Saturday, March 14, 2009

Pitching: Story, Not Plot

Like it or not, pitching is essential to making a living as a screenwriter. And most screenwriters don't like it one bit. Simply put, a pitch is a verbal telling of your story. You do this most often to get someone to pay you to write the script. Occasionally you'll pitch to an actor or director to get them to read your project. When you're just starting out you might pitch someone to get them to read a script you've already written, but those pitches are usually shorter and more of a tease.

The biggest mistake I think writers make is pitching plot. Plot doesn't sell your movie. You should be pitching story. What's the difference? Plot is a series of events -- it's "what happens." Story is more concerned with why it happens. Story is about concept and character.

The thing to remember is you're not telling the whole movie. How could you? You're most often going to be pitching for only five to fifteen minutes. You can't tell everything that happens. You have to summarize.

Here's a good exercise: watch movie trailers. You can find a bunch at http://www.apple.com/trailers/. Good movie trailers are like pitches that don't tell the end. (In an actual pitch you have to tell the end. Nobody's going to give you a bunch of money to write a script if they don't know how it ends). Watch a trailer and then see if you can summarize the concept of the movie. Then watch the trailer again. How do they convey that concept?

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to pitching but here's a breakdown of how I would structure a standard pitch:

1) The logline. I give them the concept up front. It helps them interpret and follow everything that comes after. (Logline = a one sentence description of your concept/story.)

2) The genre and tone. The worst possible question you can get halfway through your pitch is, "wait, is this supposed to be funny?" It's a bad sign no matter what the answer is. Of course the tone should be clear from your story but why leave it to chance? It's okay to say, "This is a sci-fi thriller."

3) Set-Up. The most detail goes into a summary of Act I. It's important to get across who the main character is, what they want, what's at stake and what the main obstacles are. If your story does not take place in familiar, contemporary America, you will also have to set up a bit of the world. For fantasy or supernatural stories you need to lay out "the rules" of the mystical elements.

4) Summarize the arcs of Act II. I don't try to take people through all the events of Act II. Instead, I summarize the major arcs, turning points, and obstacles. So, for example, if I were pitching Sweet Home Alabama I might say something like, "Melanie moves in with Jake and tries to make his life miserable so he'll give her the divorce. Meanwhile, she starts to reconnect with old friends almost against her will. And she also has to deal with her parents who..." You don't have to connect all the dots, just let them know how the story will develop.

4.5) I also make sure in my description of Act II to indicate three of the big set pieces. I don't describe the scenes in detail, but I let them know there will be scenes that will entertain the audience ("Then Batman has to stop the joker from killing the witness in a car chase through Gotham City. Batman is on his bat-cycle and the Joker is in a big rig. Batman disables the truck, but he won't kill the Joker...")

5) The big twist. Hopefully your story has some big twist at the end of Act II that spins it into Act III. Build to that big moment.

6) Resolution. Tell them how it ends. You again want to avoid describing a scene in detail, but you should give them a sense of what the big climax will be. (e.g. Die Hard: "Then John McClane has to rescue the hostage from the roof of the building which is wired with explosives.") And make sure you give them the emotional resolution as well. What has the character learned or not learned? How has their life changed?

Ideally you get all that done in 5-7 minutes. When it comes to pitching, shorter is usually better (though some executives like more detail). Sound hard? Remember, you're not pitching the whole movie. Give them the trailer (plus ending). That's what will make them want to pay to see the whole script.

1 comment:

Cecilia said...

excellent, short and powerfull