Lee Nordling on giving away the good part, the problem with high concept pitches, and the importance of hitting the producer between the eyes.
This begins a two-part series on various ways you can improve your hitting percentage with pitches. This is not going to be about self-promotion, 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 I find most frequently lacking from the thousands of pitches I’ve read over the years.
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 (Blade), Craig Miller (Curious George), and several others. Each of us was writing a screenplay, mine being that most commercial of ventures, a cross-genre Western-mystery-action story…
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 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 Marv conceive a different approach to pitching stories.
Hesitant at first, searching for the right language, Marv began 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’s 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 be better—and this time around, we were all leaning forward, mesmerized by the story, eagerly anticipating its next moment.
He’d figured out that 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 of the story.
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: 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.
See, I gave away the good part. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, 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: film producers want to know why they’re listening to the story you have to tell. They need to know ahead of time where to focus as the story unfolds. That’s very tough to do without knowing what the story is 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.
Let’s take Independence Day meets Darby O’Gill and the Little People as an example.
After conquering the Earth and plundering it for its mineral resources, aliens attempt to capture pots of gold from the leprechauns. This triggers a call to arms by the Wee Folk, who team up with humans and use magic to overcome the scientific superiority of the aliens.
Now, I’m not sure any of you could imagine that briefly outlined story from my “(movie title) meets (movie title)” example, (maybe you thought it was “magic” versus “science fiction”), 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 creators. More often than not I read something like Silence of the Lambs meets X-Files, which tells us nothing.
For this reason, this is also not the worm we’re going to choose to bait the hook.
Another worm that’s especially tough to use as bait is the “perfect title.” An example of this is Cowboys & Aliens. This title immediately evokes the tone and cross-genres of the film, doesn’t need to say more, and it 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 they appear out of the blue from moments of inspiration 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 intention is to get the editor to call the writer and exclaim, “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 producer like a reader—offering the dust jacket version of the story and hoping the producer will plunk down the money to buy it. It’s like throwing empty peanut shells at the monkeys in the zoo.
But I want my peanut—dammit!—and I can be pretty frustrated when I don’t get one.
I say hit the producer right between the eyes with your best shot. Tell them the good part, the reason they should give a shit about your story.
Here’s how to bait your hook, based on the paradigm developed 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 must be thematically linked to the first part of the sentence, must be about the protagonist, and must 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. In turn, it 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 is 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 hook 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.”
Even with the commonality of what they each “like,” the two halves aren’t really connected. Also, it’s not told from one character’s point of view, so the hook falls apart on several levels.
We don’t know which one we’re supposed to root for.
Still, in its present structure, the hook can be improved. For example: “This is the story about a girl who really likes a boy, only for the boy to discover that he would prefer to play with toys.”
Now, this introduces conflicting forces, but still doesn’t tell us which of them is the protagonist.
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.”
In this version, she’s the protagonist.
Or: “This is the story about a boy who likes playing with a girl, only for him to discover he’d prefer to play with toys.”
In this version, he’s the protagonist.
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, conceived 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. It’s better starting with stories created by others.
I’m going to repeat that: it’s better starting with stories created by others!
You are too close to your own stories to be objective at first. It is tougher cutting the story chaff from the good stuff grain.
I have read the tortured efforts of creators trying to fit everything, including the kitchen sink, into this paradigm, because they can’t identify the good part and cut the rest.
“But it’s all good!” they cry.
Simply put, it’s better to learn the paradigm first, then apply it to your own story.
“What if my story or series is about a team of characters, where there’s no single protagonist?” you ask. “If I focus on just one of them, doesn’t that misrepresent my story?”
“Great question!” I note.
If your story or series is about a team, treat the team like a single protagonist. Surely there is some bond holding them together, and that needs to be key to your hook as well.
For example: “These are the stories about a group of political operatives in the West Wing of the White House, who strive to achieve their principled goals for the country, only for them to discover that governing often requires them to compromise their principles.”
See how much of The West Wing was left out, but how much was clarified?
The trick to writing a hook for a story or a series is that you have to ignore most of the characters, settings, and plot machinations, and cut right to the heart of the story as it affects your protagonist or team.
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.
A version of this article originally appeared in Comics Creator Prep, which is available on amazon.com, © Lee Nordling.