Create Your Pitch Part II: Sell, Don’t Tell
Welcome to the second piece of the pitching pie-that’s-not-in-the-sky.
“But I’m still working on the first piece,” you sputter, spraying crumbs.
“That’s fine,” I reply, my transparent face-shield in place, “but once you’ve set the hook you’ve got to start reeling in the fish…er, producer, and that’s where this comes in handy.”
“So this is about writing the actual pitch?”
“That’s right,” I confirm.
This second article shows how to conceive and write your complete story in an abbreviated form that reflects the tone of the finished work, thus allowing producers to more quickly and effectively grasp your intention.
Have you noticed that when you show your pitches to producers / readers / 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 feeling (to quote Butch Cassidy) “you 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 chapter is about not saving your good writing till later; it’s about writing the most compelling pitch you possibly can. 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 as I’m doing now.
If you write fiction, whether the medium is film, comics, 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 readers on any number of things: that a character is a sweetheart or a monster, 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 initial selling of your vision begin by showing the finished manuscript?
Obviously, it shouldn’t, unless you have a producer who’s already going to buy it.
Selling—or, if the word “selling” somehow offends you, getting the reader to embrace your fiction—needs to begin at the earliest possible moment you’re trying to get somebody to read or listen to your broad-strokes overview, with a goal toward getting them to ask for more.
That’s the purpose of a pitch, for somebody to want to read the longer version of the story you’re pitching.
Writers pour their hearts and minds into writing pitches, and I don’t question their effort. However, when a publisher’s guidelines request a one-paragraph, one-page, or two-page synopsis, most writers’ pitches read like a laundry list of events with over-long paragraphs, run-on sentences, smaller fonts, crowded margins, and twenty-pounds of story stuffed into a two-ounce story bag.
You ask, “Don’t you think a pitch should tell what happens?”
Your pitch is a roadmap, a really small one, and when you force every street onto it they’re so tiny and crowded together that the important ones don’t look different from the smaller ones, and the reader is likely to make a wrong turn and get lost. It’s like needing directions and getting a map without labels. A proper broad-strokes roadmap should simply indicate the important streets and turns to get the reader to their destination.
It’s exactly like the directions you’d give to a pal to get to your house. Would you list all the streets they’re going to pass? Of course not. You’re more likely to say, “Stay on Elm for two miles till you reach Main Street, which has a light, then turn right.”
When pitches are presented as packed-together sequencing of events, producers 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 at the heart of your story.
So what are you selling, a sequencing of events or your story?
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 characters are doing what they’re doing, and evolving the story in an organic and compelling manner. Like the unnecessary streets on your directions to a pal, too many details in a pitch obscure larger concerns, and readers get lost.
You may think that 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. There are five huge diamonds lying at different locations on the floor, with the overhead light refracting off each of them. They’re not too hard to see, right? These 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, pretty difficult, and there’s a good chance that two, three, or four diamonds could be missed.
When you over-pack your pitch with unnecessary plotting and details, this is what readers have to sort through to discern what’s special, to determine whether they want to read more.
Why make it difficult? Why put in stuff that gets in the way?
What are you selling?
Here is an example from the beginning of a story that represents the kind of plot-stuffing I’ve seen in pitches and treatments, all because the writer couldn’t bear to leave out events they were certain would help it sell.
Version #1 of the beginning of a story:
Harry is fired from his job. He’s been fired a lot. He’s depressed. He trudges out of his office and down a long hall, with everybody witnessing the failure they all knew was coming. He takes the elevator to the ground floor, steps out of the elevator, through the expansive lobby, and onto the street. He cries out for mercy from a cruel universe, and gets hit by bird droppings. He buys a gun from a street-corner crook and drives home. When he sits down, he tears his pants on a chair spring, but he’s so depressed he doesn’t even care. What’s one more rip in his life, a life that’s now over? He puts the gun to his head, pulls the trigger, and is sprayed with water. The gun is a water pistol.
Version #2 of the beginning of a story:
As losers go, Harry is the champ. Fired after only twenty minutes at his new job, he cries out for mercy from a cruel universe and a bird poops on his head. Defeated, he buys a gun on his way home, puts it to his head, pulls the trigger, and is drenched by a squirt of water.
The first version is filled with a lot of unnecessary detail, has some nice moments, but it’s a longish set-up, with each element carrying the same story weight. Until Harry tried committing suicide with a water pistol, there was little in the writing to suggest this was supposed to be funny, and the water-pistol reveal isn’t written well enough to work as a punch line. The lack of consistent and representational tone shows serious misjudgment, as there’s no reason for an producer to believe this writer 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, producers can’t discern how well you write.
The first version tells the story.
The second sells the story. It sets the tone, using language that sells it as a comedy, and it sells the writer as the person who can deliver on the promise of the pitch.
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’s probably fine for a treatment, but it’s not good enough for a pitch. You want to grab readers by the throat and not let them have a chance to wiggle free.
This is where we discuss the idea that less is more.
Version #3 of the beginning of a story: “Harry is a nowhere man who’s floundered in life and failed at everything he’s tried, 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:
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 carries us from the inciting incident to Harry’s plan:
Harry is a nowhere man who’s floundered in life and failed at everything he’s tried, 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 producer / reader / relative / friend can immediately tell what’s important about the story.
They immediately spot your diamonds on the floor.
The expanded version may be fine for a more detailed outline, which comes 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.
Less is more.
Thus far, 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 the rest of the story about Harry walking 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 end up with several options.
You rush the middle and ending, and the focus of the pitch is out of balance, weighted to the front.
You run five pages long, and trim out words and phrases, rather than rethinking the pitch with broader strokes, and the pitch feels chopped up.
You reduce the text from a readable 12 pt. type to a tiny 7 pt. type, extend margins, combine paragraphs, and hope the producer doesn’t notice. I kid you not; this happens. And producers notice.
This is what happens when you try to cram your entire plot into too little space.
“Well, sure,” you say, arms crossed and feeling defensive, “You wrote the premise, which is the easy part. Try doing that for the rest of the story!”
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 pie-company executives. 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 Crazed Clown. The name on the license is his. Armed with this knowledge, Harry is 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. 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 drive your story.
This applies to defining your characters, too.
You have a pretty good idea about Harry’s nature, right?
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.
Robert McKee taught me this aspect of character motivation: nobody does more than they think they need to do to get what they want.
Translation: to get what they want, most people do as much as they think is necessary, and no more.
When I worked at DC Comics in the mid-’90s, I was Group Producer of Creative Services, and I saw all the pitches that were being distributed for executive approval.
One pitch, written by a famous 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 the entire pitch, and it sold.
Could it be that the DC Comics production staff knew exactly what it would be getting from this famous writer? Absolutely.
But there needs to be a body of work before a 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 same benefit of the doubt about anything.
It’s your job to instill a sense of confidence, and to do that you have to sell them on your story…and yourself.