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Making a Short Pitch Better
By
Leon Kaye

It all comes down to the screenplay -- the great screenplay.  But no one will read your screenplay unless you have a great pitch.  In short, you've got to make your case that your story is worth investing about ten million dollars of the producer's money.  And you have about thirty seconds.  Once you get the bigwig's attention, you can go into a lengthier storytelling, but usually, they don't have the time for subplots, themes, and lessons learned.  They have about fifty scripts on their desk, and five hundred queries they have to read, like, yesterday, so... the story has to grab them.  It has to tease them.  It must hint at something so juicy, so interesting, so amazing that the listener will say, "Beam that to me, Scotty!  Right away!"

Every screenwriter worth his/her salt has read dozens of articles about the short pitch (logline).  Actually, go on any screenplay submission website and pitch your script story.  You won't have more than a paragraph to do so.  Like I said, that's all the time they give you to sift through the rubble.  We are all very familiar with the short pitch. We can all recite its pitfalls in our sleep.  So then why do so many of us fail to get to second base?  Why do good screenwriters with very good scripts still write tepid, ordinary pitches?  Why are they overly wordy?  Boring?  Ordinary?

I believe one reason is the horrible examples of pitches we read in books and magazines set us up for failure.  Usually, we are given an example of a very good pitch (based on a popular film) and then a wordy, ridiculous, poorly-written pitch -- as something not to do.  All screenwriters smile and say to themselves, "I'm glad I don't write that poorly."  I contend we are set up to unconsciously place ourselves with the successful pitch-writer and distance ourselves from the poor one.  We believe our pitch is successful if it does not fall prey to the bad pitch (whose bar is not set high).

Secondly, I believe we fall in love with our scripts.  We want to convey everything about the story all at once, and often hint at subplots, and themes when there really is no time to do so.  How many pitches from good screenwriters have the lead character "learn a little bit along the way"?  Or "with the help of his wise Irish mother and a little street poetry, he understands..." or "he rediscovers the beauty of a bygone age."   Pitches like this show the writer is proud of his/her quirky, innovative script.  But no one is getting grabbed by the collar here.

In short, unless it involves the plot; learning, understanding, musing, rediscovering, etc. does not belong in a short pitch.  It has to be about the lead, his/her goal, the inciting incident, and possibly the complication.  And that's it.

"Freddie Jones attends Georgetown University's pre-med program, aspires to become a surgeon.  On his way to school, he witnesses a horrific shooting and helps a female victim until the paramedics arrive and whisk her away.  He later learns there are no records of the paramedics or the victim.  Who was she, and what happened to her?"

Good pitch-- but do we need "aspires to become a surgeon"?  Can we cut "on his way to school"?  What about the last line?

Can we use better, more vibrant verbs?  Can we say it in two words rather than three?   How about one word?  Instead of "and" can we get away with a comma?  Do we need more information?  Do we know the genre from the description, or do we have to say something like "thriller of a script"?

Deeper question-- what does his aspiring to be a surgeon have to do with the inciting incident?  It doesn't really add anything, does it?  Anyone would help a person who was shot.  And anyone would be curious to know what happened to her.  Maybe if he were a rookie detective?  Or an illegal alien?  Does that add some juice to our premise?  Maybe he uses his detective skills, and is dissuaded by his superiors.  Now what does he do?  Or if he is an alien, involvement could get him deported.  What if they were engaged?

Does it sound more interesting now?  Sorry.  Go rewrite your script.  You should have thought out your premise a bit more.

Thirdly, screenwriting books offer linear, simple story plots as examples.  (Karate Kid, Wizard of Oz, Terminator).   It's rare to read an example of a multi-layered drama, because such stories are difficult to condense into a standard pitch.  The gurus beg off here, but what do we do when it can't be said in three sentences?

I once wrote a script that relied heavily on the memory of the lead character.  He believed something happened in the past.  We see a flashback.  Then stuff happens in the present, and he realizes things were not as he thought back then.  He sees the same flashback through different eyes, and we too understand what really happened and why.    Now, how do you pitch that one?

With complex stories, I have found the question format works best.  Start with an engaging question, and then offer some information.  Now what does the lead character do?

“What if highly intelligent humans built a spaceship in the time of Noah to escape the Great Flood?  What if these humans have been living in the caves of Venus for the last 5000 years?   And now they're back!”

Complicated premise, but you are with me.  Aren't you?

Of course, the biggest reason for failure is we actually believe any well-written story can sell!  That's a fallacy created by great writers.  The truth is you are about ten times more likely to sell a script with a great premise-- that can be consolidated into a short paragraph-- than a well-written piece that doesn't grab you by the collar.   So make sure you have a great premise before doing too much work on your script.  Otherwise, you're probably wasting your time.   Try your premise out on friends.  If they don't smile and say, "COOL!," start again.

“Terrorists break into U.S. bio labs, steal all of our smallpox vaccine!  They want fifty million, or else!”  Horrible, right?  But wouldn't you like to see Vin Diesel shoot up the terrorists, retrieve the vaccine, get the girl, and diffuse the bomb in a roller-coaster of a script?  If your answer is yes, then start writing.

Don't use words like "probably."  Same goes for "maybe," "almost," and all qualifiers.  One doesn't "walk loudly."  They "stomp."  One doesn't "gently caress."  "Caressing" means gently.  One doesn't "drink very quickly, making funny noises with each swallow," they "gulp."  There are tons of words that can be substituted for qualifiers.  Learn them, and use them.

Drop names of successful Hollywood films.  "It's Outbreak meets Die Hard."  Okay, Outbreak is a reach...  I once made the mistake of saying my script was like "The Ideal Husband."  A mistake I shan’t make again.

And don't write a period piece.  That's a lesson I've learned.  Almost no one will read them.  Agents will not rep them-- even if they're better than "An Ideal Husband."

Finally, the best pitch is from firsthand experience.  Everyone digs the inside story, so if you have one-- go for it!

"In my youth, I sat around the dining room table while my parents made pasta and discussed which of their capitans they were gonna whack next..."  Tony Soprano, eat your heart out.

Two of Leon Kaye's stage plays will be published by Baker's Plays this fall.  One of his stage monologues will be published in an anthology of great monologues.  He's working on a stage musical as well as various productions of his stage plays in the NYC area.

 

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