1/21/09

My Writing Process Part III: The Killer Pitch

Welcome back to Part III of my series on writing process. In Part I, I talked about "the great idea," that spark that compels you to write, and what it's value is- not much. That is, of course, until you're willing to take the effort to get that idea out of your head and into the world, and then develop it. The way you develop your idea is through research, which I wrote about in Part II. I've also hit you over the head with my metaphor of the creative soul as a sponge that needs to alternately be filled up and drained in an iterative process to get the best out of your writing. So, you've got an idea, you've done some research...now it's time write your pitch!

Part III: The Killer Pitch


Do you have a friend or acquaintance, maybe someone you don't see all that often, but you always look forward to getting together, because every time you do, he or she gets a twinkle in their eye and you just know a great story is coming? Yeah, I have a few of those. And it doesn't matter if it's a long story. You don't mind wading through the set-up or the background information, because you just know, the punchline is going to be worth it. For some of my friends, I'm one of those guys. In the past several years, especially as friends of mine have gotten married and settled down a bit, I found they're especially receptive to the stories we single guys have to tell. Over the years, I, and those friends of yours who's stories you love to hear, have built up that reputation. How? By consistently telling good stories. As result, ears perk up when our lips start moving.

However, aspiring writers don't have a reputation. Sure, Steven King can sell a book by simply putting his name on the cover. And Will Smith can get you to go see a movie called "Seven Pounds" without a clue as to what it's about. They've built a reputation by delivering the goods in the past. Most of you (and certainly I) have not. Just because we write it, doesn't mean it's going to be read.

This is why we need to absolutely kill on our story pitches. I'm talking murder.

First, let's clarify the term pitch. A pitch is a short document that can be used to sell your story. I'm going to cover two types of pitches in this article. The first, I'll refer to as the "quick pitch" and the second, I'll call the "synopsis." I'll define these concepts in a bit. I suggest that writing both documents at this point in the writing process will pay dividends.

"Wait? Why should I be worried about selling my story, now? I haven't even written it yet?" you might say. "Why can't I just start writing. I know my idea, I've done my research, I'm ready to start cranking out the pages?" or "Won't it be easier to write my pitch after the work is finished?" Maybe. But I strongly believe the effort you put into a pitch at this point will pay off in the long run.

Think of a pitch as a promise to your reader, and to yourself. It says, "Hey, you! Want to hear a story? Well, this is the story I'm going to tell you. And it's a good one." That's what a pitch needs to do. If you don't have a pitch that does that, you're probably going to have problems. Think about it. If you can't write a few sentences that can excite a reader, what makes you think you can write a full story, 22 page comic, novel, tv show, etc?

Remember, we already have a great idea and we've done our research and are ready to drain the sponge, so to speak. But we're going to drain it this time in a controlled manner. We're going to write out our ideas in the form of both a quick pitch and a synopsis. First, let's tackle the quick pitch.

The Quick Pitch

For screenwriters, the quick pitch is called a "log-line," those one to two sentence movie descriptions found in your TV Guide. For you Zuda contestants, it's called the "High Concept," 200 characters to pitch your story. For the quick pitch, brevity, and the efficient use of words to encapsulate your story and hook the reader, is paramount.

What makes a good quick pitch? Well, here is one of mine. Read and we'll break it down.


CounterTERROR

Counterterrorism specialist Dorian McCullough must stop extremists from releasing a deadly virus in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. It’s “24” meets “28 Days Later”…it's CounterTERROR!


Why is this a good pitch? (And yes, I know, CounterTERROR has yet to be picked up by a publisher, and I know I'm not objective because I wrote the damn thing.) But trust me. It is a good pitch. Whether it's a story you'd be interested in reading is another thing entirely. It's a good pitch because it has the following characteristics:
  • It's concise. I don't care how short the elevator ride, I could give any publisher or studio exec on the planet that pitch before they had a chance to dodge me, and it would give them a very clear picture of what CounterTERROR was all about.
  • It includes the key components of my story. Think about it. In just one sentence, you know:
- The protagonist (counterterrorism specialiast Dorian McCullough)
- The antogonists (extremists)
- The problem (the release of a deadly virus)
- The when (New Year's Eve)
- The where (Times Square in New York City

That's a lot of information to convey in under twenty words. (Can we agree now, it's a good pitch? Thought so.)

Now, in my pitch, I did throw in a second sentence, to hammer home the concept and make it even more acceptable. Some would say that second sentence could be omitted and all the important information for a quick pitch would still be there, and I agree, it could be (and perhaps should be.) I left it in, one, because I think it's an accurate description of the story I have to tell, and two, to have a discussion about this method of pitching.


The method employed by the second sentence of my quick pitch is a fairly common tool used in Hollywood. "This story is [insert popular, financially successful movie A] meets [insert popular, financially successful movie B.]" The idea is, if you can combine two winning concepts into one, it too will be a big success. There are some who absolutely hate these kinds of pitches. And they have their reasons.

For example, one way the Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock hit Speed was pitched was as "Die Hard on a bus." Okay, great. You hear that and think, "I liked Die Hard..." But what does a pitch like that really tell you? It tells you nothing of the characters. Bruce Willis as Det. John McClain made Die Hard (and Bruce's career, incidentally.) It tells you nothing of who is on the bus, why they are on the bus, nothing. All you know is that it's an action movie on a bus. I don't know about you, but all the bus rides I've taken in my life have been relatively action free. So, I don't think that strategy is effective.

I had a story that I was working on a while back (this was before I've adopted the writing process I'm currently using, mind you) called Relentless. I was pitching it as "Die Hard" meets "Syriana." What the hell would that movie be like? Yeah, I don't know either. That description is pretty much nonsense, and does nothing to get people hooked on my story.

So, why include It's "24" meets "28 Days Later" in my CounterTERROR pitch? After getting all the important information to my reader in the first sentence, the second sentence gives the reader some very clear clues as to style and genre. CounterTERROR is an action/thriller/horror mash-up. Dropping the name of a popular action/thriller TV show along with a successful horror flick gets that across. CounterTERROR takes place over just a few hours on New Year's Eve. Dropping "24" connotes a real-time sense of urgency to the pacing. And CounterTERROR is a twist on the zombie genre. By mentioning "28 Days Later" I was able to get that across WITHOUT using the "Z" word, which is showing up in far too many comic book pitches these days.

Here are some tips for writing your quick pitches:
  • Keep it to one, at most two, sentences.
  • It should be easily understood by a 12 year old.
  • Suggest a story that is provacative and big.
  • Include character, conflict and hook.
  • Combine elements familiar to the genre you're writing with a unique twist.
[CONTEST BREAK!!! First person to identify these four movies correctly from their log-lines wins a prize!
  1. A man dies and becomes his wife's guardian angel.
  2. It's "Jaws" in space!
  3. A radio talk show host is out to redeem himself after his comments trigger a psychopath's murderous act.
  4. Her life was in their hands. Now her toe is in the mail.
Leave a comment with your responses. Good Luck!!! ]


The Synopsis

So, you've written your quick pitch and are ready to turn to the challenge of writing the synopsis. The synopsis is a short, 1-3 page double-spaced description of the story you plan on telling. It needs to include a description of your main characters, their goal, the opposition to that goal, the emotional high and low points, how the character will grow or change throughout the story, the major twists and turns, the climax, and the resolution. The synopsis is a very short description of your story's beginning, middle, and end.

For illustrative purposes, here is my short synopsis for CounterTERROR.


CounterTerror

It’s New Year’s Eve. In the waning days of a failed administration, a lame duck president is packing his office, long since abandoned by the American public and even his closest aides and political allies. Still, he clings to the one unassailable triumph of his tenure as Commander-in- Chief, that there has not been another attack on American soil since 9/11…

However, terrorists have obtained a highly contagious, weaponized, flesh-eating and rage-inducing virus that drives the infected insane and murderous. The terrorists’ plan- Release the virus throughout a New York City swelled with tourists and revelers looking to ring in the New Year via three “suicide bombers." Their goal- Put true terror in terrorism.

After an well-coordinated initial attack decimates the S.W.A.T. team tasked with stopping the plot, it’s up to FBI counterterrorism specialist Dorian McCullough to control the spread of the virus, find the man orchestrating the attacks, and stop it from being released in Times Square when the ball drops. McCullough is aided by fellow agent, Tina Montoya, the lone survivor of the initial attack, as well as support personnel from the National Counterterrorism Center. As he races to find the extremists behind these attacks before the streets run red with blood and mayhem, McCullough uncovers an unsettling connection between the virus and his own government. Before the night is over, McCullough finds he may have to sacrifice the person closest to his heart to save his city from a nightmare.

Despite McCullough and Montoya’s best efforts, the virus is released again, this time throughout the subway system, turning mass transit into mass hysteria. To make matters worse, McCullough’s fiancĂ© is trapped in the subway tunnels with a horde of the infected and he is powerless to help her. Luckily, McCullough and Montoya are able to find the last suicide bomber, the mastermind behind the entire operation before he can release the virus.

In the climax, as the countdown to the New Year approaches, the terrorist does the unthinkable…he infects Montoya and pushes her into the crowd of Times Square revelers. The virus spreads like wild fire. McCullough will have just moments to react, and with the support of NCTC personnel, he is able to neutralize the virus before it can spread beyond Times Square, and save his fiancĂ© trapped in the subway.


Now, I'll admit, the synopsis for CounterTERROR is not as well-written as the quick pitch. They can't all be homeruns. But I think it contains most of the key elements a synopsis needs.

Synopsis Writing Dos and Don'ts
  • DO include your main characters, settings, and plotlines.
  • DON'T include every bit character and minor plotlines.
  • DO describe the beginning, middle, and end.
  • DON'T include questions like "Will he be able to save the day?" You are the writer. You need to know the answer to that.
  • DO describe the key emotional highs and lows for your character.
  • DON'T run down every scene in sequential order. (There's another time and place for this, and that will be covered in a later article.)

Alright! We've covered the concepts of the quick pitch and the synopsis. I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is, once these are out of the way, you get to start working on the fun stuff, like developing your characters and hammering out the story beats and plot. The bad news is, this will be far from the last time you write your pitching documents. Those CounterTERROR pitches have been written and re-written at least 10 times, perhaps more. You should actually revisit them throughout the writing process, keeping them up-to-date as your story changes.

But this is good news, too. Because at this point, you probably won't have all your answers. You might not know exactly how it ends. (That's okay.) While you should know if your character achieves his goal at the end, you don't need to know exactly how he does so. And your characters won't be fully fleshed out. In fact, you'll probably come up with plenty of characters you haven't even dreamed up yet. By putting in this pitching work early, you've simply laid out a framework from which to build. You've made a promise. In my next article, we'll start talking about delivering on that promise.

NEXT: IV. Characters That Make You Give a Damn









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