If you’ve read my article on making the “pitch” for a script, you already know this process can be uniquely intimidating. Impressing powerful people always is. Even so, there’s plenty a person can do to prepare for this in-person encounter with a producer, so thankfully you don’t have to walk in there with your knees knocking.
Your presentation, however, is only part of the script pitch process—and in some cases, you may not even make it to the in-person pitch. After two years of painstakingly revising a polishing a script for a historical drama, I recently began submitting this play to a variety of playwriting competitions across the country. The submission process reminded me very much of my querying days as an unpublished author: preparing files to look exactly the way gatekeepers want them, explaining the plot as concisely and tantalizingly as possible, and hoping that something I wrote will catch their attention.
The thing is, you can’t write a flashy synopsis if your story itself doesn’t have any flash to it. So what makes the script juicy? What is it that makes the producer or reviewing team pause and think, “Now that’s a story people would come to see”?
I’ve been reading a fantastic book called The Screenwriter’s Bible, full of wisdom about crafting a compelling script. It delves into the different layers of plot and character development, and how these two must express themselves visually in a screenplay if the movie is going to pack any punch. It was incredibly invigorating to see that this particular script I am submitting actually checks all of the boxes described in this book (based off of others’ feedback). It remains to be seen whether the script will in fact catch anyone’s attention, but in the meantime I find myself examining the story for all the features that could possibly attract or deter a producer.
1) The two lead characters have tangible, competing goals
2) Both characters have a clear external and internal arc
3) The story connects contemporary readers to the past using relevant questions
I write “desirable” in quotes because, while these traits seem to grace the overwhelming majority of professionally produced works, I will let you decide whether you believe these make a story production-worthy:
1) Overt sexual content
While much of the story hinges on sexual tension, the script is not packed with sex. Any sexual content is simply implied and done so in a non-sensual way.
Although this term could have appeared in 17th century England (yes, the word is that old) the script does not sport much profanity. By today’s standards, that might make a story downright boring.
3) Contemporary social agendas
Every movement has its roots and many movements are connected, but one thing I deliberately avoided was packing modern social issues into a historical time period. Today’s controversies were not the controversies of the 1600s—although many producers seem to think otherwise.
No doubt it would have a better shot at pleasing a broader array of producers if it had these.
It all came down to what the story needed. Aside from any moral misgivings an artist may have with these three components, I think we should all ask ourselves what serves the story and what does not. I don’t mean what makes it flashier or sexier. I mean what serves the meat of the story, the core—what makes it compelling. Let’s face it: much of sex, language, and politics we see in today’s books and film does not make the characters more unique or the plot more memorable. If anything, it makes the story sound like everything else out there right now, because for some reason sex, f-bombs, and politics are selling.
Let me be clear: you must always work to sell your script. But let’s remember that there is a difference between selling your script and selling out. I hope we never are guilty of the latter.
Where do you draw the line between writing to please an audience versus “selling out?”
Do you feel that film and theatre have become overly sensual or provocative? Why or why not?
Newsflash: For you writers out there, be sure to check out my freshly published YouTube video on the pros and cons of traditional publishing.