An email exchange brought something into focus that I want to stress to all screenwriters and novelists hoping to pitch a film, series, or novel. A story needs to be unusual, yet obvious. The audience should anticipate some, but not all, of the conflicts and the outline of the story from the basic elements you intend to bring together.
Here is one possible equation explaining my ideal story:
naturally “different” characters + unusual challenge + good setting = a pitch that writes itself.
1) If you have characters that are, by their natures, going to be in conflict at times, that’s interesting to watch. Don’t think about “good v evil” or “pro/ant” yet. Ask yourself, if I put these people in a room, on an island, side-by-side at work, et cetera, would there be a natural conflict? Think “The Odd Couple” sure, but also think about it in more depth.
The new show “Limitless” is doing a good job with this “fish out of water” conflict. “Chuck” was based on this, as are most sitcoms.
Consider the shows and films you enjoy. How far apart are some of the characters? You should find some opposites in good scripts. They don’t sound alike, act alike, or share the same values.
I had a showrunner tell me that for every three characters, at least one has to be the “fish out of water.” Two against one is apparently interesting. Pairings can also work (think “Will and Grace” sidekicks or “Cheers” with Cliff and Norm playing off Sam… or Diane… or everyone else). In film, differences have to be obvious from the character introductions. You don’t have episodes to reveal how far apart people are.
2) Unusual challenges are as unique and shocking as possible. The challenge has to be a situation that increases the likelihood of conflict. How does the challenge bring out the differences among characters even more? How does it place two characters in opposition? Again, avoid “good v. evil” because interesting “evil” is often sure it is “good” and merely has another perspective of what is best. (Not that pure evil is boring, either, but try to imagine the perspectives involved.)
If your logline is a basic challenge, one we’ve all read and seen, it won’t rise above the static. Catch the real killer? Blah. Defeat the evil dictator? Yawn. Expose the greedy, inhuman corporate executive? Double yawn.
Wait. Don’t those films and shows with “predictable” challenges get produced? Sure, but by established writers and directors. To break into the market, you need to be submitting something that stands above the muck that’s being made.
3) Give us a setting that is interesting, in place and time. TV takes the lazy way out and imagines big cities are inherently interesting to everyone. I love “M*A*S*H” for its use of setting on TV. Setting is probably the toughest of these to develop and make stand apart from what exists. (Bonus if you pull off the setting. Few do.)
Setting can drive the action. If the setting is the Titanic, we know what some part of the story will be. Put people in a closed, confined space, and you have an obvious conflict. That’s why space stations, undersea labs, and other isolated settings work so well for stories. Don’t select a “boring” or familiar setting unless there’s no other choice.
New York is not compelling by itself. Neither is a generic small town. The setting becomes interesting when you place people and events in the setting that doesn’t suit them. Trap a spy in a small village, where she falls in love. Put the country farmer in the big city, searching for something that is lost.
Now put these together and test how compelling your concept is.