I’ve written briefly before about how I began developing a TV show with my writing partner Ed. I finally figured it’s time to go into a lot more detail about this entire process. Now this is going to be a bit of a tough post for me to write because I would love to spend the entire day writing over every single detail on this show, but I have a feeling that might put me in a bit of a bind later on, should this show ever get picked up.
We here at the network loved this pilot! We were less thrilled about you posting the entire script and every single moment of the season online for your future audience to see.
To cover my future butt, I’m going to go over as much of this show and its creation process as I can while leaving the specifics of the plot out of the way. So without further ado, let’s dive right into the history of what I hope will one day be your favorite TV show, Continuum.
The first idea for Continuum sprang to mind two years ago, early in 2013. Saundra, Edward, and myself were preparing to contact Nickelodeon to revive Jimmy Neutron. (Seriously, you might want to check out that previous link so we don’t sound insane here.) Mike Gasaway, director of many episodes of Jimmy Neutron, had suggested to us that we come up with original show ideas to give to Nickelodeon as well to prove how creative we were.
While at the dining hall one night, I tried to think of a possible idea for a new show. The single-sentence concept that I kept coming back to was, “What if a teenage girl from 2040 got sent back to our time?” That idea really intrigued me, but ultimately this would be one of the few pieces of advice we ignored from Mike: our group decided to focus solely on improving our season four plan for Jimmy Neutron. I wouldn’t think about this new show again for six months, when Nickelodeon rejected a fourth season of Jimmy Neutron. In that rejection letter rested a glimmer of hope:
Your script and proposal were well crafted, and I encourage you to work on an original idea. I am sure if you put as much effort and craft into an original idea, as you did into this proposal, you will create something great.
It was now time to take Mike’s old advice seriously. I remembered my concept of a teenage girl being stranded 25 years in the past, & Ed and I both agreed that it sounded like a good basis for a show. We spent the next month turning this one-sentence idea into a complete plan for a series.
This was incredibly difficult. We had next to nothing to work with: a single unnamed character gets lost in the past. Who is this person? Why did she end up here? Who are the other people she interacts with? What happens in the first season? What happens in every episode of this first season? These are just a handful of the many questions we needed to answer and fast. I quickly began keeping track of all our ideas in a Continuum notebook, which rapidly started to look like it belonged on the set of Se7en.
Or at least it would if my camera wasn’t the absolute worst piece of junk in the world.
Ed and I quickly agreed that the first thing we needed were solid characters. We figured once we knew who the major players in this story were, we could use their personalities to backtrack a bit and come up with the major plot points they would experience. Here are the original visions we had for each of this series’ major players, along with some early concept art we got our friend Corinne to draw up for us. As you might be able to tell from my tone when writing this section, a lot of these characters would undergo major revisions throughout the development process. Don’t worry, we’ll get there.
In our original designs, Kali Miles was a fifteen year-old prodigy in all areas of science, although she was particularly adept at physics. She had spent her whole life moving from home to home, and thus had never had a single friend aside from her robot companion VIC. Due to this lack of social interaction, Kali was cocky, somewhat reckless, and incredibly disdainful of those she viewed less intelligent than herself (which was basically everyone).
Original Kali: a giant jerk.
Jason was a 13 year-old computer whiz starting his freshman year of high school. Having been bullied for years because he is a nerd, Jason is lonely, depressed, and desires a real friend more than anything. When Kali travels through time and appears in front of him, he latches on to her in spite of the fact that she views him as an inferior savage.
Original Jason: boring.
Seventeen year-old Alex Miles would one day become Kali’s father, but in 2015 he’s just a senior in high school. He is an unparalleled prodigy in quantum physics and an utter loner. He tells himself that he has no need for any friends, and as a result is very cold and solely focused on his work.
Original Alex: another huge jerk. Great leads so far!
Sixteen year-old Emily Fortis would one day marry Alex and become Kali’s mother, but in 2015 she’s just a burgeoning engineer. Quiet yet caring, she is known to crack the occasional joke and views herself as the “mother hen” of her group of friends.
Original Emily: why were all our characters so quiet?
Fourteen year-old Greg came into existence solely because we felt there needed to be a non-genius in the group for the audience to relate to. He serves as the comic relief character, has a burgeoning friendship with Jason (whom he’s helped save from bullies), is a football star, and immediately falls head-over-heels in love with Kali.
Greg: the only character who really hasn’t changed.
This robot’s name stood for “Virtually Intelligent Companion: Hovering Automated Scribe Edition.” He was a floating orb that was Kali’s only friend, although he lacked true sentience himself. This version of the personal robots that were so common in 2040 held a little electronic pad and pen to take down his master’s notes; thus making him ideal for researchers and scientists.
Original V.I.C.H.A.S.E.: Did he need such a complicated name?
Okay, so those were the major players we came up with. Based on these relationships, we quickly worked backwards and figured out the basic idea for the series. In the future, Alex and Emily Miles constantly traveled the globe in a desperate search to finish their time machine. Their neglected daughter Kali figured they were just searching for resources and backers, but the hidden truth was much darker.
At any rate, Kali’s parents tricked her into using their newly completed time machine by saying she would get to go visit her idol, Leonardo da Vinci. Instead, she became stranded in 2015. While struggling to get back home and thwarting a malevolent corporation bent on stealing her technology, she befriends a group of fellow teenagers, including her younger parents.
But what about the theme of the show? This is where I really started to get excited about our project. I’ve harped many times before on how shows like Jimmy Neutron and Avatar truly inspired me and helped me become the person I am today. That’s why I find developing a kids’ show such a beautiful thing, if you do it right you can help millions of kids grow into the people they want to be.
Ed and I were in complete agreement on this regard. We wanted the major themes of this show to be the importance of friendship, family, and tolerance. These five kids would start out as near strangers, but over the course of their journey together would become a true family. Kali in particular would realize that there was nothing wrong with opening up to others, and would become so attached to her new friends that she began to wonder if she even wanted to return home.
It was also very important to us that we have a diverse cast. We wanted Emily to Chinese, Greg to be African-American, and Kali to be mixed Caucasian-Chinese. We really strove to show that there’s absolutely no reason you can’t be friends or lovers with people outside your own ethnicity.
We also wanted to do our best to make science seem cool and help millions of kids realize that being smart and wanting to change the world is an awesome thing.
So we set about outlining a thirteen episode season plan, as well as summing up all of our characters, themes, and major plot points in a show bible. Before we sent this all out to Nickelodeon, we shipped it over to our old friend Mike who gave it the once over.
And proceeded to tear it apart.
Gosh darn it, Mike. Stop being charming for five seconds so we can be upset with you!
Becoming defensive and upset is your first reaction when your work is criticized, but we knew we needed Mike’s input and couldn’t be more thankful for it. Even though it meant spending a ton more time to remedy the problems Mike listed, we knew it would make our show better and improve our chances of getting picked up. Here are two of Mike’s biggest concerns and how we fixed them:
Kali was too conceited and rude to be likable.
To Ed and I, it made perfect sense that someone who’d been uprooted from her home every few months and never given the chance to interact with others would be really abrasive and wouldn’t see the point in forming friendships. Yet Mike wisely pointed out that that didn’t make a very likable protagonist. We were amateurs in the business and anyone interested in our show would be taking a huge risk picking it up. We would have to pick and choose our battles, and he didn’t think this was one worth fighting for.
Ed and I conceded, and as a result we came up with an even better version of Kali. We started to realize that there was another, just as likely outcome to never getting the chance to socialize: you would crave that interaction. This new version of Kali hated that she never got to make friends and wanted nothing more than to find a group she could be part of. As a result, when she got stranded in 2015, she was immensely thankful to Jason and came to view him as a little brother.
This made for a much better dynamic between our two leads, a more likable protagonist, and greatly improved our themes of family and togetherness. I absolutely love our current version of Kali and her sincere desire to be loved back.
We also expanded on Mike’s note to take a look at our other characters. Were there ways we could make them stronger? There absolutely were.
V.I.C.H.A.S.E.’s name was way too awkward, as was the idea of him holding this little pen and pad all the time. Why not just shorten his name to Virtually Intelligent Companion (VIC), make him a simple sphere, and call it a day? We also had him become borderline obsessed with Jason and humorously excited about every adventure our protagonists faced.
As for Emily, this was a cartoon! Why not make her boisterously funny and excited all the time? This would put put her in conflict with Alex a lot, and that dichotomy would make their future marriage and burgeoning romance throughout the first season more interesting.
Jason was just too sad. Lonely and depressed? Why not make him proud of his computer abilities instead? He could still have been bullied in the past, but we decided that this emotional torment left him with sarcasm as a defense mechanism: Jason could now wryly comment on all the insanity this group would be part of in the show. And he could still be anxious, but why not ramp up the humor and have him constantly chug Xanax in the background while lamenting all the terrifying things he was forced to be part of when he took in this strange girl from the future.
Greg stayed pretty much the same because Greg is awesome.
While Alex’s character mostly went unchanged, we decided to focus a lot more on his rivalry with Emily. The audience knew that these characters would one day get married, but in 2015 they are constantly fighting over test scores and sharing insults. I’ve always been a huge fan of love/hate relationships, so we decided to slowly let a softer side of Alex develop over the course of the first season as he struggled to admit other people can match his intellect and he lets Emily into his life.
Xavier, Spero’s head researcher and major antagonist to the kids, should not be an adult.
In our original plans for the show, Alex and Emily would get an internship at the Spero Corporation, which was just getting off the ground in 2015. It was headed by the kindly Tobias Chase, whom the kids often looked up to as a mentor. Xavier Mors would be the lead researcher, heavily suspicious of Kali, and constantly trying to find ways to prove that she was from the future. Realizing that Alex was the group’s weak link due to his lone-wolf tendencies, he would try to manipulate Alex into betraying his friends.
Mike said this wouldn’t work. Not only was this a cliched plot, but networks don’t like kids’ shows having major characters be adults. We tried to resist this advice because most of our leads were teenagers, but then we realized, “Hey, maybe the award-winning director with a decade of experience in the industry might know more than us.” So we tried to figure out a way to make this antagonist a kid.
What we came up with was that Xavier was Tobias’ nephew. He’s best friends with Alex because they both view themselves as the best of the best and share a disdain for all those worse than them. When Alex starts hanging out with these new kids and Xavier suspects this new, strange girl might be from the future, it drives him off the edge. This crumbling sanity combined with Alex being pulled in two directions by his different friends made a much more intriguing and original dynamic.
Those were Mike’s largest concerns, but my girlfriend Louise also offered a huge piece of criticism herself.
“Hey honey, why is the only African American character the only non-genius in your show?”
That comment wasn’t quite so civil in real life, but I couldn’t argue her point. I’d tried to break the mold, but I was actually just being offensive. How did I think that making the only African American character a dumb jock was progressive? Ed and I quickly agreed that Alex should also be African American, thus making Kali Blasian.
This was good not just from a progressive standpoint, but also because I now get to write the word “Blasian” all the time when describing my show’s main character. How is that not the most awesome adjective possible?
There were a ton more minor changes made during this time. The biggest was that Ed and I realized that having this many geniuses in a normal high school was ridiculous, so we made them attend Animus High School for the Gifted. This also allowed us to come up with a cool background the town these kids lived in and let us expand on Tobias’ role in the show. (He rapidly morphed into a fun-loving, nearly insane trillionaire who struggles to find ways to donate his money faster than he makes it.)
But at long last we sent our show bible and season outline to Nickelodeon. Then we were rejected.
That stunk, but Nickelodeon was just one of many possible avenues for getting this show made. We’d foregone writing a pilot script to contact them as quickly as possible (before they forgot about us and our Jimmy Neutron revival attempt), but we decided now was the time to finally write our epic season opener. This took a year and a half to finalize.
Obviously Ed and I didn’t spend every second of every day writing and editing a pilot script; that would not make any sense. During this time we also adjusted our show bible, started to contact TV agents, sent different versions of our script to Amazon Studios (which was the most open of all the networks to checking unsolicited material), and got feedback from various other writers.
It’s insane how much our pilot script has changed since then. It went from a 66 page, 44-minute episode to a 33 page, 22-minute deal. Many whole scenes were added and removed several times. (Ed and I must have tried to perfect a scene where Greg saves Jason from bullies half a dozen times before we realized it just wasn’t necessary.)
Mike continued to be a huge help during this period, looking at several majorly different versions of our script and offering feedback. Ed and I were amazed and delighted when Andrew Nicholls and Darrell Vickers, two writers with over thirty years of screenwriting experience, agreed to read through our script and offer their advice. I’ve written before about how amazing these guys, Mike Gasaway, and Keith Alcorn all were, but it bears repeating here.
These guys are incredible. When we first contacted Mr. Nicholls and Vickers about our desire to bring back Jimmy Neutron and write for it even though we had no experience, they passed along our scripts and show bible to their agent.
Who the heck is that nice?
You have no screenwriting experience and want to revive a long-dead TV show? Hang on, I’ll get my agent on the line with you.
These guys stuck their necks out for us again and read through our entire pilot script, which at this point was 46 pages. (As an FYI, this was the most amateurish page count we could have sent them. This is right in between 22-minute & a 44-minute episode length; it showed we had no idea how long this pilot was going to be.)
This was a huge turning point for me and Ed. At that time we understood the basics of how to write a script, but didn’t have a grasp on the nuances we needed to. Mike had helped us understand a lot of the problems he faced as a director when looking over scripts, but we needed to hear from writers. Andrew and Darrel were just the guys who could save us.
In a massive email, they dissected our script and pointed out all our mistakes (and our occasional flashes of competence). They taught us that every line needs to have an express purpose. They highlighted staging concerns, pointed out gags that weren’t working, mentioned character discrepencies, and just tons of other minor things which added up and dragged our script down.
After this, I really feel like everything clicked for me and Ed. Our new revisions came easier, and when we sent them back to Mike or adventurous readers who were willing to look them over the criticisms were much less severe. We started to feel like we finally had a solid grasp on screenwriting.
While we made minor touch-ups to our script and kept adjusting our show bible, we also decided to take a plunge and purchase professional concept art. Concept art isn’t strictly necessary to get a show picked up, but a high quality piece can really make an executive more willing to flip your bible open and read a few lines. If those opening lines are good enough, you’ve got a chance at hooking them.
High quality drawings can get expensive and Ed and I are not as wealthy as Tobias, but we began the search for the perfect artist nevertheless. Luckily Nate Lovett, one of the best cartoonists I’ve ever seen, agreed to take us on for an extremely reasonable price. I could not be happier with the result.
To me, this is perfection.
So now Ed and I finally have everything set. Mike and several readers have given our final script the A-okay, everything’s in the proper format, and we’ve got Kali’s kick-butt smirk to pull readers into these documents. This weekend we’re going to meet up and plan out exactly how we’re going to bombard Hollywood with Continuum. We’ll mail our show bible and script out to networks, contact more agents, and send emails out to the creators and crew of shows that we really admire. We got insanely lucky when we contacted the Jimmy Neutron team; I have to hope that we’ll run into more established professionals who are willing to take a chance on us.
But that’s not the end of the story. In spite of all the work it will take to contact these people, for the most part it’s still a waiting game. After we send out these packages and emails we can’t do anything except sit back until we get a response. I’m tired of that. I’ve been saying that I should get to work on my second novel for years now, and I decided to make this new book a novelization of Continuum.
I hope that Continuum gets picked up as a show; I truly think it would make for an action-packed, emotional, and inspirational series. But I also know the odds are against us, at least for the near future. After spending so much time crafting these characters and this world, I want to make sure it gets made in some form. So I morphed our season one outline into the first book in a planned trilogy. (I always hoped that a TV version of Continuum would have three seasons; it seems the perfect number for an action-adventure and mythos-heavy show.)
This may pose some legal problems down the road; if the show gets picked up before I’m done editing this novel then it would be very hard to get it published. But if this novel does get published first, I could still market it as a movie or TV show if it were successful. And even if no publisher were willing to accept it (which I hope isn’t the case!) I could always self-publish it.
That road has earned me literally tens of dollars so far.
I’m nearly halfway through this novelization and I love writing it so far. It was completely surreal turning our pilot script into the first three chapters, it felt like I was stealing from myself. It was even crazier turning the ideas from future episodes into the next chapters. But what I really love about this book is that I can ramp up the action and tension.
I’ve always had some intense moments planned for the TV version of Continuum. I figured they bordered on what was acceptable for a kids’ show, but The Legend of Korra has really paved the way for more mature children’s programming.
I absolutely adore this series. I’m emailing Continuum to you guys first, Mr. DiMartino & Konietzko.
But in this novelization of Continuum? I can ramp up all those moments to eleven. I can use actual guns instead of stun guns. I can utterly break these teens to have them regrow even stronger together. The options are limitless, and I freaking love that.
So that’s my journey so far. It’s been insane, filled with eophoria-inducing highs (An agent is looking at my script? Next stop Hollywood!) and heart-breaking lows (Whatever, it’s not like I like Nickelodeon anyway…). But even though I’m not sure how this will all play out, whether Continuum will become a beloved TV series, a best-selling novel, or sit at the bottom of Amazon’s self-published list, I wouldn’t change a thing.
I want to make a show that proves a female lead can capture both genders’ interest. I want to show young girls that they can be brilliant scientists and engineers if that’s what they aspire to be. I want to let kids know how important it is to let others in, to never feel alone. And most of all, I want to prove that you don’t have to talk down to children, that if you have trust in them and believe in who they are, they can surprise you and surpass all your expectations.
Whether this show gets picked up next week or next decade, whether my book is a best seller or is only read by me, I’ve made something I love, something I believe can touch a lot of people if done right. And for now, being proud of that is enough.