This is a reply about a guy who reads an article and feels something really click.
Welcome to Comics Pro Prep.
“What’s this ‘prep’ thing?” you ask. “You mean like prep school?”
“Exactly like that,” I reply.
“What if we’re already working professionals?” you ask.
“Then maybe you can share some insights into what we’re discussing on the forums,” I respond. “I’m not Mr. Know-All; I’m just the guy creating the space for some Socratic discussion.”
“Yeah, words like Socratic; sounds preppy already,” you remark. “What are we supposed to learn that we don’t already know?”
“We’re going to be discussing everything related to the craft of creating professional comics, as well as some practical knowledge about the various publishing industries that deal with sequential art.”
“Hmmm…sequential art. Another preppy word.”
“Two words, actually,” I remark.
“Smart guy, huh?”
“Naw,” I say, “I’ve just been around for a while, have picked up some stuff, and want to share it for others to consider when making choices about their own work and careers.”
“Well, if this is prep school,” you remark, smirking, “I guess there are school uniforms we’ve gotta wear, huh?”
“Bathrobes with a CPP patch sewn on.” I reply, smiling. “You supply the patch.”
“And this thing is weekly?” you want to know.
“Yep,” I confirm, “and we begin by reissuing the first of three articles I wrote many moons ago as a guest columnist for Marv Wolfman’s What th--?, which ran on silverbulletcomicbooks.com.
“What th--?” you exclaim, dumbfounded. “You’re starting off with a reprint??!!”
“Ah,” I say in a calm, soothing voice, “but it’s not just any reprint. This is the first in a series of three articles that will offer a new and unique perspective on the nature of pitching, that never-previously taught link between your vision for a story and the point where an editor comprehends a brief-but-accurate crystallization of that story.
“And,” I continue, hoping I haven’t yet lost or bored you, “these articles will give you a practical working template for you to develop your own pitching style, because, even if you don’t use the template in the future, you’ll come to understand how it works and why it’s necessary.
"This is not just pie-in-the-sky stuff; it’s a piece of the actual pie.”
“Okay,” you reply, interested in reading more.
“But that’s not all,” I continue, now in infomercial-mode, “Even if you’ve already read them, a refresher course can’t possibly hurt, and then we get to spend the next week working together on the paradigm, which, in itself, ought to be worth the price of admission.”
“But isn’t this column free?” you ask, suddenly nervous about the “price of admission” remark.
“For those who wish to interact,” I respond, smiling, “I take my pay in blood, sweat, and tears.”
“Cool,” you say.
“Ninety-eight point six,” I reply.
Let’s get started.
“WHAT IT TAKES TO SELL YOUR PITCH”
This begins a three-part series on various ways you can improve your hitting percentage with editors.
This is not going to be about how to self-promote, which is always useful, or how to network successfully within the industry, which may be one of the most valuable tools a beginning professional can learn, or how to pitch verbally, which is an art form in itself.
This is about writing and selling your pitch with the written word.
I won’t cover all aspects of what it takes to sell your pitch, but I will address the ones that I find most frequently lacking from the thousands of pitches I've seen over the years.
“BAITING THE HOOK”
If you could choose, would you rather your pitch be compelling or boring?
Yeah, that’s what I thought. Here’s a way for you to achieve the former and avoid the latter.
Some years ago, I was part of a writer’s group with Marv Wolfman, Craig Miller, and several others. Each of us was working on a screenplay, mine being that most commercial of ventures, a cross-genre Western-mystery-action story…but enough about that naive period of my life.
Marv and Craig were working together, and one night they tested some pitches for a TV show. As Marv will gladly admit, the first pitch was not going well…which had nothing to do with whether or not the story was compelling. The pitch just seemed to drone on and on, and it was awfully hard to care about what was going on in the story.
One member of our group interrupted the pitch halfway through, and said, “Hold it.” He stuck a thick pretzel stick between his lips as though it were a cigar, puffed out his stomach to affect as pompous a demeanor as possible, and said, “Pretend I’m a producer. Tell me why I should give a shit about your story.”
After Marv kept Craig from throttling the guy who was happily munching on the pretzel stick, he asked for a moment to collect his thoughts.
It was an interesting couple of minutes, each of us sitting in Craig’s living room, waiting, exchanging glances, watching the gears turn in Marv’s head, gears just like the ones that ground up and spit out Chaplin in Modern Times, only here, we were watching an entire approach to pitching stories being discarded and rebuilt.
Hesitant at first, searching for the right language, Marv began the pitch again. He said, “This is a story about (character name here) falling in love with a woman who’s doomed to die.”
“Ooooooooo,” the rest of us said. (If you knew the character name and the series, you’d have said “oooooooo,” too).
We wanted to know more.
And that was the point. Marv created an opening that would drive the rest of the pitch—the same pitch we’d heard before that had bored us into thinking a hammer bashed against our heads to end the misery might not be such a bad idea—and this time around, we were all leaning forward, mesmerized by the story, eagerly anticipating its next moment.
He’d figured out something that isn’t taught in classes or books, at least not books I recall. In order to successfully pitch a concept, you have to give away the good part at the beginning…even if the good part doesn’t happen till the end.
This is different from how we’ve learned to dramatize stories, where we tantalize the readers and save the good part for the end. (Okay, you’re probably asking, “What do you mean by, ‘give away the good part?’”)
Here’s an example that I use with writers to clarify what’s inherently required for a pitch to be compelling: This is the story about a psychiatrist who works with a boy who claims to see ghosts, only for the psychiatrist to discover that’s he’s one of the ghosts the boy sees.
Yep, I gave away the good part. (For those of you who don’t know which story this is, never mind).
Why does this type of pitch work? Why, after hearing the “good part,” do we want to hear more…even when we know the big reveal at the end? The answer to this is the secret of a successful pitch.
Editors/film producers/friends/whomever want to know why they’re listening to whatever story you have to tell. They need to know ahead of time what to focus on as the story unfolds…and that’s very tough to do unless they know what the story’s about…or where it’s going.
In other words, you have to bait the hook in your story well enough so that your listeners or readers will bite into it. Once they’ve bitten, you can take whatever time is necessary to reel them in.
I’m going to show you how to prepare a worm for your hook.
First, there are many types of worms…sometimes it’s something as simple as the pitch that sold the movie, Twins, which was, more or less, “What if Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger were twins?” “What ifs” can be very compelling, but it’s rare to come up with one and sell it, so that’s not a worm we’re going to discuss further.
The high-concept “(movie title) meets (movie title)” can also be effective, and sometimes, when you hear it, the pitch may even evoke a story…but not often…though I still think Independence Day meets Darby O’Gill and the Little People would be hysterical.
I imagine a story, where, after nearly conquering the Earth and beginning to plunder it for its mineral resources, the aliens attempt to take pots of gold from the leprechauns. This triggers a call to arms by the wee folk and the successful reclaiming of our planet.
Now, I’m not sure any of you could imagine that story from my “(movie title) meets (movie title)” example, and that’s part of the problem with this kind of hook. The story isn’t immediately clear, and all you can hope to evoke from this kind of pitch is the genre and tone. The other difficulty with this type of hook is that it’s hard to come up with one that’s immediately compelling. If it’s your superpower to effectively come up with these, then more power to you, but that’s not going to be true for most writers. More often than not, I read something like, “Silence of the Lambs” meets “X-Files,” which tells us nothing…so that’s not the worm I’m going to show you how to prepare either.
Another worm that’s especially tough to use for bait is the “perfect title.” An example of this is the title of an upcoming film, Cowboys & Aliens. This title immediately evokes the tone and cross-genres of the film, doesn’t need to say more, and it’s a title that immediately makes people smile. They get it. That said, I think these kind of ideas come from what Brian Augustyn refers to as “the blue,” meaning that they appear out of the blue from moments of inspiration that you hope will occur…but can’t count on.
One type of pitch I think you should avoid, though some editors profess to like it, is the cliffhanger pitch. This one is supposed suck a reader into the height of a story’s drama, then it teases about where it may or may not be going. The intent is to get the editor to call the writer and exclaim, “So what happens next?!”
This pitch goes something like this: This is the story about a girl who likes a boy, and they fall in love and get married. At first they have problems, then they come back together. But does their newfound happiness last, when he finds out she’s pregnant with another man’s child?
I find this kind of pitch the most annoying, because it wastes my time. How can I determine whether I’m interested in buying a story, when I don’t know how it ends? This is the pitch that treats the editor like a reader—offering him the dust jacket of the story and hoping he’ll plunk down the money to buy it. It’s like throwing empty peanut shells to the monkeys in the zoo. I want my peanut—dammit!—and I can be pretty frustrated when I don’t get one.
Also, it doesn’t give away the good part, presuming the good part is somewhere near the end.
I say, “Hit the editor right between the eyes with your best shot.” Tell him the good part.
I am going to show you how to build your pitch based on the paradigm that I evolved from Marv’s epiphany.
“This is the story about a _____ who __________________, only for _____ to discover _________________.”
The key to making this paradigm work is remembering that the second part of the sentence has to be thematically connected to the first part of the sentence, that it needs to be about the protagonist, and that it needs to identify the core problem and resolution—acts one and three—of your story.
The strength of this paradigm is that it gives you something around which you can build the spine of a story. That, in turn, helps determine what unfolding plot complications do or don’t fit with it, so there are residual benefits.
The weakness of this paradigm is that you have to know what your story’s inherently about…and you’d be surprised how few writers know, beyond the unfolding of their plots, what their stories are inherently about.
Here’s an intentionally poor pitch that fits into this paradigm: “This is the story about a girl who really likes a boy, only for the boy to discover that he likes playing with toys.”
See? When the two halves aren’t connected so that it’s told from one character’s point of view, the pitch falls apart.
Here’s the pitch straightened out: “This is the story about a girl who really likes a boy, only for her to discover he’s too young for her.”
Or: “This is the story about a boy who likes playing with a girl, only for him to discover he’d rather play with his toys.”
Here’s another example of a pitch that works: “This is the story about a man who tries to buy everything in the world, only for him to discover that he can’t buy back his lost childhood.”
Yep, this is arguably the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane, reconceived as a single sentence. For those who don’t know the film directed by Orson Welles, trust me, there’s a lot more to the story (and its telling), but this concept is at its heart.
Any story can be conceived in this manner…that is, any story that holds together.
Practice it on stories, books and films you’ve seen. If the pitch doesn’t resonate, try again until you’ve captured the essence of the story. I think it’s better to try this at first with stories created by others. It’s going to be hard applying this to your own work at first, because you’re going to have a tough time “leaving stuff out.” It’s better to learn the paradigm first, then apply it to your own writing.
The trick to writing a hook to a pitch is that you have to ignore most of the characters, settings and plot machinations…and cut right to the heart of the story.
To accomplish this, you must repeat the following mantra: “Just tell the good part.”
You don’t have to tell the whole story in one sentence. That’s what the rest of the pitch is intended to do.
Lee Nordling is the owner and founding partner of The Pack (the-pack.biz), a comics-related content provider for the publishing industry. He is also author of “Your Career In the Comics,” an overview of the newspaper comics syndication profession and industry.
If you wish to contact Lee separately from Comics Pro Prep, please write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is a reply about a guy who reads an article and feels something really click.
"Living Robert Venditti's Plan B!"
Welcome to the Project Fanboy columnist crew, Lee! Something tells me this is going to become a weekly must-read for me!
I have already read this three-part article on pitching. Read it, reread it, then printed it and studied it. Then I proceeded to butcher those teachings with my horrendous pitch for the project I'm currently working on. I've said this before elsewhere, but I find pitching a story a whole lot harder than writing it. For this particular project, I literally spent from about 10am to past midnight trying to come up with an opening line, and when I finally added one, it sucked.
So I'll definitely be rereading these articles on pitching as they're posted. Hopefully I can pick something new up from them this time.
I think we added another great feature to Project Fanboy when we brought you on board. Great job Lee.
Oh, yeah. This is going to be good. I was thrilled at the idea you might stop by once in a while. And now we're getting a weekly column from you? Almost too cool. Thanks, Lee.
Awesome! I'm not a writer per se but I do have a stry that I eventually want to write. But that one part where you mentioned something along the lines of - after you have a solid pitch you can then aim your writing towards that and trim out all the other stuff is genius.
I still think it would be fun to make Darby O'Gill Conquers the Bioblud Men from Planet 17 into a suspenseful, action packed character drama. What do I know?
I was there "many moons" ago reading these the first time around. It's still good reading. If there's anything you need to re-read, now and again, it's this.
That was a very knowledge filled post. Very interesting and helpful, I suppose now i'll have to be keeping up with this on the weekly.
Thanks for the kind welcome, everybody.
For those interested in honing their pitch hook paradigm skills, I'll repeat something I wrote in the column: practice it with stories/books/films you know REALLY well.
When you get good at that, when you can make those favorite stories/books/films come alive, you're ready to turn that same focus on your own work. You'll have a tendency to want to cram in more story points than you should, which will obscure the heart of the hook, so try taking out as much as possible, leaving only the bare-bones story aspects...and hopefully it will be the good part.
Feel free to try some of that here.
I and others will give you direct feedback about whether your practice attempts are as compelling as they need to be.