By Charles Harris
If you want to pitch with power, here are two powerful ingredients that are too often overlooked:
1. Unjust misfortune
Hamlet wants revenge against Claudius for taking his father’s place on the throne and in his mother’s bed. But, even more powerfully, none of this is Hamlet’s fault. His father was murdered. Moreover, Hamlet never sought out this awful task. It’s his misfortune that he has been called on, despite being entirely the wrong person for the job.
Almost every film or TV programme uses unjust misfortune to powerful effect, both when writing and pitching. But for some reason it’s hardly ever taught. Despite the fact that Aristotle wrote about it over two thousand years ago.
You can use it in any genre of story. It can be central to the plot, or simply add juice to a situation.
In The West Wing, Jed Bartlet suffers from media distortions, leaks, assassination attempts and, of course, his ongoing MS.
Michael Dorsey in Tootsie is unfairly treated at auditions and in jobs. Kim Wilde (Getting On) has to suffer from incompetent colleagues and impossible patients. Basil Fawlty has to put up with the disasters wrought by Manuel. Andy Dufresne is unjustly imprisoned (Shawshank Redemption). It’s not William Thacker’s fault that he falls in love with a film star in Notting Hill. None of these would be so effective to pitch without the injustice.
Action to take: Ask yourself, does your central character have to face unjust misfortune? Would it be stronger if she did? Do you mention it in your pitch? How would your pitch sound if you did?
Does your central character act purely for himself or for others? Another best-kept professional secret, almost every successful protagonist (aside from anti-heroes) acts at least partly for the good of others. Altruism is an enormously powerful tool for a screenwriter.
Hamlet isn’t just taking revenge for himself – he’s doing it for his father. Specifically, his father’s ghost.
Bartlet isn’t fighting to stay in power merely for himself, but constantly debates the best way to help others.
Michael Dorsey cross-dresses to help his flatmate put on his play. Nurse Wilde, despite her cynicism, does actually want to do some good. Andy Dufresne goes out of his way to help his fellow inmates. William Thacker is as much concerned with Anna Scott’s happiness as with his own. (Basil Fawlty, an anti-hero, doesn’t do altruism very much..!)
Action to take: Ask, is your protagonist acting for himself or others? Would some altruism be useful? Do you/can you include it in your pitch? How would it sound?
selling your script
Selling scripts to cinema or TV is tough today. You need everything to work in your favour. You need to know today’s industry, professional techniques to help develop a strong pitch and personal feedback as you develop it over time.
If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve developed a two day Selling and Pitching Masterclass to help selected writers, directors and producers develop and sell good work for cinema or TV. Details of the next Masterclass are here.