As more streaming services come online every year, the demand for stories to also grows. Academy-honored author and adaptation consultant John Robert Marlow offers tips about what Hollywood is looking for in a series, and how to pitch it to them in a way that will have your name in the credits.
Humans have always been storytellers.
Whether gathered around a campfire, painting on cave walls, writing words on dead trees or glowing screens—it's in our blood.
Books and other storytelling formats can be noble undertakings, capable of reaching hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of people. But movies and series are the global campfires of our time.
And those fires are about to become more numerous—offering adaptable storytellers an unprecedented opportunity to get their stories on the screen. While the number of well-heeled movie buyers has been dropping as major studios merge with each other, the number of buyers for streaming / TV series is about to explode.
Thirty-three million Americans cut the cord on cable services in 2018. The reason is simple: viewers no longer need to pay inflated cable prices for content they can find on more reasonably-priced streaming services like Netflix and Amazon.
The number of streaming subscribers, on the other hand, is now approaching 200 million in the U.S. alone. Netflix has subscribers in 192 countries.
Not coincidentally, new streaming services have been announced by Apple, Disney, NBC/Universal, WarnerMedia, and DC Universe. All of these are scheduled to come online in 2018-2019.
The price of entry is not cheap. In 2017, streaming leader Netflix spent over $6 billion on content. In 2018, that figure rose to $13 billion. Amazon has announced plans to spend a billion dollars on a single series.
To compete with that, old content will not be enough.
Every one of the new streaming entrants will be shopping for new content, and spending billions of dollars to buy it.
Existing players will have to up their games as well; HBO, for example, is bumping its original content by 50% in 2019. Facebook Watch and Walmart’s Vudu have also announced expansions.
The situation is an unprecedented and seismic shift that will affect the entertainment landscape for decades to come. And what that means is this: There has never been a better time to pitch a series.
But what exactly is a series pitch, and what are buyers looking for? We’ll cover that in a moment.
But first, the obvious question: why not just sell the screen rights to your book, instead of doing a series proposal? Two reasons: money, and credits (which mean more money).
Unless you’ve already hit it big as an author—really, really big—the amount of money (and especially up-front money) you get for rights alone will be small, and you will likely have little or no involvement in the ongoing series (which again means less money).
Series proposals, like feature screenplays, answer questions books don’t: How do we adapt this into a series? What do we keep, what do we drop, what do we add, change or move around? Who do we hire to write it, what’s that going to cost us, how long will it take and—at the end of all that—will we have something worth filming?
When you walk in the door with the finished proposal, all of those questions go away. If they like it, they option or buy it. The closer you can get them to the finish line—the easier you can make their job—the more they will pay you. In addition to a source credit (“based on the book [Your Title Here] by [You]”) and payment for each episode, you will now get a “created by” credit and possibly a producer credit as well.
Each of these comes with—you guessed it—more money per episode. Because you’ve shown that you can write an engaging pilot and convey a vision for the series, you may also be tapped to write future episodes—collecting a “written by” credit and yet another paycheck.
Simply put, the longer the series goes on and the more involved you are, the more you make. It can, in the best cases, be the difference between thousands and millions.
What Hollywood Wants
Through long and sometimes painful experience, Hollywood buyers have discovered qualities that, while they may not guarantee series success, certainly make success more likely. And so whether your series proposal is being looked at by an agent, manager, producer, actor, director or studio executive, you can rest assured that they are ticking through a mental checklist as they go.
A checklist that looks rather like this…
1. Pitchable Concept
Hollywood movers and shakers may have more money than the average writer, but they have considerably less time. They want to know who and what your story is about—in ten seconds or less. If you can’t keep their attention for ten seconds, you can’t do it for thirty minutes or an hour.
This means a killer logline that contains the three essential elements of your story’s core concept: who it’s about, what their goal is, and the obstacle that stands in their way.
“A fugitive doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife struggles to prove his innocence while pursued by a relentless U.S. Marshal.” That’s a logline. At a relaxed pace, it takes seven seconds to say aloud.
2. Relatable Characters
The biggest, most action-packed story in the world will bore an audience to tears if the characters aren’t there. The smallest, most personal story in the world will rivet the audience if the characters are relatable and/or compelling.
Ideally, different audience segments see a bit of themselves, or people they know, in different characters.
Viewers keep watching, not because they want to know what happens next, but because they’re emotionally invested in the characters and they have to know what happens to the characters next.
Fortunately, the very nature of series allows us to explore and develop characters in ways that features simply don’t have time for.
3. Emotionally Compelling Story
The main characters’ journeys must trigger the viewer’s emotions. People who sit down to watch series are seeking an emotional experience—whether that’s laughter, tension, fear, retribution, wonder or catharsis. Or all of the above.
You’re not selling a story or words on paper or screen. You are selling an emotional journey—or you’re not selling anything at all.
4. Ticking Clock
There’s a difference between a main character who sets out to find a bomb that may go off and destroy the city at some unspecified time in the future and one who must find and disarm that same bomb before it goes off an hour from now.
A ticking clock may be time-based (as in the bomb example), event-based (the character must, say, win the lady’s heart before she falls for Mr. Wrong), or both (drive a time-traveling DeLorean past a lightning strike at precisely 10:04 p.m. next Saturday night).
In all cases, a ticking clock adds tension, urgency, and conflict—creating a situation where there is literally no time to waste. A pilot or other episode may have one or even several ticking clocks; an entire season may have another. Occasionally, a whole series will have a ticking clock. “Winter is coming.”
5. Visual Potential
Some books are cinematic by nature, others not so much. Authors can climb inside characters’ heads and stay there for pages on end; screenwriters, for the most part, cannot.
Interesting things must pass before the camera, thoughts must be spoken or shown, internal struggles must be externalized or have external equivalents.
At the same time, none of this can be obvious. This is why you often see a rookie character paired with a grizzled veteran; in showing the rookie how things work, the vet also shows the viewer. The filmmaker’s art makes use of sight and sound alone. Your book doesn’t have to be visual, but the adaptation does.
“Classical” story structure consists of seven plot points in a specific order: inciting incident, first act turn, midpoint, low point, second act turn, climax, and wrap-up. Probably 95%+ of all commercially successful feature films are classically structured.
The same is true of series, except that some of these structures play out over multiple episodes or even seasons, while others may run their course in the space of a single episode. (The latter being far more common in network series.) Buyers are inclined to play the odds, and most series that get bought incorporate classical structure.
7. Actor-Friendly Roles
Actors want beefy roles. Series (like movie sequels) used to be looked down on, by actors and others. Cable and streaming changed the rules and are now recognized as havens of creative expression. So much so that prominent feature actors often take pay cuts to do series, because the format allows them to do things they couldn’t do anywhere else.
No one’s going to pay them $20 million for two hours of series screen time but if the series is successful, the long-term payoff can be enormous; even $1 million per episode adds up quickly.
Payment aside, actors want to be challenged. They want to dive deep and stay there, explore different facets of their characters, evolve them over time, surprise and move the audience in ways a two-hour format will never allow. Help them help you, and give them what they want.
8. Expected Length
Series have established running times. Non-ad-supported outlets have more flexibility than ad-supported, time-slot networks, but the norm is still around 30 minutes for comedy and 60 for drama. First-timers do not warrant exceptions; no one wants to hear why your series must break the mold. First, play by the rules; maybe you can bend (or break) them later.
9. Reasonable Budget
Absent raging bestseller status or a massive Hollywood track record, a newcomer is not likely to warrant the $250 million Amazon recently paid for The Lord of the Rings rights, or that series’ projected billion-dollar budget.
Even the most expensive series (LOTR excepted) get a whole season out of $100 million or so—which is about half the budget of a single tentpole action film (or one-fifth Avatar’s budget). Most series get by on considerably less.
Look at what’s hitting in the market you seek to serve and don’t bust the budget. The more it costs, the smaller the number of people and companies willing and able to make it. You can buy a decent house for what it costs to shoot two characters talking in a coffee shop and a place in Beverly Hills for the cost of a dragon attack.
10. Low-Fat Story
Books can be as long as their authors want them to be, so long as they keep things interesting; typical series episodes can be a half-hour or an hour, more or less. Because of this, everything nonessential is out the window.
Because Scene A, therefore Scene B; because Scene B, therefore Scene C. There is no time for digressions or detours that are not vital parts of the characters’ emotional journeys or relationships, or of the plot itself (and preferably both).
Does a character visit the same place three times? Can you make that two, or one? Does a character piece something together with information gleaned from five different characters? Can you condense those five characters into one? Maybe not, but it’s important to ask—and answer—such questions yourself before someone else does, and wonders why you didn’t take care of this yourself.
If you want to not only sell the series but stay on as a writer, you’re going to have to at least look like you know what you’re doing.
11. Staying Power
Can your series go the distance? Is there enough raw material to evolve and expand over multiple seasons without hitting the same note over and over, or dragging things out just to burn time? This is going to depend on the nature of the characters, situations, relationships, and conflicts established in the first season.
Feature films don’t need this. Sure, it’s nice to have franchise potential but it would take more than a hundred movies, billions of dollars and well over a century of fast-paced feature film production to match the number of hours in a 10-year network series. Your task is not the same as the feature writer’s. You must be faster, leaner, and deeper.
Now let’s move on to…
The Series Proposal
When you’re pitching a feature, you have a logline, a short pitch, a screenplay—and that’s it. If someone likes the logline (a ten-second pitch), they generally ask to see the script. If they want to know more before committing to read, they get the one-minute pitch. Once they’ve read the script, they know everything they need to know to option, buy, or pass.
The screenplay sells itself or doesn’t.
Pitching a series isn’t like that, because in this case, you’re trying to sell something that (mostly) doesn’t yet exist. You don’t sell a series you hope will go for ten seasons by writing ten seasons’ worth of episodes and then looking for a buyer. What you do instead is write the first episode—the pilot—and create a series bible to go with it.
Now, writing the first episode is an art in itself, somewhat different from writing a feature screenplay, and very different from writing a book but if you’re not comfortable tackling that yourself, you can always hire someone to help or do it for you. (Just make sure you keep the rights.)
And while this isn’t a treatise on how-to-write-a-pilot, there are a few things to keep in mind…
The length of the pilot depends on the genre; comedies typically run thirty minutes, while dramas are an hour. Page count varies. Because dialogue burns more pages per minute of screen time than action, talky tales run longer (pagewise) than action-oriented stories.
Scripts intended for networks that show commercials might be shorter than those for streamers that don’t. Generally speaking, comedies run 28-32 pages, and dramas 48- 70. Some pilots are written like short features, while others include labeled act breaks.
The pilot sets up your characters and the world they inhabit. But whereas a feature need only concern itself with a two-hour story, a series proposal has to set the ball rolling on a tale that might span (depending on frequency) anywhere from 60-220 or more shows over the course of a decade. So your pilot needs help. That’s where the bible comes in.
No one wants a series that peters out after one or two seasons. (The exception being “limited series;” more on this below.) The purpose of the series bible is to show the prospective buyer that the characters, conflicts, and situations set up in the pilot can go the distance, spinning off new and compelling stories and arcs and subplots that can go on, and on—and on.
This is why there are so many cop, medical, and legal dramas; people in these careers are constantly exposed to new people and situations, and the stakes are often life-and-death. But there are other, more unique approaches; witness Breaking Bad, House of Cards or Game of Thrones.
So, a series bible will include the following things…
A long-ish summary of the pilot episode; perhaps one page of summary for every ten pages of script—and perhaps less.
Brief summaries of all first-season episodes; a good-sized paragraph for each. In the case of a limited series, this could be as few as four to six episodes for the whole series. For conventional series, you’re looking at 6-13 episodes for a cable or streaming season, and up to 24 for network.
Keep in mind that there’s a fundamental difference between overall streaming/cable and network series structure. Networks prefer their episodes to be modular; that is, all episodes are self-contained so that any given one can be viewed in isolation. If viewers miss one episode (or three), it doesn’t matter all that much.
Streaming/cable series are another story.
With most of these, each season has an overall arc, and each episode occupies a particular (and non-interchangeable) place within it. Episodes, like book chapters, are part of one continuous whole; miss one—or view it out of order—and you could find yourself completely lost.
Write your summaries accordingly—and (unless you’re pitching a limited series) tell the story in a way that makes it screamingly obvious that these characters, conflicts, and situations have the “legs” to carry them through multiple seasons.
Speaking of characters, the bible should also include bios for all main and recurring characters. What are their essential characteristics, driving forces, and desires, fears or insecurities, obstacles? How do they relate to the other characters in the story? You don’t have to go on for pages; a beefy paragraph for each can suffice.
You may also want to indicate the show’s future direction—beyond season one—with overall or season-by-season notes. This information need not be presented with the same level of detail as the first-season info, but should nonetheless show the reader that you have a firm grasp on where things are going.
You may or may not wish to include supplementary material, which can be anything that seems appropriate for your particular project. This doesn’t mean throwing in the kitchen sink, or “padding” the proposal to make it longer. But if there are documents (real or imagined) that meaningfully enhance the proposal’s impact—put it them there.
JFK’s moonshot speech in a series about the U.S. space program, for example; FDR’s day-of-infamy speech in a story about World War Two; the Martian Constitution in a tale set on a colonized Mars—you get the idea. If the originals are too long (or don’t really exist), just excerpt the most relevant portion(s).
Finally, you’ll need a logline and one-page pitch for the pilot episode, and also for the series as a whole. Because first, you have to get their attention.
Hollywood may be a well-defended castle on a hill, but it cannot survive without constant injections of new material—stories—to keep audiences engaged.
The “streaming wars” will massively increase the amount of material—in the form of series and, to a lesser extent, streaming features—needed by Hollywood. The war is just beginning, and there is no end in sight.
For those who can tell the kinds of stories Hollywood needs—summer is coming.
Have you thought of adapting one of your books into a series script? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
John Robert Marlow is a novelist, Academy-honored screenwriter, and adaptation consultant. He is also the author of Make Your Story A Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea For Hollywood (“A comprehensive and practical guide” — Booklist). The book distills the advice of authors, screenwriters, producers and directors whose films have earned a combined total of over $50 billion. A second edition (with a heavier emphasis on series) will be published in 2020.
The revised first edition is currently posting free on John’s Make Your Book A Movie blog, where you’ll find interviews and advice on adaptation, loglining, pitching, structure, self-editing and more.
Roddie Simmons says
Please tell me I am not the only one who realizes you can self-produce your streaming series just like you self-publish your book series…on…wait for it…Amazon Prime Video (aka Prime Video Direct). You know barely a click away from where your book is sold. Sure, it takes skills and an investment but who was born knowing how to create an eBook or an audio book. Certainly not Scholastic which has been animating many of its children’s book back list like Clifford the Big Red Dog on Amazon Prime Video. Amazon has spent millions, super bowl ads, Emmy awards, guest appearances on morning talk shows, you name it to make Amazon Prime Video competitive. Much more than it is spending to promote books, eBooks or audio books.
Of course, we all got into self-publishing so we could pitch to gatekeepers, wait by the phone or mailbox for that coveted option. We would never think of creating something ourselves… Just a thought.
Joanna Penn says
Yes, there are many people who produce video series — but it is a completely different skill set to writing and publishing a book. I don’t believe you can be successful at both. Also, a truly successful TV series takes a whole lot more people, whereas I can run my own company as an author with just me. I’m an independent by nature, but not for those realms where partnership will take my work further. Kudos if you can do both, of course 🙂
Roddie Simmons says
Thank You! I accept your Kudos. You yourself have brought it up though. Self-Publishing has plateaued as just a profession for writers. Now the growth is those who bring business and multiple talents to the table. Not all of them are blogging or podcasting in the public eye. For every Dave Chesson who use their considerable skills to develop a Publisher Rocket there are many who simply use their multiple skills without anyone knowing. You may find them at the top of the Best Sellers list but never know what skills helped them get there. In my case I know Web Development, Game Design, 2D Animation, 3D Animation, Video and Audio Editing, Digital Publishing as well as Voice Overs. I am sure I am not alone.
Joanna Penn says
“there are many who simply use their multiple skills without anyone knowing” – I know this to be true and many weeks, I think about doing it myself – but I love to help other people achieve their own creative goals and always wanted to be a self-help author, so I can’t help sharing the journey!
Colin Guest says
Well said, I totally agree with your thoughts on this subject. I think helping others on the road to success is just as important as helping yourself.
John Robert Marlow says
Yes, you can. You can also put it on YouTube. But… The reason the indie wave that largely swept away the trad record and and publishing industries has not yet done the same to the “film” industry is that the cost of entry is still high. Sure, you can shoot (if not market) no-budget horror or comedy of a certain type–but if your story requires a real budget and you’re doing it on your own, you need well-heeled financiers. You’re not shooting Game of Thrones (or even The Handmaid’s Tale) on a credit card in your garage. That day will come, but it’s not here yet.
Patricia M Robertson says
I have a clean, family drama series I think would make a great TV series. How do I find places to pitch this series.
John Robert Marlow says
When you say you have a series–do you mean books, episode scripts, or…? It’s sometimes possible to sell series rights to an idea or existing book series but, absent a track record of massive sales–you’re going to be paid far less than you would for a full-on series proposal, that eliminates much of the guesswork for the buyer.
Maggie Lynch says
Great article! Thanks for getting John to offer these tips.
I have been thinking about the obvious need for content with so many streaming services, but I hadn’t gone the next step to discover how my content might fit. Because I already write in series for my books, it seems that is the beginning of thinking in series for TV.
I was interested to hear that producing a pilot script was desirable. I had more thought about it as selling rights to a series. I’m not sure about wanting to add screenwriter to my list of things to do as an authorpreneur. How about you, Joanna? Are you considering doing a screenplay for anything or finding someone to partner with to do the screenplay?
Joanna Penn says
I’ve tried partnering with people for a pilot and also tried writing a couple myself — but it is another skillset altogether, one I will definitely revisit at some point 🙂
Colin Guest says
A great article full of helpful information. In conjuction with Voyage Media, I wrote a Treatment/Pilot based on my memoir Folow in the Tigerman’s Footsteps. Although no interest so far, I have sumitted both my book and pilot to two different competions. I think I have more chance that way to get it noticed by someone/organisation looking for something out of the ordinary to use as the basis for a television series. As I am a positive person, I live in hope.
Eufie Unazna says
I have a novella that I hope can be turned into a script.
Erik Edstrom says
I published a book this year with Bloomsbury. It’s received critical acclaim from the New York Times, LARB, New York Journal of Books (amongst others).
A real-life story about an idealistic young man who attends West Point and ultimately leads an infantry platoon in the most dangerous districts of Afghanistan only to find that the US military is committing war crimes and hiding civilian deaths; when he objects to the war and reports the incidents, his hard-nosed commander embarks on a quest to ruin his career–and maybe even get him killed–inviting the question, “what does America stand for?”
Erik Edstrom says
I’d love to get your thoughts on how I can successfully adapt this for the screen.
It’s an important cultural message that needs to be told. And those least likely to buy the book are often those most in need of hearing the message.
I must meet these people where they are–hence, adapting it for streaming.
L. M. Lacee says
I have a clean, family fantasy and science fiction series I think would make great TV series with enough written visuals to keep a digital graphic artist busy that would enthrall the public in these genre.
How do I go from writing 2 multi book series, one in fantasy dragon shifter adventure and the other in earth to other worlds science fiction adventure to finding places to pitch this series, or at the very least an agent interested in a profit share for finding interested parties?
D. J. Boyle says
I have a gritty, action adventure story that, in novel form, takes most people a week to read. It took me a while to polish out the last bugs, but in its final form it won a Reader’s Favorite 5-Star rating. It’s long and involved, and would have to sliced and diced too radically to make a decent movie. Its for those same reasons – and the fact that Netflix and others are producing marvelous series – that its well suited to a series format. My problem: knowing how to write an adapted screenplay that anyone would actually read.
Stanton Parsons says
Hello, I have written a book called “Three For Me” which was published last year by Christian Faith Publishing. It is a short book about my father, who had some tragic events occur soon after he was born in 1907. His birth mother died of tuberculosis, his father fell off a second story scaffolding onto his head and, later, his adopted mother was shot in the head by a stray bullet from a neighbor next door while she was combing his hair in the kitchen. He was ultimately adopted by an incredible woman who was an immigrant from London, England and physician during the Spanish Flu Pandemic. The book outlines all of these events. I believe it to be worthy of a mini-series or something similar. This my first book and my first venture into such an endeavor. “Three For Me” by Stanton Parsons
Pratibha Eastwood says
Do you know or can suggest a person or company that assists in doing the necessary steps to make the book into a saleable screenplay or series? i am looking for such help
Joanna Penn says
You need to do a lot of research on this — and there are lots of websites specializing in that area. Start with a lot of goggling 🙂