Great stuff here. It's so hard to kill off those details that you like, but it makes a tremendous difference in the pitch. Thanks for the info!
Welcome to another piece of the pitching pie-that’s-not-in-the-sky.
“But I’m still working on the first piece,” you say, spraying crumbs.
“That’s fine,” I reply, with my transparent face-shield in place, “but once you’ve set the hook, you’ve got to start reeling in the fish…er, editor, and that’s where this second column comes in handy.”
“So this part is about writing the actual pitch, right?”
“That’s right,” I respond, “and it’s another first step towards learning to write with intention,” introducing a phrase I conjured since these articles were first published.
“Writing with intention?” you repeat, your face scrunching.
“Let me just say that there is no greater feeling for me as a writer than to have somebody respond to what I wrote exactly as I’d planned for them to respond.” I elaborate, “Crafting language in that fashion is writing with intention. Since most writers aren’t first-draft wonders, getting this right requires you to be able to step back from your story and read it as if you hadn’t written it…but we’ll get back to this many columns from now; I’m getting ahead of myself.”
“What else have you figured out since first writing this column?” you ask.
“Well,” I respond, having to face the music, “I’m sorry to say that a couple aspects of this article haven’t been received as clearly by readers as I’d hoped.”
“So somebody didn’t respond to what you wrote exactly as you’d planned for them to respond?”
“Yes,” I admit, “lots of somebodies.”
“What didn’t come through clearly?”
“Well,” I answer, now in humbled self-flagellation-mode, “when I wrote my example of how a short portion of a pitch could be reconceived from a longer one, a lot of writers took my example as a representation for how far the entire story needed to go in a pitch--in this case the first act--so I started seeing a lot of single paragraph pitches that only set up the first act of the story and didn’t tell the rest. I’d criticize this, and often read, in response, ‘But that’s how far you went in your example.’
“They’d picked up part of the point, but also taken a completely different, unintended point from it.”
“So you’re ‘fessing up to stop that from happening with this new batch of readers,” you conclude.
“Yep,” I continue. “It’s vitally important that your pitches tell some broad-strokes version of the entire story, otherwise it’s difficult for editors to tell whether the ending is worth the journey.
“Also,” I add, fully shamefaced, “writers took my ‘shorter is better’ declaration to mean that a full pitch should be the smallest possible length, something that would make a TV Guide summary feel like War and Peace, when what I simply intended to impart is that good, short writing that covers the important bases is better than longer plot-filled writing that obscures your intentions.”
“So you screwed up.”
“Yep. It shows just how hard it can be to write with intention, and there’s no more valuable help setting things straight than finding out how what you thought you wrote differs from what you actually wrote.”
“Hmmm,” you ponder.
“This is why,” I clarify, “it’s important to pay attention to people’s reaction to your writing, then recognize, if they don’t understand what you intend, it’s your responsibility, not theirs. In short, if they don’t like something, it’s entirely possible you haven’t yet explained it well.”
“So it’s always on me?” you ask, feeling forced into a corner we’ve all spent time in.
“It’s at least on you to find out whether somebody who doesn’t like your story actually perceives what you intended, and if they do, then they simply don’t like your story. But if they don’t perceive what you intended, then you have another chance to make your writing match up to those intentions.
“You should also try this interview process with folks who like your story. It can be of real value to ask them whether they perceived important aspects you intended. This can involve a lot of Q&A, but it’ll be worth it.
“And when the work comes out well, you get most of the credit,” I conclude.
“Guess that’s not a bad tradeoff,” you say, considering the potential for great success over a long career.
Glad you see it that way. So let’s get back to work.
“WHAT IT TAKES TO SELL YOUR PITCH”
This is the second in a three-part series on various ways you can improve your hitting percentage with editors.
Have you noticed that when you show your pitches to editors/producers/friends/relatives, they can’t see the potential for what you envisioned?
Remember having to explain the nature of that potential?
Remember promising them that the finished story will fulfill that potential?
Remember that look of patronizing encouragement or doubt?
Remember that you felt you (to quote Butch Cassidy) “have vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals”?
Pitches are roadmaps for where you’re going with your stories. They are also the promises of things to come.
This column is about not saving your good writing for later…but writing the most compelling pitch you possibly can, and for that you need to…
“SELL, DON’T TELL”
All writing is selling.
All of it.
Every last word.
Whether you realize it or not, through the process of writing and communicating, you’re selling ideas…and you’re selling yourself as the purveyor of those ideas.
If you’re a technical writer, you’re selling accuracy or process.
If you’re a non-fiction writer, you’re selling an interpretation of facts.
If you’re a columnist, you’re selling a perspective…just like I’m doing now.
If you’re a writer of fiction, whether the medium is comics, film, prose or plays, you’re selling your vision of what’s happening to characters that don’t exist in places you may have never been to. You’re selling us on any number of things: that a character is a sweetie or an asshole, that he or she is motivated to behave or change in a particular way, that an image or setting looks or smells or feels a specific way. And you’re selling us the idea that these things all mesh together.
You’re selling us on your vision of an ordering of events that never happened, and you want us to become completely immersed in the story and its world.
So, should the selling of your vision begin with the finished manuscript?
Obviously, it shouldn’t.
Selling—or communicating what’s important, if the word selling somehow offends you—needs to begin at the earliest possible moment that you’re trying to get somebody to read what you’ve written…or ask you to write more.
That’s the purpose of pitches, right?
I know writers pour their hearts and minds into writing pitches, and I’m not questioning their effort. However, when a publisher’s guidelines indicate that writers should deliver a one-paragraph, one-page or two-page pitch/synopsis, most of the pitches read like a laundry list of events with over-long paragraphs, run-on sentences, smaller type faces, crowded margins, and twenty-pounds of story stuffed into a two-pound bag.
“Don’t you think a pitch should tell what happens?” you say.
Your pitch is a roadmap, but it shouldn’t show every street, or the reader could make a wrong turn and get lost. The map should simply indicate the ones that will get the reader to end up where you want them to be.
When pitches are presented as packed-together sequencing of events, editors have to cull through them to find the emotional arcs of your story, and they’ve got a better-than-even chance of missing the diamonds you planted in your story’s heart.
So what are you selling, the sequencing of events…or your story?
You can’t sell both…not without a lot more space. Ultimately, that’s what the comic/film/novel/play is for.
The complete sequencing of events for your story is important, but not at the pitch stage. At this stage, you’d be surprised how little beyond the concept and the arc of the story is important.
The art to writing a pitch is remembering that your primary goal is to sell the reader on why the characters are doing what they’re doing, and that the story is evolving in a natural and compelling manner. Too much detail in a pitch obscures these larger concerns, and the reader can get lost.
You may think that these charming nuances add depth to your pitch and help sell it, but this is rarely the case. An abundance of detail throws off the perceived balance of what is and isn’t important about your story.
For example, imagine you’re in a room that’s completely empty of furniture, and there are five huge diamonds lying at different locations on the floor. They’re not too hard to see, right? Those signify the important parts of your story, the aspects that determine its uniqueness and arc.
Now, imagine you’re in the same room, and the room is three-inches deep in rubies, emeralds, sapphires and opals, along with those same five diamonds. How easily do you think you can find those diamonds now? Yep, it’s pretty hard…and there’s a really good chance that two, three or four diamonds could be missed completely.
This is what a reader has to sort through to find and identify the important aspects of your story…ultimately to determine whether they want to see a longer version.
Why make it hard on them? Why put in stuff that gets in the way?
What are you selling?
What follows is an example of the kind of over-writing I’ve seen in pitches and treatments, all because the writer couldn’t bear to leave out events he or she was certain would help sell the story.
Version #1: “Harry is fired from his job. He’s been fired a lot. He’s depressed. He trudges out of his office, takes the elevator to the ground floor, then steps out onto the street, buys a gun from a local crook, and drives home. When he sits down, he tears his pants on a chair spring, but he’s so depressed he doesn’t notice. He’s decided to commit suicide and puts the gun to his head. He pulls the trigger and is sprayed with water. The gun is a water pistol.”
Version #2: “Harry comes home from work, disgusted that he’s reached a new low and been fired after only twenty minutes on the job. He eases into his favorite chair, barely noticing the spring that thrusts at him through the upholstery and tears his pants. He contemplates what may or may not be ahead…and sees nothing. With clenched teeth, Harry picks up the pistol that he just bought from a local thug, sets it against his temple, pulls the trigger…and squeals as the pistol erupts with a squirt of water.”
The first version is flatly written, and it utilizes little in the way of voice or tone. Until we see that Harry tried to commit suicide with a water pistol, there was little in the writing that suggested this was a comedy. This is a critical mistake in a pitch, as there’s no reason for an editor to believe that the writer who wrote this could write a comedy.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a writer say, “But I’m really a good writer. Just wait and see.”
Don’t save the good writing till later. If you can write comedy, horror, superheroes, whatever, the tone of your writing in the pitch should convey this. If it doesn’t, then we can’t tell what kind of writer you are.
The first version tells the story. The second sells the story…and it sells you. It evokes the tone of the story, using language that sells it as a comedy, and it sells you as the person who can write it.
Sell, don’t tell.
Write your pitch so that the reader will have the appropriate emotional response, and you’re halfway home. Now, let’s take you the rest of the way.
The second version may have been better at evoking the tone of the story, but is that enough? It is probably fine for a treatment, but it’s not good enough for a pitch. You want to grab the reader by the throat and not let him have a chance to wiggle free.
This is where we discuss the idea that less is more.
Version #3: “Harry is a nowhere man who’s floundered in life and failed at everything he’s ever attempted, even suicide.”
Version #2 may or may not be amusing…but Version #3 is written in broad-strokes and immediately propels us into the character and his dilemma.
Let’s continue the story about poor Harry, and I’ll spare you the flatly written version: “Harry packs everything he has of value into his bag. It’s a small bag. He stands in the doorway to his bedroom, which he’s kept spotless for nobody besides his goldfish to notice—but goldfish don’t notice much, do they? He sighs. Then he walks down the hallway one last time, sighing continuously. Finally, he stands in the open front doorway to his house and closes it with an even bigger sigh. He sighs on the way to his car, and is interrupted only by his neighbor’s dog, as it manages to catch him and tear the other leg of his pants as a going-away present. Once safely inside his car, Harry turns the key in the ignition, and hears the clicking of a battery that’s nearly expired. More sighing. Harry opens his bag, takes out the Crest-encrusted toothbrush, slips it into his shirt pocket, and walks away from his bag, his car, his house and his life. He’s going to walk the sidewalks of suburbia, like Caine, in search of new failures.”
Back to the broad-strokes Version #3, which now encompasses the entire story as we know it: “Harry is a nowhere man who’s floundered in life and failed at everything he’s ever attempted, even suicide, so he leaves behind every trophy of his failure, determined to walk the sidewalks of suburbia, like Caine, in search of new failures.”
Conceptually, there’s nothing missing from the broad-strokes Version #3, so the editor/producer/relative/friend can immediately tell what’s important about the story.
They can immediately spot your diamonds on the floor.
The expanded version may be fine for a more detailed outline, which would come later in the process of story development, but when you’re trying to sell somebody on what’s compelling about your story, shorter will always be better.
Shorter is better.
Less is more.
What you’ve read about Harry Walks Like Caine is only the premise and inciting incident.
When this needs to be a one-page or two-page pitch, you’ll have plenty of space to tell us what happens when Harry walks the sidewalks of suburbia, like Caine.
If you use the Version #2 style of writing for a two-page pitch, you’ll quickly run out of real estate and several situations could occur.
You could end up rushing the middle and ending, and the focus of the pitch will be out of balance, with the weight all at the front.
You could run five pages too long, and then you’ll start cutting words and phrases, rather than re-conceiving the pitch as a whole, and the pitch will have a chopped-up feeling.
You could reduce the text from 12 pt. to 7 pt. type, extend the margins, delete the spaces between paragraphs, combine paragraphs, and hope the editor doesn’t notice…and I kid you not that this happens.
This is what happens when you try to fit your entire plot into too little space.
“Well, sure,” you say, “You wrote the premise, which is the easy part. Try doing that for the rest of the story!”
Sure. Here’s the entire second act (which is approximately half the story): “Not once in 237 attempts, has Harry Who Walks Like Caine successfully stopped the serial pie-thrower known as the Crazed Clown from splattering a pie company executive. However, at the scene of the last splattering at Acme Pies, he discovers a meringue-spotted driver’s license that reveals the true identity of the masked clown. The name on the license is his. Armed with this knowledge, he’s determined to stop himself, and it’s going to be a battle to the death!”
The trick to conceiving your story in broad strokes is remembering the purpose of each of your acts, and, for the sake of convenience, I’m going to only deal with the three-act structure.
Act One: Problem.
Act Two: Complication.
Act Three: Solution.
Leave out the detail and you’ll be fine. Write even one line that involves a character actually completing an action then you’re already taking your pitch into the red zone of over-complication.
Write in arcs, not in events, and you’ll clearly convey the elements that are driving your story.
This applies to defining your characters, too.
You have a pretty good idea about the nature of Harry, right? So you don’t really need to know more about him, do you? No, you don’t, not for the pitch. Save Harry’s upbringing in a circus sideshow till later.
There is a line about character motivation I learned from Robert McKee: Nobody does more than they think they need to do to get what they want.
I find this works for people, too.
Translation: People don’t extend themselves beyond what they think is necessary.
When I worked at DC Comics in the mid-‘90s, I was Group Editor of Creative Services, and I saw all the pitches that were being distributed for executive approval.
One pitch, whose writer I won’t identify, read something like this: “In this series, I’m going to keep doing what I did in the (insert character name here) mini-series.” That was it, the entire pitch, and it sold.
Why? Could it be that a popular writer wrote this pitch, and the DC Comics editorial staff knew exactly what it would be getting from him? Absolutely.
There needs to be a body of work before an editor or producer can have this degree of confidence about what they’re going to get.
If you’re writing a pitch, never presume that the person reading it is going to give you the benefit of the doubt…about anything.
Nobody’s going to believe you if you tell them you can do it, just as they’re not going to buy off on a story that simply tells what happens.
It’s your job to instill a sense of confidence, and to do that you have to sell them on your story…and yourself.
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 lee@projectfanboy.
Great stuff here. It's so hard to kill off those details that you like, but it makes a tremendous difference in the pitch. Thanks for the info!
Real cool stuff your putting out, I do enjoy the info.
I came across this article on accident. Turns out I already read these first 3, but hey. Rereading never hurts. So I was trying to fill the Steven Forbesless void in my heart when I came across this new article. After a few blind mindless clicks, I realized, dude. This Lee Nordling guy taught Steven a ton! He can teach me a ton too! So while at times I curse Steven D. Forbes for leaving us to pursue greener pastures, I realize maybe good things do happen in the end.. But anyway.
Just gonna say welcome to the crew (assuming you weren't part of it before, like before I was.. If I am... Erm...), great first couple of posts, and I'm DEFINITELY looking forward to reading them weekly to take the place of logging on every Tuesday to read's Steven's Bolts and Nuts articles. As much as I learned reading Bolts and Nuts, I'm excited to learn anything I can from Comics Pro Prep. So woohoo. You've already got a handful of eager listeners and aspiring creators, so I'm pumped. Anyway..
Come on people! Lee said we should try something in week one. He said we should try writing pitches to famous books / movies we have already seen. I figured it's worth a shot. Let's all try some pitches for some famous movies and see who can come up with the best ones. And if you come up with a great from for Star Wars, or Space Balls, or whatever... Let's just see if someone else can come up with something better. And if they can, then we all can learn something.. On TOP of what Lee has already taught, and will continue to teach us.
I figured I'd take an easy route out, and pitch a movie that has SUCH an awesome premise, you couldn't fail at pitching it:
A guy who cannot make new memories has to use the tools available to him to find and kill the man who killed his wife. --Memento
I left out the ending and such, as the movie is all so out of order that you can't *REALLY* pick up on the rising action, the 3 acts, all that sort of stuff. Is that a sign of a good movie? Who knows. When you watch that movie, the ending was GREAT, and I loved it but a friend of mine hated it cause he realized every character in that movie was basically, in one way or another, using another character. There was no true love, no true beauty, just me using you, you using him, him using me, all that. Which is interesting in it's own right. But you get to the end and you realize (spoiler, if you've not yet seen it) the main character will do anything to FEEL as though he succeeded in his quest. He even openly admits that it's not about whether he succeeds with his quest or not, it's about whether he FEELS, or see's himself succeed or not. And when you can't make new memories... Well? Interesting movie, and anyone who hasn't seen it really should.
Anyone ever see Mean Creek? Good movie. Can anyone pitch it? I can't. The first thing I imagine is 'Some boys ______, only to accidentally ________, which leads to ________...' I just can't fill in the blanks. A great movie in my opinion, just so hard to come up with a pitch. Can anyone explain why? I can't. That's why I'm asking.
Say, if you look at two great stories (or movies), and you go to pitch them in one sentence, or one paragrah, and you find one story SO EASY to pitch, but the other story so hard, and you don't even know where to begin... What causes that? Is there a common attribute to stories that can have easy pitches? As opposed to GOOD stories who seem to be hard to pitch? In week 1, Lee mentioned The Sixth Sense. Such a great movie, but it has that big idea, and that alone WAS the pitch. The good enough pitch to get anyone interested. I guess Memento almost had that too, just the crisp, detailed, inciting idea that makes *almost* everyone ask, 'what happens?!' Whereas other movies, maybe more plot based, and story based, more on developing characters, watching the action rise, fall, seeing the twists, the plot changes, all that... Seem harder to pitch for. That *one great theme* or one interesting idea can pitch itself. But when you're missing that, what do you do?
Like the Lord of the Rings or Star Wars (I guess looking at a 3 or 6 movie series may be hard).. But neither of them had that "ONE GREAT PITCH" waiting to be told. I guess LotR kinda did... The idea of one ring ruling everything... And what must be done? But Star Wars was so all over the map, what do you do with that? I was going on the recent flicks, the new trilogy, thinking, hypotheticaly, 'If you could teach a man (Anakin) how to utilize this force, but he is destined to fall to the dark side, would you?' In hopes of him succeeding in "his destiny," but knowing there's always that chance? What if he NEEDS to fall to the dark side in order to his son to aspire to right what he wronged? I guess that's an interesting enough pitch. But still... Bleh. I dunno.
Anyone got any pitches for the movies I mentioned? I'm so interested in seeing pitches we came up for movies I've seen, or can see. Come on, all, let's give it a shot. Take a couple minutes and try to write a pitch for your favorite movie. I'm eager to hear your take on things, in perspective to my take on things. Kk.
And thanks again, Lee, for joining the crew. Eagerly awaiting every new article.
Thanks for keeping this discussion alive, Roberts.
SPOILER NOTE: Nobody should read a word further into any of my columns or the discussion if they don't want to read how stories end...because Rosebud was a sled, and we need to discuss that in order to get to the heart of the intent of Citizen Kane.
Memento is a great one with which to work, and it's one I've never created a hook for, so here goes a glimpse into my process.
My first stab tried to figure out how get the whole loses-his-memory-intermittently thing into a story told backwards.
In short, I got caught up in wanting to tell too much, then suddenly I had it, a hook that would be so compelling that somebody would HAVE to read more (and find out the other cool stuff that makes this one of the great films of the last 20 years):
This is the story about an amnesiac who's searching for his wife's murderer, only for us to discover that he's already killed him.
Now, I changed "for him" to "for us," because our amnesiac never comes to realize that he killed his wife's killer; the revelation is for us alone. It's a minor alteration, but it sets the hook and doesn't get a nitpicker to say, "But HE never does realize that."
Now let's smooth it out some more: This is the story about an amnesiac who's searching for his wife's murderer, even though he's already killed him.
The paradigm helps us keep the what-goes-where aspect of the sentence, but don't be afraid to clean it up...as long as you keep the reveal for the latest possible place in the sentence.
Unfortunately, when it comes to writing hooks based on the paradigm, I have a tough time doing it. I've read and re-read (and re-read) the article. I've had Lee (and Steven) personally try to beat it into my thick skull. And it still doesn't entirely make sense to me. But it's worth another try, I guess.
This is the story of an heroic cop who is disappointed to find himself reassigned to a quiet little town, and his bumbling new partner who dreams of being a hero, only for the two of them to discover that they can be heroes anywhere.
To me it would work much better as:
Nicholas Angel is an heroic cop, disappointed to find himself reassigned to a quiet little town. Danny Butterman, Angel's bumbling new partner, has only dreamed of being a hero. Together they discover that they can be heroes anywhere.
But that's probably what Lee means about the point being more important than the paradigm. Or I might have messed it all up completely (again).
Let's play question and answer.
Is that the coolest thing about your story, Calvin? Two cops learn to become heroes?
I get something like that as a log line/one line TV Guide summary, but isn't there some real surprise that occurs in this story that spins it on its head?
If so, then what is it?
If not, then how else does the story surprise us?
Nice Memento pitch. To work it so quicker than mine. I had no idea just to use something like, 'Wife's murderer,' instead I was using 'the man who killed his wife.' Like duh. Not only did you condense it but you left that tiny bit of a bombshell of what if it DID already happen? And, in the movie, that can go both ways. Cause the first death you see is of that cop, of the Leonard's version of who must have killed his wife. So you are kind of witnessing it happen along with Leonard, who is seeing this as his epiphany, as 'I finally did it!' When in the end, the cop is trying to make Leonard understand that he already got his man. Whether that's true, or whether the cop is just playing Leonard as a tool to do his dirty work, to keep him around as long as possible is besides the point. But regardless:
Yeah, I gotta go with Lee here (duh), Calvin. While that pitch sounds (I haven't seen the movie, so bear with me) like it *could* be the major plot to a good movie, it's missing that bit where it kinda slams you over the head.
I just saw Zombieland (great movie that's helping in bridging the gap between the coolness of zombies and the rest of the world that doesn't realize that, hah), and I'm kinda stuck where Calvin may be with Hot Fuzz...
And maybe it's not our pitch -telling abilities, as much as it's the movie not having that big bombshell waiting to be revealed. Zombieland was just a straight up good movie. There wasn't a huge bombshell / plot twist or anything. It was just a GOOD zombie movie and I can't even think of a pitch other than, 'zombie movie.' or something. Hah. I guess maybe something like...
A young kid scared of the world becomes ready to live in it when it is overrun by zombies.
And even that doesn't touch on the big issues, cause he finds friendship in this world, he finds the theoretical family he never had, and he finds love. He's not just a kid scared of the world outside his living room window. I dunno. Great discussion though.
Well, it's not my story. It's a movie.Is that the coolest thing about your story, Calvin? Two cops learn to become heroes?
And I didn't say it was about them learning to become heroes. What I said was that they "discover that they can be heroes anywhere."
One was already hero. He was such a hero he made the other cops look bad, which was why he got shoved off to the middle of nowhere. And he didn't think he could be a hero in the middle of nowhere. The other was just living up the low expectations for a cop from a nowhere town, and dreaming of being a big city hero. But he didn't think he could really be one. It was both of them learning that they could be heroes, regardless of where they were, that was the point. Danny didn't need to dream of being a hero, he could really be one, right in his little rural home town. And Angel didn't need to be in the city, tackling big cases and racking up commendations, to be a hero. He could also be a hero, on a smaller scale, right there in the same little rural town.
I don't know if you've seen the movie, but that last scene... where Angel and Danny are peeling rubber and sliding around corners, tearing up the streets like they're in hot pursuit, but it's over something completely innocuous...just having fun and being small town heroes... THAT'S what the whole movie is about. All the weird antics and adventure building up to that moment (setting up the situation, making friends, solving the mystery, stopping the bad guys, Danny stepping up and being a real cop, Angel lightening up and learning to be something besides just a cop, etc), is just getting us to that moment. At least that's what I got from it.
There is a "big twist" (in the plot). So I suppose I could go with that and have something like...
This is the story of a big city cop who is reassigned to a quiet little town, only to discover that the quiet little town is really just an artificial facade propped up by conspiracy and murder.
Is that catchier? Probably. And it's accurate enough, I guess. But, to my mind, it isn't what the movie is really about.
I don't know. Like I said, the paradigm doesn't entirely make sense to me. It always seems like it's too little space to do more than highlight a single element of a story. And how many stories have only a single element? So I looked for the over-arching theme that the elements support. The problem is that over-arching themes don't generally have twists.