Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pitching Part 3 – Plot is the Enemy

I’ve talked about the kinds of pitches writers are called upon to do, and how I set up the type of movie I’m pitching. After the setup, it comes time to tell the story of the movie. Here’s where most writers get in trouble. At this stage of our personal development process, we are most likely focused on getting the plot to work. We’re figuring out the cause and effect that ties the major plot points together. So when we pitch we start going through the plot, beat by beat. But plot doesn’t sell your movie.

In fact, to some extent, plot is the enemy of a good pitch.

The first thing to remember is that a pitch is not the movie. For one thing, it’s a lot shorter. And you’re delivering the information verbally, so you don’t have all the tools of a visual medium. If you try to describe the entire plot, point by point, you will be doing nothing but stringing together events. You will have no time to convey the emotional impact of the character arc or the excitement of the set pieces. And those are things that WILL sell your movie.

So you’re going to have to let go of some of the plot details and focus on the major arcs of the story. My approach is to spend considerable time on Act I, summarize the key storylines of Act II, and then wrap up with a dramatic telling of the resolution.

Act I takes more time because you have to establish the character, their world, their want and need and the catalyst that launches the story. You can’t skip through this stuff too fast or you risk the listener becoming confused. Probably the most important thing – and most commonly overlooked – is setting up the main character (and possibly some of the supporting characters). If you don’t interest the listener in the main character, there is no reason for them to care about the outcome of the story – just like in the movie. So it’s worth spending some time here.

After you describe the Act I Turning Point, you can talk more generally about the tensions and arcs that drive the story through Act II. For example, you might say the main character has to fight against his rival for the hand of the love interest, while also dealing with an overbearing boss and a crazy landlady who has a crush on him. You will want to mention any major twists in the plot, but you want to be careful not to fall into the monotony of: this happens, then this happens, then this happens…

You also want to make sure that you are not just focusing on the action. Often times I’ll hear pitches where the writer sets up the character very well, but then fails to continue developing the character as the story progresses. You need to track the character arc and the changing relationships between the characters with as much attention as you track the external plot.

Generally you will build these Act II external and character arcs until the Act II Turning Point – the moment of greatest failure for the character. If your story is properly structured, this will spin it off in a new direction and Act III. I go into a little more detail at the resolution, trying to make it as dramatic as possible. But again, don’t forget the character. You want to be clear about how the character has been changed by the story and what impact their arc has on their life.

Finally, you want to end on a conclusive note. Sometimes I’ll see writers get to the end of the pitch and just kind of trail off before saying, “yeah…that’s it.” You want the pitch to have an ending equally dramatic and profound as the movie will.

Now let me back up for just a moment. I said that you go through Act II quickly, only tracing the major arcs. But that’s not entirely true. You do want to describe some of the big set pieces in the movie. Those will likely include the opening, the Act II Turning Point and the conclusion. But you also may want to highlight two or three set pieces in Act II.

In the earlier pitches to producers, you want to avoid pitching scenes. Instead, describe in general what makes the set piece interesting. Perhaps the hero has to break into a maximum security prison so he dresses up as a guard. But along the way someone spots him and he has to flee through a yard filled with prisoners – who think he’s a guard. The chase causes a fight to break out and our hero has to navigate the brawl, the pursuing guards, and still get to his goal. Those three sentences imply an interesting exciting scene that the listener can visualize – and a big goal of pitching is getting the listener to see the movie in their mind.

So as I plan my pitches, I identify the big arcs and storylines. I make sure to establish the character at the beginning, track their emotional changes, and describe how this impacts their life in the end. And I pick a few big set pieces to describe in detail along the way.

That covers the outline of a prototypical pitch. As I said in the beginning of this series, every movie has its own demands. Sci-fi and fantasy stories will require more emphasis on developing the world. Stories that use magic will require careful explanation of the “rules” of the magic. Ensemble pieces will likely require more time spent on character description. And of course the genre influences emphasis. An action movie will emphasize set pieces more while a romantic comedy will focus on the character’s emotional growth.

In my next pitching post I’ll cover some of my rules for building a good pitch. But before I get to that I’ll probably do my annual “10 Best Written Movies of the Year.” So stay tuned!

1 comment:

januaryfire said...

This series on pitching has been tremendously helpful as I'm starting work on a couple spec features. I think it is so helpful to think about my scripts in terms of the pitch--like I'm pitching to myself as I'm doing all the prep writing. Thanks and happy new year.