You need a good story when you pitch, of course. But you are selling more than a story. You are also selling yourself as a writer, and particularly why you are the best writer to execute this specific idea. Whether it’s an original idea or an assignment, you need to show that you have a unique insight into the story and a passion for the project.
In The Hollywood Pitching Bible, which I co-wrote with producer Ken Aguado, we advocate starting your pitch with a “Personal Connection.” The personal connection serves multiple purposes, but the main one is to explain why you are the best writer to write this story. There are many ways to build a personal connection. Here are five of the most common and most effective.
1. Describe how you came up with this story.
If this is an original story, you can start your pitch by explaining how you came up with the idea. If done properly, the inspiration for the story can reveal your connection to it and passion for it. Explain what interest led you to the idea. You might say something like, “I’ve always been a huge fan of train travel. I’ve crisscrossed the country by train and have a massive model train set-up in my basement. It occurred to me that a train would be a good setting for a romantic comedy.”
You can use a variation to this approach when pitching an assignment or when pitching a story based on some type of underlying intellectual property that you didn’t actually create. For these types of pitches, talk about what in the material particularly appeals to you. This will reveal your point of view on the story - a point of view that should carry through into your pitch.
2. Tell a personal story.
There’s no better way to establish why the story you’re pitching is personal to you than telling an autobiographical story that relates to the material. This will show why you have a valuable perspective on the story or unique expertise that will help you tell it better. This is easiest to do, of course, if the story you’re pitching is actually based on your personal experience. But even if it isn’t, you might be able to identify a personal experience that relates to the idea. Just be sure the connection is clear!
There are a few dangers to this approach. If you don’t really have a relevant autobiographical story, it can feel like you are reaching to make a connection. You also want to avoid sharing something that is so personal it might make the listener uncomfortable. And be sure your own experience isn’t more interesting than the story you’re pitching! But if you can find something appropriate about your life that is relevant to the story, this is often the most effective way to build a personal connection.
3. Reveal your insight
You might not have a relevant personal experience, but you may have a unique insight into the material. That insight will demonstrate why your approach to the arena of the story is fresh and interesting. An example of this kind of approach might begin something like, “I’m a big fan of NASA and the history of space travel. Everyone knows the story of the astronauts who went to the moon. But I’ve always thought the men who designed the lander were the real heroes of that mission.”
This is an excellent technique to use when you are dealing with a true story or underlying intellectual property. Anybody could do a new version of King Arthur, for example. What special perspective on the classic story are you offering?
4. Describe the cultural relevance.
One use of the personal connection is to justify why this story deserves to be a movie. If you can connect the story to current cultural events or trends, you will explain why an audience might be interested in it. In a way, this is similar to #3 except you are showing insight into the culture, and then connecting that insight to the story. You might say something like, “When I was growing up, my friends and I used to go off into the woods by ourselves for hours. These days, parents keep a constant eye on their kids. I thought it would be interesting to see how today’s kids would fare in a Tom Sawyer type story.”
This is often the best approach when you are doing a historical story because it may not be readily apparent why a modern audience will care about past events. If your story is about the third crusade, why will people today be interested in it? The same principal often applies to fantasy or science fiction. Just remember that it takes a long time to make a movie and only slightly less time to launch a television program. Be careful you’re not tying your story to a passing fad.
5. Establish the emotional core.
The personal connection is a good place to establish the emotional power of your story. It is often difficult to fully convey the emotion while walking the listener through the plot (though you should certainly try!) In the personal connection, you can talk about how powerful first love is before launching into your story about high school romance, for example. This can be a good approach when dealing with genres like mysteries or action where the emotional component may be overshadowed by plot or spectacle.
You’ll notice that many of these techniques can be combined. Often combining approaches is a good way to build a unique personal connection to your story. And each personal connection requires a unique approach, something specific to the story and specific to you. That’s why it’s personal!
The Hollywood Pitching Bible
“ ‘Bible’ is the right word. This is the Truth about pitching. Just do what it says.”
- Gary Goldman (Writer/Producer, "Total Recall," "Minority Report," "Big Trouble in Little China")