The Most Important Skill You Can Develop
Every year around this time, Mike in Marketing asks if I can whip out a new article for you. So I start compiling a list of potential topics, like “Tropes vs. Obligatory Scenes,” “The Rule of Threes in Comedy,” and “How to Maximize your Writing Time by Not Reading Articles (like This One).” But then I consult my list of questions that have been sent to me over the course of the previous year, and that’s when I realize that I need to set aside all the fancy stuff and write more about pitching.
Pitching isn’t just the most important skill a writer can develop; I personally think it’s the most important ability anyone can develop in every area of life. Because every time we meet new people, if we put even an iota of effort into that first impression, we’re pitching them. When we meet a prospective new romantic partner, we’re pitching them on how attractive and considerate and non-stinky we are. When we act like we know how cars work at the mechanic’s, we’re pitching them on not overcharging us.
People who are good at pitching can sell the craziest ideas, like trickle-down economics, a reality-TV star as president, or Sharknado. People who suck at pitching, meanwhile, spend an inordinate amount of time acting like they’re not pitching, but even then they’re just pitching the idea that they’re too important to be pitching. And unfortunately the ironic downside to the “I’m-too-important-to-pitch-you” pitch is that anyone it works on is probably someone you wouldn’t want it to work on.
Pitching a script is a lot less complicated than pitching ourselves, but we get far fewer chances to do so, which I think is why some first-draft loglines look less like pitches and more like mental bowel movements. That’s because we writers often approach pitching the way a noob in high school approaches dating: by cramming way too much information into the first impression:
“Hi, I’m Jared, I sit next to you in social studies, I like your hair, how are you, I’m fine, yeah, so anyway I was thinking, oh wait, I almost forgot, hah hah I was thinking and then I almost forgot what I was thinking about, aren’t I quirky yet endearing, anyway the theme for prom this year is ‘Under the Sea,’ which is fitting because I feel like I’m drowning right now…”
If this were a scene in an 80’s-era teen romcom, we could probably write the rest of the script in our sleep. Jared will be out-pitched by some tall drink of Gatorade, so he’ll spend the course of the story competing with the jock and trying to win the heart of the head cheerleader while his nerdy but loyal female friend looks on in mute frustration, he’ll learn some important skill to use in the final battle with his romantic rival, but he’ll also learn what true love is right around the time his nerdy female friend takes her glasses off and reveals herself to be a stunning supermodel in disguise, at which point he’ll brush off the head cheerleader and escort the hot nerd onto the stage where they will become homecoming king and queen.
If you’ve ever worked in development and mentioned as much to a writer friend, you probably also know how this story is going to go:
Could you take a look at my logline and let me know
if there’s anything I can do to improve it?
Sure, send it over.
Thanks! Here we go: “Jack was a lonely man. It didn’t
help that he had a hunchback. It helped even less that
his deformity rhymed with his vocation, that of being a
lumberjack. All the other lumberjacks used to laugh
and call him names, and that just made him even
more miserable. So it was understandable that Jack
wouldn’t want to go to the town dance one weekend,
although he did so anyway, for reasons that perhaps
even Jack didn’t comprehend, because Jack is too
manly to comprehend loneliness. Fortunately, Jack
met the girl of his dreams. She was nice, she didn’t
call him Hunch Jack the Lumber Back, and she’d
never once won a farting contest – hell, she’d never
even entered one! She really was everything he’d
ever wanted in a woman, except for one tiny little
thing: she was born a man…”
That was awesome! Risky, but timely, and with a
great hook. You just need to tighten it up.
OK, how should I tighten it up?
Delete the logline and start over with just the hook.
What’s the hook?
Trans romance with a hunchbacked protagonist? No
one’s ever done that before, and it’s such a perfect
setup for a quirky romcom…
It’s not a romcom. It’s a horror.
Oh. Wait, so the “one tiny little thing” wasn’t a
No! It’s a family-friendly script!
You wrote a family-friendly horror script about a
hunchbacked lumberjack who falls in love with a
Yes. So what can I do to improve the logline?
Delete the script and rewrite it as a romcom…
Joking aside, here’s how that conversation really tends to go:
What can I do to improve my logline?
Find the hook and rewrite it around that.
Oh. That’s not what I was hoping you were
going to say.
What were you hoping I was going to
I was hoping you were going to tell me how
amazingly perfect it already is and how honored you
would be to take it out and start pitching it to people
in exchange for a possible future mention in my
Unfortunately, the deus ex machine our intrepid wordsmith is hoping for here is about as realistic in the real world as it is on paper. Fortunately, fixing an overly long logline is easier anyway. Whenever I read someone’s logline for them, I wind up giving them the same two bits of advice probably ninety-nine percent of the time:
Find the hook, and lose everything else. Loglines work best when they convey the one thing that makes the story different from anything the reader has seen before, and when they’re short. In other words, make it unique and succinct.
This is one of those rare things in life that’s actually easier done than said, after a bit of practice. So here’s a little exercise, take two movies you like and a script you’re working on and write down the following fundamental story elements:
1. The premise, or the inspiration around which your story was conceived. It could be “a hacker finds out he’s living in a computer simulation” (The Matrix), or “a psychiatrist is cured by his patient” (What About Bob), or “a hunchbacked lumberjack dances with a trans woman” (The Adventures of Hunch Jack the Lumber Back).
2. The unifying theme of your story. This is a bit more abstract than step one; whereas the premise is the idea of the story, the unifying theme is the belief that drives that idea to the finish line. It could be “reality is an illusion” (The Matrix), “helpers need to help themselves first” (What About Bob), or “love will find a way” (The Adventures of Hunch Jack the Lumber Back).
3. Now, write down the central conflict. Think about what your protagonist and antagonist want and why, then distill those motives into the quintessential human concepts of good vs. evil or us vs. them. It’s easiest if you put a vs. between the two sides, as in “freedom vs. conformity” or “man vs. machine” (The Matrix), or “endearing vs. controlling” or “selfish vs. selfless” (What About Bob), or “bullied vs. bullies” or “judgmental vs. accepting” (The Adventures of Hunch Jack the Lumber Back). Don’t worry too much about the movies you know, but try to come up with at least a couple comparisons for the script you wrote (or are writing).
4. Next, describe the conflict equation as a moral lesson. It could be “conformity is the societal equivalent of slavery” (The Matrix), or “people who turn away those in need have the greater need” (What About Bob), or “those who are least likely to judge you are the most likely to love you” (The Adventures of Hunch Jack the Lumber Back).
5. Finally, what about your script is unique from every other film you’ve ever seen? Realize you’re going to be pitching a story to someone who has not only seen The Matrix but who has since seen a hundred scripts set in computer simulations, so what made The Matrix different from Tron? Coming out of the computer instead of going in? Spaceships instead of laser bikes? A messianic protagonist instead of an office underdog? Think about how the movies you love were similar to and simultaneously different from previous successful films, then write down how your script is similar to and simultaneously different from the movies that inspired you.
Step 5 is your hook, the element producers are looking for when they say they’re seeking non-derivative material. But a hook without a story is like an oar without a boat, it won’t get you anywhere but wet. The Wachowskis probably didn’t describe The Matrix as “like Tron, except instead of getting sucked into a computer he was born in it...” Likewise I’m not going to describe Hunch Jack the Lumber Back as “like Kiss of the Spider Woman, except set in a rural American town instead of a Latin American prison…”
In other words, we’ve got something unique, now we just need to make it succinct. And this is where steps one through four come in, because while the hook is the kernel of your story, premise and theme and conflict and morality are the earth and air and water and sunlight that shape it. So let’s do a little bit of freeform writing. And since Hunch Jack the Lumber Back is a romcom, I’m going to start with a character description instead of an inciting incident:
“Jack is a hunchbacked lumberjack who endured years of bullying and abuse and never thought he’d find love until he meets a woman who is perfect – although she’s perfect for who he really is and not who an insular society tells him he should be, because she’s already learned to love and accept herself despite her differences enough to guide him through the same growth.”
So while it looks like we just reduced a mental bowel movement to a brain fart, we’re actually almost done here – all that remains now is tightening it up, which we’ll do by removing clichés, redundancies, proper nouns, and grammatical faux pas, everything that doesn’t belong in a logline. And ideally, I like to get a logline down to the length of tweet or text message, as that greatly increases the chances of it actually being read and not skipped over:
“A hunchbacked lumberjack who never thought he’d find love meets a woman who is perfect in every way – despite, or perhaps because of, her own physical difference.”
Jared Wynn has interviewed thousands of producers, agents and managers about what they're looking for in a script or writer, and he knows a lot about how to successfully market a screenplay.