No Assumptions

I’ve been polishing up a pitch document for a new TV drama series, and the notes I’ve been getting back reminded me of one of the most important things I learned about writing pitches, outlines, etc –

Don’t expect the reader to make assumptions about the characters’  emotions.

I used to write outlines that simply described the events happening to the protagonist, and assume that the reader would supply the emotional content. So I’d write “And that night, her dog runs into traffic and is killed” and expect the reader to mentally add “and she feels sad about it.”

It was only when a script editor pointed it out to me that I realised: you have to be explicit about how the character is feeling and reacting at all times. You can’t expect a reader to supply the character’s emotions, because – unlike someone reading a book or watching a movie – they don’t expect to have to make that imaginative leap. That’s not how outlines and pitches work. Your outline’s job is to be precise and explicit about the character’s emotional journey.

And as soon as I started writing in what to me had seemed obvious – he’s sad when his mother dies, she’s elated when she gets elected mayor – readers’ reactions to my work became much more positive.

And this is an ongoing lesson. I still have to check every document to make sure I’ve picked out every moment of emotional importance. So, however obvious your characters’ emotions feel to you, make sure they’re down there in black and white at outline stage…

A Couple Of Tricks For Pitching

Ah, pitching, the bane of every writer’s life! Going into a room and talking face-to-face with people about our work isn’t something we do naturally, on the whole. There’s a reason we’re called writers, not talkers. But it’s part of a screenwriter’s skill set, and we all have to learn to do it.

If you find it particularly hard to be the centre of attention in the room, though, why not try a trick to take some of that attention off yourself – while still keeping everyone involved in the story?

In America, there’s a growing trend towards giving the producers  something physical to look at during longer pitches. Ted Elliott and Terry Rosso, writers of Pirates Of The Caribbean, have pioneered the use of a large cork-board with each scene or sequence, reduced to a line or two, written on cards and pinned onto it.

The advantage of this, as they describe it, is that the producer’s never going to get lost. They can look back to remind themselves of what happened, or who a particular character is. They’re able to look ahead, and anticipate where the story’s going, which may help them to understand why certain things are happening in the set-up scenes that you’re just describing to them…  And if nothing else, it stops them looking  out of the window and getting distracted!

Personally, I think setting out your whole narrative on a board,  all at once, could tend to distract everyone from what you’re saying. After all, they’re only getting basic descriptions on that board, and you want to ensure they’re paying attention to what you say – to the descriptive, emotional version – if you want them to fully engage with the story.

What I have used occasionally is a sketch book full of pictures – location photos, interesting-looking people, etc. Each page illustrates a particular location or section of the story, which means you’re turning the page now and then and giving them something new to look at.

For a two or three minute pitch, I wouldn’t recommend using anything along these lines. It’s going to take longer to flick through it  than to do the actual pitch – and it’s also likely to contain more detail than your verbal pitches, which will need to confusion.

However, for a longer pitch, it can be fantastically useful, particularly when you’re talking about a very visual world that’s unfamiliar to most people.  (And let’s face it, all the best stories are set in strongly visual worlds that we don’t know well and want to explore –  so if yours isn’t, maybe it needs some work anyway!)

The one thing that might be worth trying in a shorter pitch, though I haven’t yet used it myself, is bringing along a single physical object which illustrates your story. If your film is about a meteorite bringing alien life forms to earth, producing a chunk of interesting-looking rock and inviting the producer to imagine it had just landed in their front garden will certainly get their attention.

Or you could try starting your story this way:  “Imagine you’d grown up in a children’s home and had no idea you really were. Finally, the home hands over the one clue to your identity – and it’s this.” And you place a Nazi war medal on the table. Or an unusual piece of jewellery, or… whatever.

But you do need to make sure your object is relevant to your whole story. If it only features in the first few minutes of the film, it’s going to look a bit daft sat there on the desk as you go through the rest of the totally unrelated story.

Visual aids or no visual aids, just remember that  pitching is doing what you do best: telling stories. Hook the producer into that story, exactly as you would if you were writing the script, exactly as you would if you were telling your best friend about this great movie you just saw, and you can’t go wrong.

Beware The L-Shaped Sofa – and other tips for pitching

I had a pitch meeting last week, and that got me thinking about pitching, and how much some writers worry about it.

I suppose it’s natural.  Someone whose favourite activity is sitting alone in a room making stuff up is not necessarily going to enjoy walking into a room full of strangers and selling their ideas.  And despite what they tell you in those self-confidence seminars, no, the other guy is not as scared as you are, and imagining everyone in the room in just their underwear is risky at best…

So – trying to avoid the ones you’ve read a hundred times on every other site – what are my top tips for pitching?

There Is Such A Thing As A Free Lunch – but you won’t get to eat it.  Lunch meetings are a tricky business.  Mostly no one’s going to buy you lunch until they’ve actually optioned your work, but if you do find yourself out to lunch during a pitch…

Hopefully you’ll get time to do the actual pitch while you’re waiting for the food to arrive – but then if it all goes badly, you still have the entire meal to get through. Otherwise, pick the course that the producer is liking the most.  Might as well have him in a good mood!

Pick your meal carefully – stay off the stodge, it slows your thinking process – and remember, keep away from that feta cheese!

Beware The L-Shaped Sofa.  Yes, I really did walk into a room and sit in the bend of an L-shaped sofa, leaving the two producers to sit at the other corners, leaving me turning from one to the other during the pitch like I was commentating on a tennis match.  What can I say?  I was young and dumb.

Pick the seat that places everyone else in a single sector of the room, where you can keep them all in your eyeline at once.  And don’t forget the assistant who’s only there to take notes, because…

One Day The Assistant Will Be Running The Company.  So be nice to her!  Thank her for bringing you a drink, don’t be too fussy about how much milk you take in your tea, make conversation with her if she seems open to it and let her work if she clearly needs to.  Because one day you’ll be begging her to buy your script –  and anyway, people who are unpleasant to assistants, waiters and janitors are a***holes, and you’re not an a***hole, are you?

While We’re Talking About Drinks –  if you’re given a drink in reception, is it polite to take it into the meeting with you?  Depends.  If the person you’re meeting is making himself a drink, yes.  If it’s going to be a fairly long meeting, probably.  If you’re meeting the head of the company/ studio boss,  then no.  You won’t be in there long enough (see below).

This raises the delicate question of where to put the cup if you’re not taking it with you.  And I’m not getting into that minefield…

Bosses Aren’t Like Normal People.  When you have a meeting with a script editor, development producer, even the producer who’s planning to make your script, he’ll be interested in you.  He’ll ask where you live, how you got into the business, what else you’re doing.  He’ll tell you about the company, and about what he’s done there.  And only then do you start talking about the project you want him to develop or option.

But eventually (you hope), you’ll reach the point where you and your producer go to formally meet the head of the company to pitch or talk about the project, and hopefully get the go-ahead for it.

This meeting will not be like any other meeting, because the boss is not like your producer.

She is not interested in small talk.  She will ask the ugly questions everyone else has avoided, like  “Only Brad Pitt could play this role.  What if he says no?”  or  “Are there really enough episode ideas here to sustain a long-running series?”  (Believe me, she will understand story like no one else in that room.  There’s a reason she’s risen to this position.) And she wants you in and out as fast as possible.

It’s easy to feel hurt by this shift in the atmosphere.  But look at it from her POV.  Firstly, she has a multi-million pound company to run, and you’re just one part of it.  But, far more importantly, she trusts her staff.  If the producer says you can do the work, you’re relatively sane, and you take notes without hysteria and death threats, the boss will trust their judgment.  She doesn’t need to make nice with you, because all that’s been done for her.

Don’t Leave A Meet-and-Greet Without Pitching Something.  Your initial meeting will be a meet-and-greet, which is agent-speak for  “let’s get my client in a room with you, so you can see they’re articulate, funny, and don’t rant about the coming Global Apocalypse like some crazy person.”

You’re there to establish an initial contact with someone at the company, who will then hopefully remember your name when your agent submits projects to them.

But how are you going to get them to remember your name?  You’re not.  You’re going to pitch them a project they’ll remember.  Twelve months from now, they won’t remember John Smith who lives in Doncaster and likes cats.  But I guarantee they’ll remember John Smith who pitched that amazing show about robot dinosaurs solving crimes.  Great idea, pity we couldn’t afford to make it – I wonder what he’s working on now, I should call his agent…

Mostly the producer will actually ask you for ideas, or at least hint in that direction.  But if he doesn’t, find a way to work something eye-catching but reasonable practical into the conversation – and don’t leave until you do.

Okay, don’t take this too literally.  If they really want you to leave, leave.  But if you can find a way to get a brief pitch into the conversation, you’ve got far more chance of being remembered…

And finally –  Know Your Story, Not Just Your Pitch.  They will ask you about that minor character you’ve hardly thought about, or what happens in episode twelve.  They will ask what you think of making the central character a woman, the love interest a dog, the contemporary Nebraska setting a suburb of Paris in 1763.

(And remember, the correct answer to a really stupid suggestion is not “no”.  It’s  “That’s interesting.  I’ll think about that.”)

If you really know your story – the world, the people, the themes, the emotions and the feeling you want the audience to walk away with at the end  –  you’ll be much better equipped to rise to these challenges.

Any more suggestions about pitching?  Leave them in the comments box…

Happy pitching!