Monday, 10 July 2017

Pitches Versus Outlines - A Guide to Scriptwriting Terms

Any aspiring screenwriter needs to get to grips with jargon if they are going to get on.

Different interpretations of your work are required at each stage of the selling and development process - you don't need to start with, and submit, a finished script - in fact if you do, your work is likely to go to the bottom of the pile, too long to read and understand quickly by editors and researchers.

It is therefore really important to get a handle on the types of document involved in the pitching and commissioning process, their content and the order in which they are required. The process can feel like a straight jacket on your creativity, but it shouldn't, it should free you up to focus in on the key components of your work, helping you work through your own ideas and take the pressure off, removing the feeling that you need to produce a polished final treatment before you begin pitching.

Selling Documents

These are about your idea in the broadest terms and about selling both your script and yourself as a writer.  

Pull out the elements of your idea that you think will appeal to each editor and shout about them, research the audience they usually cater for and try keep them in mind when working on your pitch.

You can use the same pitch for multiple companies, but, just as when applying for a job and working with your CV, tweak the pitch to highlight how it best meets the editors market/agenda.

Pitches should be as short as possible, ideally, no more than a single page, it is about sparking interest and making the editor want to find out more.  They can be hard to write because you have to leave so much out and there is always a fear that what you exclude would have been the hook that drew the editor in, but have courage - if you don't keep it short, it won't be taken seriously.

Start with an overview, detail the broad arc of the plot but also cover tone and your angle/agenda as a writer.  Knowing where you are coming from gives an editor confidence and helps them understand you as a writer, after all it is you they will have to work with if the story is developed.  WHAT is the story and WHY do YOU need to be the one to write it.  Outline the main characters, the setting, and if there any plot twists what are they?

Writing for the BBC's Writers Room, Phillip Shelley, Script Editor, Consultant and Producer, said "The less good pitches deal in empty promises. It’s a good idea to convey your sense of excitement as a writer in a project – but it needs to be backed up by hard evidence."

Development Documents

  • Outlines
  • Beat-sheets
Once your idea has been accepted you move onto work up outlines and beat sheets, covering plot, structure, tone and content in the broadest sense.  Phillip Shelley again, "At their best, outlines can be gripping, exciting, emotive pieces of visual story-telling that give a clear indication that the script that follows is going to be equally wonderful. I haven’t yet read an exciting, excellent outline that doesn’t become an exciting, excellent script."

"For me, the most important principles of writing effective outlines are to write visually and explain nothing. The outline has to work in the same way as the script will do. It needs to dramatise the story, and leave the interpretation of the story action up to the reader – in the same way as the best scripts/films."

The Script

Once the development documents have been discussed and tweaked, only then do you need to get started on your script - do this any earlier and you could be faced with massive re-writes in light of the feedback at the development document stage.

Read more about Philip Shellley's experience, with hints and tips, in the BBC's Writers Room.

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