they spend their time? Do they love each other? Is the father the Sultan of Zambowi, with 87 children all trying to kill each other so they can inherit the throne? While they’re working on their assassination attempts, what other kinds of things happen to them?
In other words, what are the general problems? What are the conflicts? And, most importantly in a series, why will the audience care about these folks?
Speaking of series and their bases, here’s a sidebar: Daytime serials and animated TV series always have bibles. A bible is a thick document, often 100 or more pages long containing detailed character descriptions, overall attitudes, continuing arcs, and specific storylines, and it serves as a guide for everyone working on the show, especially those who write it.
Primetime series, with the exception of science fiction and fantasy shows, which have to set out the rules of their unique settings, almost never use a bible. In part it’s tradition: “We never used one before.” In part it’s arrogance: “Bible? I don’t need no stinkin’ bible. I’ve got it all in my head.”
And in part it’s caution: New primetime series often have big stars attached to them, or small stars who become big stars by the end of the first season. And big stars have big input. In any conflict between a creator/showrunner and a big star, put your money on the big star. When the dust settles, the creator/showrunner, no matter how talented and highly respected, will be gone.
And now for:
THE MOST IMPORTANT TIP I CAN GIVE YOU FOR A SERIES LEAVEBEHIND/PROPOSAL
The word “formula” is usually condemned by writers, but every TV series depends on a formula. Your series leavebehind is your opportunity to develop yours, and, again, it will serve two purposes. The execs will get a better understanding of what the audience will be seeing so they can make a more informed decision, and you’ll know the basis from which you’ll be working in the future if the series goes ahead.
In fact, the most successful – and helpful – series proposals contain a concise and literal statement of the formula, ala, “Every week on UNCLE DADDY KICKS BUTT one or more of the following situations will occur, which Uncle Daddy and his buddies will resolve by kicking butt in one or more of the following ways” and then laying everything out.
AN EVEN MORE IMPORTANT TIP FOR YOUR SERIES LEAVEBEHIND/PROPOSAL
At the end of this kind of leavebehind, everyone will think you’re a genius if you give loglines for about half a dozen potential episodes. This will show that your concept is so good that the stories are just dropping down onto it like ripe apples falling to the ground, and it will reinforce your “Every week…” paragraph by giving concrete examples.