Stories that Sell

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.

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Author: C. Scott Wyatt