The One-Minute Story: Crafting a Pitch Sheet for Your Book, Screenplay, or Other Tale (SDFW Part 5)

by John Robert Marlow

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The One-Minute Story: Crafting a Pitch Sheet for Your Book, Screenplay, or Other Tale
(Story Development For Writers, Part 5)
by John Robert Marlow

PITCHING AS COURTSHIP

We already know (from Part 2 of this series) that most commercial concepts can be conveyed in 10 seconds or less, via something called a logline. Now we’re going to look at expanding that micropitch into something positively extravagant: a one-minute pitch. (Okay, sometimes it’s a minute and a half.)

Think of it like courtship: you start small to test the waters, tossing out your best line to see what happens. If the response isn’t favorable—that is, what happens is nothing—you move on. That’s the logline stage.

If the other party shows interest, you take the next step—ask them out to lunch, maybe, where you reveal a bit more about yourself. That’s the pitch sheet. If all goes well, you’re on for dinner, where you lay the whole script on the table. If that goes well, you dance around for a while and—hopefully—close the deal. By selling the book, script, or whatever it is you have to offer.

Sometimes the stars align and you’ll go straight from opening line to dinner. But you can’t count on that, so you have to plan on lunch—which is what we’re doing here. Lunch also makes for good practice, so we don’t want to skip it and go hungry.

A good pitch sheet is the written equivalent of a movie trailer. It doesn’t show you everything, nor is it meant to; it is not a synopsis. Instead, it shows you just enough to make you want more. Agent Andrea Brown’s description of a query comes to mind: “It should be like a skirt. Long enough to cover everything, but short enough to be exciting.”

LOGLINE RELOADED

The pitch sheet starts with a logline, which you should have by now. (If not, revisit SDFW Part 2 and SDFW Part 3, in that order.) The idea here is to quickly hook those new to your concept, and refresh the memories of those who’ve already seen or heard the logline—hitting them again with the thing that got them excited in the first place.

With that accomplished, it’s time to start…

UPPING THE ANTE

If you’re wondering how to get started, don’t; you’ve already laid the groundwork by coming up with a logline (SDFW Part 2 and SDFW Part 3) and figuring out your major story points (SDFW Part 4). All of that comes into play here, which is why we did things in this order.

The logline takes 10 seconds of someone’s time. If they decide that’s time well spent, you’ve bought yourself another minute. Your job now is to expand the logline and fill that minute in a way that causes the reader to bump you up from casual-glance status to someone they’re willing to spend a few hours with.

Which is, of course, precisely the working dynamic of a movie trailer. And you already know how that goes. There are three possible outcomes: you’re left with a burning desire to see the film; you’re sort of iffy about it; or it’s really not your thing.

Professionals in the book and film industries don’t have time for iffy; there’s too much new stuff coming in the door. So with very rare exceptions, it’s an immediate “worth a look” or “not interested.”

Here’s how to get yourself in the first category.

BREAKING THINGS DOWN

Title, genre, your name up top. Followed by the logline. So far, so good.

Now, keeping your three basic story elements—WHO, GOAL, OBSTACLE—firmly in mind, take a look at your tale’s basic structure. This, as you may recall from the previous installment, consists of seven things: inciting incident, first act turn, midpoint, low point, second act turn, climax, and denouement or wrap-up.

Let’s start winnowing that down. Obviously, we’re going to need to include the inciting incident and the first act turn, and in the process of doing that, we will inevitably cover the WHO and the GOAL. How hard was that?

We may (and may not) keep the midpoint; it’s more likely to make the cut if it’s a no-turning-back point rather than an unsuspected-element-in-play reveal (see SDFW Part 4). We might also keep or partially reveal the low point, and maybe (but not always) the second act turn.

The climax will certainly be implied (and so reveal the OBSTACLE against which (or whom) our hero struggles), but since giving away the outcome wrecks any possibility of suspense, we won’t be including the climax proper in the pitch. Likewise, we can leave out the wrap-up, which would serve only to give away the outcome of the climax.

So already we’re down from seven to four, maybe five structural elements, along with our trusty WHO-GOAL-OBSTACLE mantra. Now that we’ve broken everything down and stripped away the things we don’t (for the moment) need, it’s time to get busy…

BUILDING THINGS UP

For our working example, let’s use a story everyone is—or should be—familiar with: The Matrix. Our starting point is the logline. When I think about this story, here’s what I come up with:

A young hacker discovers the world we know is a dream, created by intelligent machines to enslave humanity. Now he must lead a rebellion to free Mankind—while pursued by virtual assassins no man has ever defeated.

Because this concept is a bit more complex than usual, I’ve chosen to employ a setup line with the WHO, followed by the GOAL and the OBSTACLE. Those are the basics. Delving more deeply into this particular concept is going to result in something far too complicated to get across in a logline.

Now let’s get into story structure. As pointed out in SDFW Part 4, classically structured stories have seven major structural elements. Let’s take a quick look at these before we start building our pitch:

INCITING INCIDENT: Morpheus calls Neo at work

FIRST ACT TURN: Neo takes the red pill

MIDPOINT: Cypher revealed as traitor

LOW POINT: Tank, Neo and Trinity about to pull the plug on Morpheus

SECOND ACT TURN: Neo and Trinity set out to rescue Morpheus

CLIMAX: Neo confronts Agent Smith in hall outside Room 303

DENOUEMENT: Phone booth talk / system failure / Neo takes flight

Time to rock and roll. First thing we do is set up our main character, the WHO:

Thomas Anderson spends his days as a cog in the corporate machine. By night, he hacks the web as “Neo,” searching for answers to questions he doesn’t know.

Right away he’s relatable, to both the cubicle worker and the rebel—and to those who are a bit of both. That’s a massive audience. Of course, we still need a fabulous story…

Next up, the INCITING INCIDENT:

Contacted by the most wanted man on earth, Neo escapes government surveillance for a meeting.

That’s heavy. Lots of danger, along with the revelation that Neo has been under surveillance. We’re oozing tension already. We’ve also brought up two intriguing questions: who is the most dangerous man on earth, and why would he contact Neo?

Time to touch on that FIRST ACT TURN:

“Morpheus” tells Neo he’s a slave in a prison he cannot see, and offers a choice: return to his soul-crushing corporate life, or take a pill that will reveal this prison-called the Matrix.

Neo takes the pill and learns the truth: the real world is a wasteland, shattered by a war between Man and Machine. Humanity has been enslaved by a victorious race of intelligent machines.

The world we know is a computer-generated dreamland, wired into our brains to control our minds and bodies. This is the Matrix.

Because the concept is so extraordinary, this part of the pitch focuses on the reveal, setting up the world of the story and generating further empathy for Neo—whose whole world vanishes before his eyes. Any reader worth his or her salt is firmly hooked at this point. Unless we screw up big-time with what follows, we’ve got ‘em. We can now move on to suggest the GOAL:

Believing that Neo is the long-prophesied savior who will turn the Matrix against itself, Morpheus and his small band of rebels train Neo to enter the Matrix with them, evade its defenders, and attack the machines.

Here we raise the stakes, and explain who the most dangerous man in the world is (Morpheus, whose goal is to take out the entire machine civilization) and why he would take the time to contact a cubicle worker/hacker (he believes that Neo can help him achieve his own goal).

We also throw down another question: Is Neo, in fact, The One? Providing the answer would wreck the suspense—so we’ll leave the reader hanging on this One.

Clearly the GOAL is, in part, to attack the machines. In this case, we’ll save the rest of it for later.

The MIDPOINT isn’t needed here and, if included, would require us to introduce Cypher and explain his betrayal. TMI: too much information, when we need to keep this flowing smoothly. The no-turning-back point was Neo taking the pill.

We’ll use the LOW point to set up the final act:

When Morpheus is captured,

That’s bad. It’s like seeing Obi Wan Kenobi cut down—the fall of the hero’s mentor. Which, of course, places the burden of success squarely on our hero’s shoulders, giving us in one fell swoop the SECOND ACT TURN, the immediate OBSTACLE (the large-scale obstacle is the Matrix itself), and the suggested CLIMAX:

Neo must lead a rescue assault—against virtual assassins no man has ever defeated.

Clearly, the climax will involve a final battle between Neo and the Agents. (The Agents are here called virtual assassins in order to intrigue without getting bogged down in lengthy explanations; likewise, saying that Neo and Trinity are the assault team’s only members would force us to explain who Trinity is and what happened to everyone else. Again, TMI at this stage.)

This leads quite naturally to the fully-stated CLIMAX / GOAL, and the (large-scale and personal) consequence of failure:

Neo must fulfill the prophecy and free Mankind—or die.

We will not use the WRAP-UP, as that would give away the outcome of the climax.

Now let’s put it all together in…

THE ONE-MINUTE-PITCH

Thomas Anderson spends his days as a cog in the corporate machine. By night, he hacks the web as “Neo,” searching for answers to questions he doesn’t know.

Contacted by the most wanted man on earth, Neo escapes government surveillance for a meeting.
“Morpheus” tells Neo he’s a slave in a prison he cannot see, and offers a choice: return to his soul-crushing corporate life, or take a pill that will reveal this prison—called the Matrix.

Neo takes the pill and learns the truth: the real world is a wasteland, shattered by a war between Man and Machine. Humanity has been enslaved by a victorious race of intelligent machines.

The world we know is a computer-generated dreamland, wired into our brains to control our minds and bodies. This is the Matrix.

Believing that Neo is the long-prophesied savior who will turn the Matrix against itself, Morpheus and his small band of rebels train Neo to enter the Matrix with them, evade its defenders, and attack the machines.

When Morpheus is captured, Neo must lead a rescue assault—against virtual assassins no man has ever defeated.

Neo will fulfill the prophecy and free Mankind—or die.

That’s 35 seconds to read on screen or page, and 1 minute, 6 seconds to read aloud. Add the title, genre, author, and logline up top, and you’ve got…

THE FINISHED PITCH SHEET:

THE MATRIX
(action / sci-fi / tech thriller)

by Larry and Andy Wachowski

A young hacker discovers the world we know is a dream, created by intelligent machines to enslave humanity. Now he must lead a rebellion to free Mankind—while pursued by virtual assassins no man has ever defeated.
_

Thomas Anderson spends his days as a cog in the corporate machine. By night, he hacks the web as “Neo,” searching for answers to questions he doesn’t know.

Contacted by the most wanted man on earth, Neo escapes government surveillance for a meeting.
“Morpheus” tells Neo he’s a slave in a prison he cannot see, and offers a choice: return to his soul-crushing corporate life, or take a pill that will reveal this prison—called the Matrix.

Neo takes the pill and learns the truth: the real world is a wasteland, shattered by a war between Man and Machine. Humanity has been enslaved by a victorious race of intelligent machines.

The world we know is a computer-generated dreamland, wired into our brains to control our minds and bodies. This is the Matrix.

Believing that Neo is the long-prophesied savior who will turn the Matrix against itself, Morpheus and his small band of rebels train Neo to enter the Matrix with them, evade its defenders, and attack the machines.

When Morpheus is captured, Neo must lead a rescue assault—against virtual assassins no man has ever defeated.

Neo will fulfill the prophecy and free Mankind—or die.

[Contact info at bottom]

That’s 44 seconds to read; 1 minute, 20 seconds to speak. If I were pitching The Matrix today, this would be my pitch sheet.

THINGS NOT TO DO

Go over one page.

Also—unless you’re attending a pitch fest (where such things have come to be expected)—do not, under any circumstances whatsoever, plaster your pitch sheet with graphics. This includes your idea of what the book cover or movie poster should look like, photos of yourself or anything else, nonstandard (and often hard to read) fonts, and so on.

You’re here to sell the steak, not the sizzle. The more you dilute your steak pitch, the more likely you are to be viewed as unprofessional, or as desperately trying to bling-up a product with no substance.

Exceptions: You’re pitching something where the graphics are an integral part of the work (illustrated children’s book, graphic novel, etc.); you’re pitching an adaptation of an existing work (in which case you might—and might not—want to include, say, an image of the existing work’s cover or case); you’re playing off your own brand logo (which is already widely known); you’ve been asked to do this by the same person you’re sending it to.

Even here, though, words—not images—take precedence. Put bluntly: you’re a writer; act like one.

MAPPING YOUR COURSE

The pitch sheet is a vital tool not only for selling—but for keeping you on track as you put your story together. Think of it as a map to a place you’ve never gone before. You can step outside and wander in the general direction of your destination, hoping to get lucky—or consult a map and know exactly where you’re going before you set out.

Using a map doesn’t mean you can’t make adjustments along the way; if a flash flood has washed away the bridge, you find a way around. A map helps you do that—and ensures that you’ll find your way back to the route you wanted to take.

Once you’ve reached your destination, you can review the map—the pitch sheet—and update it to reflect your final route.

[For those seeking professional help with logline, structure, or story development, see the author's contact link below.]

UP NEXT:

SDFW Part 6: Filling in the details with a beatline…

The articles in this series are:

Story Development for Writers, Part 1: The Basics

Building the Perfect Logline for Your Book, Screenplay, or Other Story (SDFW Part 2)

Logline Workshop: Jurassic Park (SDFW Part 3)

Story Structure: Laying Down the Bones (SDFW Part 4)

The One-Minute Story: Crafting a Pitch Sheet for Your Book, Screenplay, or Other Tale (SDFW Part 5)

The Digital Outline: Creating a Beatline for Your Story (SDFW Part 6)


Author John Robert Marlow is available for professional editing, development, and consultation services (including logline, structure, and story development options). If you’d like help taking your work to the next level, contact John here.

JRM

JRM

copyright © by John Robert Marlow
all rights reserved

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Stephanie M. Lorée November 29, 2010 at 11:26 am

This has to be the most concise guide for drafting a pitch and/or query I have seen. Again, I cannot thank you enough for this series. Extremely helpful.

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