What's the Meat of Your Script? Part 1
If you tell a friend you saw a movie last night and she’s never heard of it, her first questions will be “What’s it about” and “Who’s in it?”
If you tell her you saw a movie like “Wonder Woman,” she won’t ask, “What’s it about?” because even if she’s never seen a trailer, she gets the gist of it because she knows who "Wonder Woman" is. The more important question is “Is it good?”
You wrote a script – it’s not based on a universally-known property like “Wonder Woman,” and you need to get it read.
Your first goal is to put yourself in the position of the reader. Your reader is a producer or a development assistant at a production company. They may not know you. They only know they need a script. So they log into InkTip.
They have a system of finding a script – look at the title and logline. If it sparks interest, great, if not, move on. This snap judgment may take 5-10 seconds.
Unlike a big studio movie release, which brings with it trailers, graphically-designed posters, A-list actors, and a multi-million dollar promotional campaign, your script is just a script at this point. So your reader has very little context.
This is why you have to lose all assumptions about what people know about your script.
Many writers get so wrapped up in their script’s world that they forget everyone else hasn’t been there. As a result, they make assumptions that whoever they pitch the story understands what you mean when you start off with, “So then Bob goes to the store, and…”
Just as a potential audience member for a movie wants to know what a movie’s about, a reader wants that question answered before deciding whether to read a script. But not only do they want that question answered in 5-10 seconds, they want it answered in an interesting way.
Your mission as a writer then is to make sure you answer that question efficiently and interestingly.
What your story is about in this context is not a theme. It’s not, “My story is about war” or “The movie is about grieving.”
No, people first want to know what happens. Again, in 5-10 seconds.
This is the meat of your story.
Apologies to vegetarians and other non-meat eaters. When you eat an incredible hamburger, the buns, along with any toppings, such as lettuce and cheese do matter to a certain extent. But the burger’s main selling point is the meat.
So, don’t be vague about the meat of your script. Tell us why the meat is good. What is your script's main storyline?
We’ll look at vague loglines in part 1 – in other words, underselling the actual story.
There are numerous ways you can define how to pitch your logline. But one simple way is who does what and why and what stands in the way?
Who = Your protagonist(s)
Does What = What are they doing?
Why = Sometimes this is evident. Other times it’s the why that makes a good hook.
What stands in the way = Why won’t the protagonist succeed? You could also call this the obstacle. This isn’t always necessary if it’s evident, depending on the genre and tropes. But, often you’ll need this because this relates to conflict.
A fifth-grader allergic to grass must train for one epic match against a pro golfer at Torrey Pines in order to win a prize package that will save his family’s home from foreclosure.
In this “Happy Gilmour” spin-off, let’s look at the elements of the logline.
Who = A fifth-grader allergic to grass
Does What = (must) defeat a pro golfer
Why = Win a prize package that will save his family’s home from foreclosure.
What stands in the way = the kid is only in fifth grade, allergic to grass, and the match is against a pro golfer on a real golf course.
Now, let’s look at a horror pitch. Again, this is for the purposes of crafting a good logline – especially on a place like InkTip where readers will expect to see not just your loglines but loglines from other writers.
So you need something that gets to the point (the meat) yet is creative and interesting.
I’ll list 4 ways this horror script can be pitched – this is what a reader on InkTip may see. 1 of them is the least vague and is the best.
Oh, and by the way, I typed these examples on the fly. Any resemblance to anything you wrote is purely coincidental.
A cottage with a lot of evil inside.
This not a logline. But believe me, I have read many pitches like this.
A family moves into a haunted cottage.
Still not a logline. I mean, it’s a complete sentence, but hardly a logline. We need to make too many assumptions about everything. What’s the conflict? Ok, it’s haunted, so what? All the pitch mentions is a (generic) premise.
A family moves into a haunted cottage and sees ghosts.
Ok, it’s still vague. What makes this script stand out amongst the thousands of other haunted house scripts that have been written? A producer wants more than that – it’s obvious that if a residence is haunted, there will be spirits. What’s the hook? The uniqueness of the characters? A twist on the genre trope?
After moving with his blind sons to a haunted cottage, a single dad must now keep them there alive for 30 days in order for his deceased daughter’s spirit to stop tormenting him.
This is much better. We get the conflict (ghost of his daughter battling him), the hook (a 30-day test against family must take place), and a little more about the characters as a bonus (he’s a single dad and his sons are blind). The logline is still fairly concise. We could work to make it more concise but the details seem connected enough to the story to stay (it’s a horror, so the fact that the sons are blind adds a “twist”).
In Example 4, the who, does what, why and what stands in the way are sufficiently answered.
The horror genre has so many tropes and obvious external conflicts (ghosts) that perhaps we can try a more challenging example: a script classified as a drama.
A woman discovers lots of truth about herself.
This type of pitch is common. I’ll read loglines that are so vague about what a character “learns” or “discovers.”
A woman finds purpose after losing her job.
Ok, at least there’s an inciting incident (she lost her job). But still, how does she find purpose? What does she actually do in the story?
A woman loses her job and finds purpose after searching for it.
Now she’s at least doing something – searching for purpose. It’s still vague. What is the obstacle to her search? Who or what is in conflict? If this was a trailer, what would we see her actually do? How does she do it?
After she’s falsely-accused and fired, a formerly-bored teacher sets off an education war in her town by launching a school for outsiders that teaches life skills and “standing up to the man.”
Now it’s clear. She finds purpose as a result of her actions. Her main action is starting a controversial school. In the trailer, it doesn’t show a woman sitting around waiting for purpose. She gets fired but does something and does something big. Not only that, but she clearly has conflict (opposition to her school; an education war). That’s important because if a character does something, then it’s a good idea to know what the consequences are if they aren’t already obvious (what are the stakes).
If you’re going to tell a story, you must tell what your protagonist/character/hero must do and why (and why they may not succeed). Otherwise, it runs the risk of being too vague.
Again, what’s your script about?
On the flip side, can you oversell the unimportant elements – the frills that have nothing to do with the meat of your story? Absolutely. This is what happens when loglines are too long and it would take way more than 5-10 seconds to piece together.
Next time, we’ll look at that - how overselling is just as ineffective.
But until then, happy writing.
Questions? Comments? Write me at InkTipStoryPower (at) gmail dot com
Michael Kim has worked in every department at InkTip. He is now the VP of Product Development & Media. Besides music jamming, he likes trivia, whiskey and telling everyone he knows how surprisingly good the molcajete salsa is at Baja Fresh.