I’ve been developing series pitches for The Writersroom in the past few weeks, cherrypicking undeveloped projects from the depths of my computer and creating new ones for it. The process we’re following is: I propose a bunch of brief series pitches, and we slowly narrow them down as a group, based on how everyone feels and what they’d like to work on. And the process has been fascinating in a few ways, but I’d like to talk about one in particular: how ideas sometimes lacked a focus that prevented people from connecting with it.
I noticed that a number of my initial pitches had a problem: they gave too much backstory and worldbuilding, or offered up a collection of characters without adequately building the connective tissue between them. Sometimes, this left the story engine out of the picture entirely. When you know an idea like the back of your hand, it’s hard to see what’s missing from a pitch, because everything springs to life when you read it over. It’s only when a second party looks it over, and notices key absences, that you realise your pitch was lacking. This can kill a great idea.
You want to make sure your audiences sees two things: your compelling lead(s), and your story engine. They need to know who the stories are about, what the stories are, and crucially, why they should care. For example, one of the pitches was my strongest concept, with clearly imagined characters and themes… but the pitch I wrote for it was messy, confusing and vague. I thought it was evocative and teasing, but it was just a mush. It was only when I talked through it with the others at the table that its potential was teased out. It went from a unanimous no to a unanimous yes, all because the initial pitch was terrible, even as I thought it worked. I rewrote it to clearly explain who the lead was, and explore the themes I intended to… and without really increasing the word count! You can hurt a pitch by including the wrong elements just as easily by leaving out important information, particularly if you aren’t being clear.
Sometimes, it isn’t just a problem with the communication of the idea, but the idea itself not being formed completely yet. The night before I pitched the ideas, I had a great idea and threw it into the mix… but., despite my passion, I looked around as every person in the group gave it a no. Why? They didn’t see the story, they didn’t have a compelling lead to pull them in, and the series’ theme wasn’t clear. I saw gold in the interactions between the characters, but I needed to build a show around that, one that could run a hundred episodes. And once I took their criticisms on board, I rebuilt the pitch with one of the characters stepping up as the lead, and the cloud of ambiguously-placed characters fell easily into a structure of importance. Suddenly, every character in the nebulous cast had a role and relationships to the others. And the pitch became much stronger for it.
So, when you’re developing a new idea for your show, figure out the key elements: lead(s) and story engine. Not every show has to be House with one central lead, but having one or two leads will force the rest of the cast to identify their level of importance in the narrative. And solidifying the story engine will help you figure out the story structure, the goals for each character, and each castmate’s importance in the cast. You can start out with a bunch of ideas, but you have to focus it: keep what works, strip away the distractions, and you might have a great show on your hands.