As more streaming services come into being, stories are needed more now than ever. Tim Hawken shares his experience turning a book into a TV series, what (and who) you need to know, and how to bring that dream closer to reality.
Having your book turned into a film or TV series is every author’s dream. With streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and more buying up content left, right and center, there has never been a better time to be putting a pitch together for your own story.
But where on earth do you start and what do you need for the best shot at having it picked up? I recently went through this process for my Hellbound Trilogy of books, teamed up with screenwriter/producer Ken Kabatoff (Travelers on Netflix) and actor Charlie Bewley (Twilight, The Vampire Diaries). The experience taught me a lot about putting a pitch together, as well as managing emotions and expectations throughout the process.
Here’s a step by step guide on what you need for a pitch and who you’ll need to think about attaching to the project to get it over the line.
1. Find The Right Partners
A TV show isn’t built in a vacuum and neither is a TV pitch. At the very least, you’ll want people to give you feedback. Better yet, you’ll have a writing partner or a team to help push the project’s momentum forward.
For me, it all started after an editor of a magazine I had written for gave an actor friend of his (Charlie Bewley) the first book in the Hellbound series. Charlie identified with the lead character Michael, so got in touch direct asking if he could help bring the story to the screen. He in turn was friends with a few screenwriters and suggested up-and-coming talent Ken Kabatoff for the job.
You could say it was blind luck that this all happened (in a sense it was) but remember, I’d done the work to write a book in the first place and put it in the hands of the right people.
Lightning has since struck twice with another actor getting in touch out of the blue to work on a different project. Sew your own seeds and they should also grow. Hustle to get your book to people who know folks in the business, or go direct by looking at shows in a similar genre and looking at writers that might fit.
Of course, the creators of Game of Thrones aren’t looking for their next job, they have more than enough offers on the table. But plenty of screenwriters are hustling for their next gig as much as you and are willing to put in the hours to create something. IMDB is a great resource here to not only find possible leads for writing partners, by finding other talent to attach as things progress (more on this later).
2. Write A Pilot
A TV pilot is a script of your first episode for the series. Every pitch needs at least one full episode written out, to prove the worth of the story and to prove whoever is writing the thing actually knows what they’re doing.
Thankfully, I’d been approached by Ken and Charlie on this front, after Charlie had read and loved the series. Ken and I worked to put together a workable draft, then polished it up until it shone.
Screenwriting is quite different from novels, so it was huge to have an experienced person guiding this along and doing the lion’s share of the work. I acted more of an advisor to the story, making sure the concept stayed true to the books.
Be warned that there will likely be scenes in your own work that might not work visually on the screen. Some things need to be tweaked to suit, so find a good balance of protecting the integrity of the work, while being flexible to adjust scenes and maybe even combining two minor characters into one.
If you’re writing the thing yourself and aren’t quite sure where to start, I recommend reading a few good pilot scripts to get a feel for the structure and pace. This article is also quite helpful when it comes to hints and tips.
3. Write a Show Bible
A show bible is a pitch document that outlines the world your story is set in, summarizes the key narrative arc of the season, sketches out key characters and offers an episode-by-episode breakdown of the first season.
Assuming you’re going beyond a single season, which most shows would like to, you should also outline what will happen in seasons 2, 3 and beyond. If you’ve got a series of books, then it makes sense to follow the same pattern and have each season based on a single book.
Because a lot of show bibles can look a bit bland, we also commissioned concept artist John Gallagher to bring the world of Hellbound to life visually. It’s quite a cool way to prompt the imagination and give TV executives a more visceral sense of how the show might look and feel.
Another way to lift up the pitch to be fun to read is by writing it in the voice of the main character. One incredible pitch I came across during my research was the show bible for Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. If you’re interested, have a read here. Be prepared for a laugh.
4. Attach some talent
There are a bunch of ways you could approach this part. Some advice out there says it’s best to leave the show open for a studio to attach talent themselves, others say it helps to have a lead actor, director and maybe a producer.
At the very least, you’ll need a reputable agent to get the idea in front of the likes of Netflix. We used Charlie and Ken’s current representation to help with this, so I only needed an entertainment lawyer for contract negotiation. I was lucky.
Finding an agent can be tough of course, just like in the book world. Unfortunately, however, there’s no reasonable self-publishing option in TV or film, so it’s a necessary step. Just make sure your pitch and pilot are as sharp as they can be, do some research into which agencies might suit your genre (look at shows like yours and find out who repped them), and query, query, query. ICM Partners and CAA are two of the big ones if you need somewhere to start.
5. Nail Your Verbal Pitch
You’re going to have to nail your verbal pitch both for an agent and for whenever the time comes you might find yourself in a room of TV executives. This should add color to the documents you’ve already produced, foresee any questions or issues people might have, and make a good case for why your show is going to make them money.
Like with anything, practice makes perfect. Rehearse in the mirror, roleplay with others in your team and really dial it in. Because I’m based in Australia, our screenwriter Ken Kabatoff was doing the pitching in LA. We went over scenarios countless times on Skype and Ken also did the same with Charlie. It meant that when he walked into the offices of Netflix, Hulu and more, he was ready to give things a red-hot crack at making Hellbound a reality on the screen.
Unfortunately, despite the team’s best efforts, Hellbound wasn’t picked up by any of the major studios. After months and months of work, the pitch was received incredibly well. However, the asking budget of over $100M for the first season was just too much. As Ken joked ‘we could make Earthbound for less’, but that wasn’t a compromise we were willing to make, so let the project go to rest.
Still, I learned so much during the process, made some great contacts in the industry and had a wonderful time talking story with true professionals. Hopefully, I’ve been able to impart some of that learning to you and it will help you turn your own novel into a TV series.
Happy writing and happy pitching.
Have you considered turning your book series into a TV or streaming script? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Tim Hawken is an award-winning author of 4 novels and numerous short stories.
You can sign up here to get a free copy of the first book in his Hellbound series. It’s a thrill ride through the depths of Hell with Satan as your guide.