Every successful screenwriter I know is brilliant at pitching. The ability to pitch well accelerates every aspect of your career in cinema or TV - from coming up with new ideas to developing them, and of course selling them.
Last time, we started by looking at your seed image. If you missed the article, read it here). This time, we’re getting stuck into the pitch or log line.
Why have a pitch at the start?
A good log line is essentially a one or two sentence pitch which has something magical that makes your listener’s eyes light up - this is the spark. Nowadays I never start writing a script unless I have a log line with that spark - after all the first person I have to sell the idea to is myself.
As I write, and then as I edit, the pitch helps keep the script focused. And at the end, the pitch is central to selling it to producers.
What’s your pitch?
There’s a certain magic you need in creating a good idea that you can’t force into existence. But you can create the right conditions for finding it. And you can do that right now.
You don’t have to be clever, you have to be imaginative, disciplined and committed to not accepting second-best. And you need three ingredients to make the pitch work:
1. What’s your genre?
Ingredient one is the genre - in other words, what kind of story is this going to be? Will it make people laugh, or cry, or scream in horror? Or what? Genre is first and foremost about the emotion you want to create in the viewer.
The seed image probably gave you a hint of that emotion. Now is the time to dig deeper into your imagination. Imagine the audience watching your work on screen. What do they feel?
2. Who does what?
Ingredient two in a good pitch is the Outer Story. Who is your protagonist and what does he or she want? Focus on the big decision that underpins the whole story.
In Hamlet it’s the decision to avenge his father’s murder. In Joy it’s the decision to invent a self-wringing mop.
It’s an “outer” story because we have to film it - in other words it’s not just inside their head.
3. What’s their flaw?
By contrast, ingredient three is the Inner Story. What is the inner flaw that’s stopping the protagonist from progressing? On its own, the outer story is rather thin and mechanical. This inner struggle gives it depth.
Hamlet has to conquer his fear of taking action (he fails to do this in time, which gives us a tragic ending).
Joy has to learn to stand up for herself. If, she does that she’ll earn her happy ending. In some stories, you find a mix, part growth, part failure, giving a bittersweet end.
Put it together
To create your pitch, put them together: GENRE plus OUTER STORY plus FLAW.
Hamlet is a revenge tragedy about a young prince who must avenge his father’s murder but must confront his own fears before he can confront the murderer.
Joy is a comedy-drama about an insecure but ambitious young woman who sets out to invent the world’s first self-wringing mop and must learn to stand up for herself if she’s to succeed
Where’s the rest?
Where’s the rest of the play? The brilliant writing? The subtle interrogation of philosophy? The other characters? The subplots?
They don’t belong here.
Don’t confuse the log line with the script. The job of the pitch is simply to excite - to excite you enough to write the screenplay and then to excite producers enough to read it!
That simple sentence can take hard work to write. You need to focus hard on the absolute essentials, and cut away everything else - your 90+ page idea boiled down into a single line.
But if you get it right, it will form the foundation of everything you do next - whether that’s writing the outline, editing a draft - or indeed selling it.
Next: Writing the treatment.
By Charles Harris
Are you planning to get stuck into some writing this January? Or getting ready to polish one up for selling?
I thought I'd kick off the season with ideas and techniques for using your time in the most useful and productive way.
This will the first of a series that will take you through the steps from start to finish, so if you follow them, by the time you've finished you'll have a finished screenplay for film or TV - ready to send out.
What kind of writer are you?
To start, what kind of writer are you? There are four basic kinds (with variations):
- those who plan every detail
- those who prefer to jump in and see what happens
- those who plan, but like to improvise when they feel like it
- and those who plan but continue to change the plan so that it keeps pace with the draft as they progress.
Any method is good, if it suits you and your story. However, with film and TV scripts there is much less room for jumping in blind than, say, with novels and plays.
Personally, I plan the basic steps but allow myself freedom to discover and improvise as I write. This keeps the freshness, but ensures you don't go so far off piste that the whole story falls apart.
Here are the first steps, so you can start on them right now if you want. Then I'll follow up in more detail in future days and weeks.
By the way, the process that follows is also a great way to work with a well-developed script. It's only too easy to lose your way in a script edit - this method ensures you never lose sight of the essentials even as you polish.
1. Find your seed
A good seed will make you interested, fired up, ready to explore. The problem with writing is it's like getting caught in the storm. As the story builds and you're in the middle of the storm you forget where you were planning to go in the first place.
Remembering what started you off will help you keep going to the end.
Most writers start with ideas that come as a seed, unformed but with the germ of interest. Usually it's an image - a man walking down a railway track in the night, a body lying stabbed in a swimming pool.
Sometimes it's a character they want to explore. Who is it? What does she want? What does she need?
For Harold Pinter, his seed was often a line of dialogue. Who's speaking? What will they say next?
Start working on this now. Ask yourself what first excited you about this story idea.
Whatever it is, locate it, write it down and begin to brainstorm. Jot down any thoughts that grow from your seed - images, places, characters, feelings, events... Write them in whatever form you like - in lists, on separate scraps or in a diagram connecting your thoughts like the branches of a tree. As you do, see what ideas begin to come.
2. Create your pitch or one-sentence log-line
For the second step, we'll be focusing that core idea into a pitch that gets me fired up. I never start writing anything unless I have a strong one-sentence pitch that has that crucial spark. After all, the first person I have to sell the idea to is myself.
3. Plan the treatment or outline
Later in the series, I'll talk about developing a route-map for the journey you're about to undertake. The better you make this, the more you can relax and trust where you're going.
4. Write the draft
First drafts are best written fast. I'll be looking at how best to organise to do this, so that you don't get hung up on distractions and details.
5. Edit the draft
Most writers make the mistake of trying to edit everything at once. I believe that the best way to eat a large sausage is one slice at a time. So in the final articles I'll be taking you through the steps from big picture to tiny detail in seven separate edits.
Ready, Go, Steady
Are you ready for the journey? Or maybe already in the middle of one and can do with some help and reassurance. Most people wait till they have every single detail perfect... and never start!
Don't wait till you have everything perfect - the best place to start is now.
Step #2 - the premise and pitch
Charles Harris is an experienced award-winning writer-director for cinema and TV. His first professional script was optioned to be developed by major agents CAA in Hollywood and he has since worked with top names in the industry from James Stewart to Alexei Sayle.
He created the first Pitching Thursday for London Screenwriters' Festival, has sat on Bafta awards juries, lectured at universities, film schools and international film festivals and teaches selling and pitching to writers, directors and producers across Europe. His new book Teach Yourself: Complete Writing Course is recommended reading on MA courses.
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