Tag Archives: storytelling

Why Does Success or Failure Matter? A Quick and Easy Guide to Creating Stakes in Storytelling

Let’s start at the beginning—

What Are Stakes?

Stakes are what a character stands to lose if they fail, or if they don’t do something. But more than that, stakes are the why.

What about motivation, you ask? Motivation is also a why, isn’t it? Yes! But stakes create that motivation.

If a character doesn’t have a reason to do something, then they aren’t motivated. When that character acts without being motivated to do so, we don’t understand why the character is doing what they do. It ends up feeling forced or contrived.

However, knowing what’s at stake if they don’t act gives that character a reason to move forward—because the alternative (not taking action) is worse.

In story terms, stakes are why something matters—decisions, complications, obstacles, plot points, etc.

Why Are Stakes Important?

Without stakes, you can’t have those big pivotal moments where the hero makes a choice between Option A and Option B. Stakes crystallize why a reluctant hero must rise to the challenge to take on a difficult task because what they stand to lose if they don’t take action is worse. Stakes are why the hero can’t just walk away from the people relying on him/her/them and take the easy way out.

What If My Story Doesn’t Have Stakes?

If you don’t know already, I’m a story consultant. All too often, I see screenplays, novels or tabletop game materials that are missing stakes.

This lack of stakes will tank your story’s impact in a number of ways:

  • The audience won’t understand your characters’ motivations.
  • The audience won’t invest in your characters or your story.
  • The audience will feel like the plot has not point.
  • The audience will come away feeling like the story was a waste of time.

Stakes make the decisions and actions of the characters matter. Stakes are why we invest in the protagonist and their success. As we, the audience, bond with those characters, their success or failure becomes ours.

Yikes.

Nobody wants that.

How Do I Put Stakes in My Story?

Once you know how stakes fit into the narrative formula, it’s actually quite simple. The easy place to start is in terms of “life and death” because the outcome of success (life) or failure (death) is so concrete. That’s your starting point.

Next, let’s abstract that idea to character growth (“life”) or character death (“death”). Characters must continue to grow and develop or they become stagnant, which is “character death” from a narrative perspective.

A character that ceases to grow is for all intents and purposes “dead.” If your protagonist has become stagnant, something must happen to make them grow again. Nobody wants to follow a protagonist that stays narratively dead. Instead, they want to experience a character moving forward in growth, meaning success or “life” in the narrative.

Many movies start out with the protagonist “stuck” in a status quo that does not allow them to grow, motivating a need for change but unable to move forward without the inciting incident that will change everything.

A protagonist who finds themselves in a dead-end job and marriage has died, proverbially or narratively. But then some spark suddenly introduces itself and they now have the opportunity to grow again—to choose “life.” Or, the protagonist can remain where they are by choosing “death.” (Think American Beauty.)

Some people find it helpful to think of the “life” part of stakes as the character’s “way of life.” That is, the way of life that is best for the character, usually involving growth or moving forward in some way.

Faced with the two choices, the protagonist is motivated to choose growth (“life”) on the new path. But there will be obstacles along the way that block the protagonist’s path, threatening to send the character back into stagnancy (“death”). If the character overcomes the obstacle, they succeed and move on, continuing to grow. Failure means a setback (if the stakes are lower). Later in the story, when the stakes are high enough, failure means a return to death.

So a rough formula might look something like this:

Stakes > Motivates Action/Decision > Character Proactively Acts/Decides > Faces Obstacle > Fails or Succeeds

If Succeed > Raise Stakes

If Fail > “Character Death”

Tips for Putting Stakes in Your Story

Here are a few quick tips to help you put stakes in your story:

  1. The stakes must be clear, always.
  2. The stakes must be big enough to motivate action or decision.
  3. Don’t go too long without reminding the audience what’s at stake.
  4. The strongest stakes confront characters with “death”—metaphorical, proverbial, or literal.
  5. Start small, go big. Use that contrast to create a sense of rising conflict.
  6. You can always go bigger.
  7. Can you lower the stakes? Only if other, bigger stakes present themselves.
  8. Once an obstacle is overcome, raise the stakes (repeat as needed).
  9. Use other characters to illustrate the consequence of failure (i.e., the stakes).
  10. Use antagonists to actively work against the protagonist, enforcing the stakes.
  11. Your antagonists have stakes, too. What motivates them to succeed over the protagonist?
  12. Use escalation and counter-escalation to continually raise the stakes.

Making It Matter: Examples of How Stakes Work

Let’s say we have a male character that runs a business. He is motivated to complete a big project for his biggest client. He’s operating a business, after all. But that motivation alone is not very strong. Knowing why he wants to complete the project strengthens that motivation significantly. We add that “why” with stakes.

Here’s how we might do that:

  • The project is on a tight deadline.
  • It requires his entire workforce.
  • If he fails to deliver the project at high quality and on time, he may lose that client forever.
  • If he loses his biggest client, his struggling business will fold, and everyone will lose their jobs.
  • The business owner will lose the business he built from the ground up for more than 40 years.

If the audience knows those five whys—what the stakes are for failure—the owner’s motivation suddenly becomes a helluva lot more powerful. Because we know the whys, as the audience, we invest in that character’s success and want him to succeed. He knows the stakes, too, driving him forward. The more the character wants to succeed, the more the audience will want it for him.

Raising the Stakes

Throughout your story, there should be a general rise in the stakes. At each obstacle or plot point, you can “raise the stakes.” When you raise the stakes, you are adding more to what your character will lose if they fail. It not only fuels motivation so they don’t give up when faced when bigger and harder obstacles, but keeps the story interesting and the audience invested. By the time you reach the big climax in act three, the stakes should be at the highest possible point.

The simplest way to raise the stakes is to throw in a new complication. After all, you can’t sit on the same stakes forever or the audience will get bored. Adding a complication, bump, or obstacle in the protagonist’s goal-seeking puts pressure on the character, making it harder to achieve that goal. Again, the stakes make all of that matter.

How much can you raise the stakes? All the way! But keep it appropriate to the world of your story.

For example, you can go: Loss of face > loss of status > loss of livelihood > loss of life > loss of family’s life > loss of country > loss of world > loss of universe > loss of time and existence.

However, going all the way to the “loss of time and existence” may be too  big to be appropriate for your story. A smaller, character-oriented story will run on a smaller scale than a big action sci-fi story. But, as with the narrative character “life” and “death” concept, the “loss of time an existence” can be expressed in metaphorical terms in relation to the character. For example, our business owner may feel this way about the loss of his business.

Speaking of which….

Example of Raising the Stakes

Let’s return to the example of the business owner:

Time to throw in something new—a complication to the business owner’s goal. He discovers one of his employees is stealing from him, jeopardizing the project. If it continues, the project won’t be completed on time and the business owner risks losing money, the client, his business, and more.

To overcome the obstacle, the business owner proactively confronts the employee, who responds by threatening to frame the owner for fraud—raising the stakes.

How does this raise the stakes? Now the stakes are bigger than before: The business owner stands to lose his biggest client, business, livelihood, the livelihood of his employees, and he’s in danger of losing his reputation and going to prison.

We can do this in other ways, too:

The business could burn down, or the client pulls their order without paying at the last minute, or the employees stage a walkout because of the long hours they’ve been working. Maybe all of these complications happen, adding pressure to the business owner and illustrating for the audience how close to failure the protagonist is.

In the third act, the stakes may inflate to their biggest size yet.

Maybe the business is a small biotech research laboratory. An insider from his client reveals that if the lab can’t deliver this order on time, they won’t be able to contain a dangerous pandemic. The stakes jump from loss of livelihood and reputation to global life and death.

Whew!

Without stakes, none of it would matter.

There’s an added bonus in working out the stakes for your story. Did you notice how, in doing that, we inadvertently (but deliberately) outlined an entire story and all its major turning points? And what a dramatic story it is!

If you are struggling with structuring our outlining the major beats or plot points of your story, consider looking to the stakes and seeing if that helps you get over that hump to reach the finish line.

So You Wrote a Big Budget Sci-fi/Fantasy Script. Now what?

Recently, I put the finishing touches on the second draft of a big budget fantasy feature screenplay. I wrote it both for fun and as a portfolio piece, knowing full well that a script like this would never get made. Even though it probably wasn’t the best use of my time, I still put more time, passion and meticulous care into this manuscript than I care to admit right now. (Hint: It was a lot.)

Curious for input from other Hollywood industry pros, I sent the script out for feedback. If you’ve ever written an original big budget spec script, then you probably have gone through what I experienced next. While the feedback was positive, these pros all told me the same thing: No one will ever want to buy this, no matter how good it is.

So, you’ve written a big budget sci-fi, fantasy, superhero or action script on spec and no one in Hollywood wants to bite. You’re probably asking yourself: What do I do now?

Now that you have a big budget spec script on your hands, what do you do with it?

The short answer: Don’t toss it. Your script still has value.

The longer answer is, well, a bit longer. Let me explain.

Having a completed, polished screenplay under your belt will always be a feather in your cap whether you sell it or not. What you do with it next, however, is the big question.

First, let’s be clear and up front about expectations:

  • A big budget script is very hard to sell in Hollywood.
  • A big budget sci-fi/fantasy/superhero script not based on an existing IP (intellectual property, such as Lord of the Rings or Marvel) is even harder to sell.
  • A big budget script based on an IP you do not own or have rights to will not sell in Hollywood (because it’s IP/trademark infringement).
  • Your big budget script probably isn’t going to be made into a movie.

In short, your big budget genre movie is next to impossible to sell (let alone get made) in Hollywood. That may sound harsh, but understanding the reality you are up against is crucial to knowing where you shouldn’t be focusing your efforts. Instead, we’re going to take practical steps to make the most of that awesome script of yours.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at your path forward. You essentially have two choices:

  1. Use your script as a writing sample.
  2. Adapt your script into a novel.

1. As a Writing Sample

If you are like me, writing sci-fi/fantasy is your jam, meaning when you write in that milieu, you are at your best (replace with superhero, action, etc.). Pick out a few choice selections from your script and use these to promote your ability, professionalism and creativity when auditioning for new writing projects.

You probably won’t jump to working on big budget projects directly from a spec script, especially if you are still new to the business, but it can be the linchpin that opens a doorway that eventually leads to that prized assignment.

Besides, while you are using your incredibly cool script as a staple portfolio piece, you can simultaneously be pursuing option #2:

2. Adapting Your Screenplay into a Novel

Converting your spec screenplay into a novel is perhaps your best route to getting that story onto the big screen (yes, you read that correctly). In fact, you can even do this and #1 simultaneously.

If your book is successful, then the powers that be will be much more keen to turn your book into a movie. Now you’re back where you started—except this time you have the backing of an existing IP.

However, I should err on the side of caution in saying that there are no guarantees here. All of this hinges on the fact that you can:

  1. Complete a novel,
  2. Get it published, and
  3. Reach a wide enough audience with a strong enough impact that your novel is considered successful enough for adaptation to the screen.

It doesn’t have to be a novel, either. Video games and comic books are viable options as well. In fact, your superhero script may be more suited to one of these genres than a novel.

Regardless of the route you take, embarking on this journey is certainly a far better strategy than sitting on a perfectly good, superbly awesome story that the world would otherwise never get to experience.

Better to share than to hoard in secret. (Yes, you can quote that).

So now that you’ve written a big budget sci-fi, fantasy, superhero or action script on spec and nobody in Hollywood wants to bite, maybe all your story needs is a new medium to make it big.

Time to get writing.

So You’re Going to a Pitchfest

So you’ve decided to go to a pitch festival (aka “pitchfest“) for writers.

That’s amazing.

But before you go, there are a few things you should know.

In my most recent Hollywood pitchfest experience, I was surprised at how many participants were woefully underprepared. Considering the amount of resources and time it must have taken for many of these people to travel to Los Angeles for the pitchfest, this hit me hard.

In fact, I found myself doling out advice to many participants who seemed to have little or no idea how to prepare for their pitches, let alone a two-day marathon—a pitchfest, if you will.

So I’m going to pass on some of that advice to you to help you make the most of your own pitchfest experience. While this advice is specific to going to a pitchfest, it also applies (mostly) to virtual pitchfests or anyone pitching a story to an industry professional—movies, TV, books, scripted, unscripted, pitchfest or pitch meeting.

1. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Know Your Story

Start by learning your story inside and out. It may have been awhile since you dusted off that script or pitch. Over time it’s easy to forget important details—especially when you’re put on the spot.

One-sheets

Be sure to write, polish and print out a one-sheet to give to every person or team you pitch to. A one-sheet is essentially your pitch, synopsis and contact info put into writing on—you guess it—one sheet of paper. You can read more about the one-sheet here.

Business Cards

Have these at the ready for networking purposes. You never know who you are going to meet or where that relationship will take you in the future, even among the fellow pitchfest attendees.

NOTE: Business card finishes are not all created equal. For instance, while glossy business cards may look spectacular, matte business cards are far easier to write on with any type of pen, and thus, they are more useful.

2. Do Your Homework

You don’t want to waste time pitching to someone who isn’t interested in your type of project. That’s not a good use of anyone’s time. Instead, do your research first:

  • Find and pitch to companies who are interested in your type of project, format or genre. Don’t just guess, check out their websites and IMDB.
  • Research how similar, successful projects in the same genre/format been pitched in the past. IMDB and Box Office Mojo are your friends here.
  • Try crafting a “hook” into your pitch that dials into that company’s mission statement or core focus. Remember looking up the company website? That’s where you should look.
  • Don’t stop refining your pitch! Use nonverbal responses you receive from each detail of your pitch to improve or alter your next pitch. (I once derailed an entire pitch because I mistakenly used the word “shenanigans” instead of “petty squabbling” in my opening statement. Needless to say, I never used that word again after that.)

3. Dress Respectably

This should go without saying, but it still needs to be said. Groom yourself, dress professionally, smell nice and grab a breath mint or two. This doesn’t mean you have to dress up like you are going to fancy dinner (don’t do that, btw), but simply that you want to show the professionals you are pitching to that you respect their time, you respect the process, and that you put conscious time and effort into what you do.

In short: you don’t want to be “that guy” or “that lady” that executives dread.

4. Don’t Be Robotic

I know it can be very challenging pitching to strangers. You’re taking this beautiful, highly personal story that’s trapped in your head and trying to explain it in a way that doesn’t sound completely ridiculous or insane to someone who could potentially change your life forever.

No biggie.

When you pitch as a writer, you aren't just trying to sell your story, you are trying to sell these executives on the idea of 'you.'

However, if you want the best possible chance at selling your story at a pitchfest, it’s critical to be enthusiastic, friendly, emotive and passionate when conducting your pitch—all while pretending you are acting natural. That’s why practicing your pitch is so essential to great delivery. Even if you’ve pitched your story a thousand times, it’s important to keep your energy up like it’s the very first time. You want to show your pitch recipients that you love your story.

That means DO NOT:

  • Use monotone voice like you are reciting verbatim from memory (even if you are);
  • Avoid eye contact, greetings or human interaction (even if you want to);
  • Read from a notecard or prompt sheet (just don’t).

Which leads us to our next point…

5. Sell Yourself

When you pitch, you aren’t just selling your story, you’re selling yourself. On more than one occasion, it is the personality and enthusiasm of the pitcher that sells the company on their project—or, at the very least, enabled that storyteller to move onto the next stage of their relationship with that company.

I know this can be especially challenging for many writers who are introverts and socially shy or awkward. Well, this is where you learn to grow.

Need help? Try taking a public speaking class, practicing your pitch to your friends, or even signing up to take a workshop on pitching. Also be sure to check out Good in a Room on pitching a feature film, TV show, or unscripted reality show.

6. Lead the Conversation

Remember that when you go in to deliver your pitch, it’s you in the spotlight, not the individuals you’re pitching to. This is an important distinction because many writers open their pitch like this: “I have ten scripts. What do you want to hear?” If the executives knew, they wouldn’t be at the pitchfest! Besides, it’s a weak way to open that not only reduces their confidence in your storytelling abilities, but also hurts your ability to “sell yourself” (see #5, above).

Instead, jump right into your pitch with confidence and gusto. Afterward, be sure to be proactive in providing a one-sheet and asking for contact information, such as a business card.

7. Concept First, Details After

Don’t make the mistake of diving into the details of your story without getting a crystal clear concept out of the way first. This is essential. When giving your pitch to a complete stranger (who knows nothing about your story yet), start by giving them the big picture. Once they’ve locked that down, then move into more detail from there. If you can’t give the audience a grasp on what the overall idea of the story is, the details may come across as an incomprehensible mess.

Besides, having a concept that absolutely kills may be enough to sell your story, meaning weaknesses in the execution may be more easily overlooked.

8. Have a Backup, or Two, or Three

There’s nothing worse than having your pitch shot down right at the get-go. This happened to me and my pitching partner on our very first pitch on the very first day of the fest. A quick “I’m not interested in that” made our blood run cold. Fortunately, we had prepared a handful of backup pitches as well. Not only did these backups salvage the pitch session, but we received a read request for both of the alternatives we pitched.

The moral of the story? Come prepared with a backup…or two…or three.

9. Network, Make Friends

Remember those business cards we had you make all the way back in #1? Well, here’s where you use them.

Networking with other writers and storytellers at a pitch festival is a way to open doors for future relationships and collaboration.

Networking with fellow writers and storytellers should be one of your primary objectives when you go to a pitchfest. For many writers I spoke to at the Fade In Hollywood Pitch Festival, many hadn’t even thought of this. However, several writers like me and my pitch partner had quite a bit of downtime, so we devoted that time to networking and building future relationships.

Besides the obvious benefit of building your professional network, there are a few other not-so-obvious benefits to making nice with your fellow participants. For one, sharing valuable pitching techniques, nuances and experiences can help you and your new contacts pitch more effectively.

Also, one of your new friends may be scheduled to be pitch to the same company as you at an earlier time, meaning they can offer valuable insight into how to target your pitch. For my own experience, this influenced how my pitching partner and I customized our pitch to the company, resulting in a read request for our script.

10. Get in the Right Mental Space

This is a frequently overlooked aspect of preparing for a pitchfest. Putting yourself in the right frame of mind to accomplish your goals, absorb feedback, and process events that are happening faster than you can say “pitch festival” is important to getting what you want out of the whole process.

Don’t Pin Your Future on the Pitchfest

Maybe you’ll sell your story, maybe you won’t. Just as nailing your pitch won’t necessarily lead to sale, bombing a pitch (and it happens) doesn’t mean your dreams are forever shattered. Either way, your life isn’t over. You will have good pitches and you will have bad pitches. The important thing is to do your homework, deliver your best, and if you don’t sell anything this year, try again next year.

Set Reasonable Goals

Go into the pitchfest with a purpose. That is, don’t aim to sell your story because you probably won’t. Instead, aim to get read requests. Getting one of these busy professionals to read your story is the biggest hurdle. And even if they don’t like your story, they may like the cut of your jib. In that way, it’s important to think of these pitches as not necessarily a way to sell your project right then and there, but rather as opening a door to a relationship that could potentially result in a sale later on down the road.

It’s Not Always You

Not all pitchfest attendees will be interested in your project. This isn’t necessarily your fault. Some people are “checked out” before you ever get face-to-face them. Often, they may not be in the market for what you are selling or are simply a filling in as a warm body. It sucks, but it happens. And it’s not always because of you.


Hopefully, these tips on maximizing your experience at a pitchfest will help you feel more confident and prepared for the upcoming extravaganza. Pitching is hard. Talking to strangers is hard. Pitching to strangers is even harder. But with practice, preparation, and a little bit of luck, maybe your pitch will be the one that sells.

If you want to read about the pitchfest experience from the other side of the table, check out Manny Fonseca’s article here.

Break a leg, pitchfester!

Have any additional pointers you’d like to share? We’d love to hear ‘em.

8 Movies That Prove Perspective is Everything

If film has taught us anything, it’s that different people perceive things differently. That’s how we get conflict. And we wouldn’t have conflict if we all experienced and interpreted events in exactly the same way.

Whereas history presents itself as being an objective treatment of the human story, story in the narrative sense relies more on the subjective experiences of our narrators, protagonists, and characters. The way they view motivations and events isn’t necessarily the way other characters in those same stories would view them.

The storytelling term that addresses this subjectivity is called an ‘unreliable narrator.’ How an unreliable narrator frames story events for the audience isn’t necessarily the way they actually happened.

On that note, we’re going to explore eight movies that show how perspective and point of view shape our interpretation of story.

(WARNING! These films aren’t for everyone. But if you’re in the mood to flex those hungry cinephile muscles, then you should absolutely watch every movie on this list. Hint: The best ones are at the end.)

1. Dale and Tucker vs Evil

IMDB | 2010 | R | 1h 29min | Action, Comedy, Horror

Let’s start simple and easy. Dale and Tucker vs Evil is a fun, light-hearted romp that takes a concept like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and turns it on its head to show things from the perspective of the “bad guys.” What we learn, however, is that these chainsaw-wielding hillbillies are anything but “bad.” It’s merely the viewpoint of the victims that frame Dale and Tucker as psychotic murderers. Worth noting is how the movie goes the extra mile to make use love and sympathize with the unlucky protagonists, played by the talented Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine.

Continue reading 8 Movies That Prove Perspective is Everything

10 Tips for Writing That TV Pilot

So you want to write your own television show. Great!

Before you commit to writing the pilot episode for your brand-new TV show, why don’t you take a look at these 10 helpful tips for writing that TV pilot that will make your writing life a little bit easier.

1. Prepare to Invest

Many people jump right into writing episode one—the pilot for a brand-new show—thinking, “Hey, this will be WAY easier than writing that new novel of mine, or taking all that time to write a feature-length screenplay.”

Reality check: It isn’t.

In fact, developing a good TV pilot can be the hardest and most involved of all three, even though the end result may only look like 40-60 pages from the outside. This is because when you write a pilot, you aren’t just writing the script for episode one; you are creating a whole new concept with complex characters, multiple story threads, with as many setups and ideas for future episodes as possible. When someone reads your pilot script, they will only be reading the tip of the iceberg, not the vast amount of backend work that went into producing those measly few pages.

2. The Concept Must KILL

Before you really dig into your show, take enough time to make the concept air-tight. What do we mean by “concept”? The concept is a fleshed-out version of the core idea for your TV show—the idea that makes your show different from every other show out there.

If your concept is clear, it should be obvious what makes your show different from others and also make someone want to watch the show itself. For example, “ER for women” was a successful concept that became Grey’s Anatomy, based on the success of an already existing show but with a new angle. Lost created appeal through the concept alone: A group of strangers become lost after crash landing on a mysterious island inhabited by strange forces, but while surviving on the island, each character finds individual purpose after having been “lost” in their personal lives back home.

That said, make the concept grab the audience’s attention. For example, don’t just write an alien invasion show. It’s been done many times and hasn’t been successful. But if you want to write an alien invasion show where humankind is the invader—now that’s an interesting twist people can get behind.

3. Legs: The Show Must Go On

For American television, “legs” are very, very important. What do we mean by legs? “Legs” refers to the potential episodes the show can produce in the long-term based on the concept. A more open-ended concept typically offers more “legs.” A closed concept with one specific, attainable goal offers less of a future (if any).

With that in mind, part of what your pilot must do is setup the long-term future of the show—the “legs.” My Name Is Earl did this by using a wide-open concept with no foreseeable limitations (his list of wrongs to “right” can be as long as the sun, for all we know). A show about thieves planning a heist is problematic in that the goal is far too easy to reach. Once they’ve reached their goal, where does the show go from there? Breaking Bad solved this by always creating a bigger goal for the protagonist to achieve once (or even before) the old has been solved.

4. Know Your Audience

This should go without saying, but it comes up far too often to leave out. If the show doesn’t have a clear or specific audience in mind, then it will not be successful. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Pretty Little Liars and Stranger Things nail their audience targeting. Now imagine if Pretty Little Liars was written to target 30-something males…it would have bombed. The mid-2000s remake of Battlestar Galactica tried to rope in a wider female audience by focusing on romance in later seasons, and the result turned the show into a soap opera in space—disappointing original and the new audiences alike. The moral of the story? Yup, you guessed it: Know your audience.

5. Characters Are Everything, Protagonist More So

While characters are the heart and soul of any story, in television, they are the most important element. The cast needs to do more than survive the pilot. They will be responsible for carrying the show long-term. Above and beyond that, the central protagonist needs to be the most interesting of all, fleshed out with enough potential new material to keep audiences coming back episode after episode, season after season. If your characters don’t have enough setups in the pilot, they won’t be interesting enough to carry a second episode. Remember, anything that applies to the characters counts doubly so for the protagonist.

6. Include Act Breaks

In the modern age of commercial-free Internet streaming, writers sometimes think their pilot scripts should also be act-free (act breaks are where the commercials play). Incorrect. Always include act breaks.

There are a couple reasons for this:

  1. Act breaks represent major structural highs and lows in the plot, so leaving them out flattens these points and harms the overall flow of the story.
  2. It makes the writer look like they don’t know what they are doing, even if they do.
  3. It creates ambiguity about the script’s end goal—is it a short film? Is part of the script missing? Is it actually half of a feature screenplay?

When you aren’t there to explain it to the people reading the script, any extra uncertainties can stop your pilot’s progress dead in the water.

7. Don’t Forget the B-Story

Sometimes writers leave out or drop the B-Story in their pilot because due to lack of room. Big mistake. Don’t ever do this. Your pilot needs to have a B-Story—industry pros will be looking for it and they will notice if it’s missing. Believe it or not, so will your audience. A script with just an A-Story tends to feel hollow and like it’s missing “heart.” Remember, the B-Story is a chance to humanize your characters, keep main cast members involved in the show even when they aren’t directly involved in the A-Plot, and give the audience a breather from the main storyline. The B-Story is also a chance to loosen up and have some extra fun with the show.

8. Blueprint the Show

Your pilot script not only needs to set up the world of the show, character problems and imply future storylines, it must “blueprint” the entire show by illustrating how a normal episode will run its course. This can be tricky because you are essentially trying to pack two different episodes into one. But it’s necessary to communicate the look, feel, and overall sense of what it means to be “the show.” In recent years, well-funded projects have tackled this difficult task by creating two-part pilots (two episodes viewed back-to-back), the first part taking its time to set up the show and the second part showing what a regular episode will look like. While an ideal solution, in a spec script that’s a dicey option since it requires double the effort, double the budget to make, and thus doubles the risk of failure from an investment standpoint. So, for spec script, try splitting up the pilot into first half for setup and second half for blueprinting. Alternatively, integrate them together so we don’t notice. It’s much harder and comes with its own risks, but can payoff in the form of a solid pilot script that stands on its own.

9. Create a Show Bible

You don’t absolutely need a show bible to write a successful pilot, but it helps—a lot. Think of it as a multi-use tool where you can include all your notes and ideas about future episodes, character and story arcs, character bios, hidden and upcoming tidbits, etc. Putting all of this into a formalized document that can be shared along with the pilot shows industry execs that you are serious about your pilot, you’ve spent time developing the show beyond episode one, and that you’re thinking long-term. Having a show bible in your back pocket also allows you to cram less into your pilot (it’s written down elsewhere) and enrich your characters on screen because you’ve spent time exploring them in the bible. Don’t be fooled, creating a show bible can be an overwhelming task. Start by breaking it down into smaller bite-sized pieces, like short season/episode synopses, character roles, flaws, dreams, secrets, etc.

10. Bible First, Script Last (Outline in Between)

Writers and writing teachers often view their “writing” or tangible end product in terms of written pages. Maybe that’s the wrong approach. Try developing a show bible first and getting that really solid, create an outline of the pilot, break it down into a beat sheet, and then write the actual pilot script last. That way you’ve had more time to figure out all the little details and plotlines beforehand, so you end up with stronger pages and fewer rewrites. Once words are down on the script page, it becomes hard to “kill your darlings” and make the necessary changes. But with a show bible, outline, and beat sheet in hand, your first true “draft” resulting in pages will look far closer to a finely-polished script than you may get by going through old fashioned draft iterations.

Now that you’ve had a chance to check off the last 10 boxes, are you still ready to accept the challenge of writing that TV pilot? Hey, it’s the golden age of television right now, so maybe you should.

Working on a TV pilot? Let us know. We’d love to hear about your progress!

Need help developing or rewriting your TV pilot? Contact us today for a consultation.

Subtext, Part 2: What Does Subtext Do?

In Part 1 of our article series on subtext we began a thorough introduction to the subject. Here in Part 2 we are going to dive into greater depth on how subtext functions in storytelling. As for the specific types of subtext (and there are many), we will get to that in a future article.

So…

What does subtext actually do?

The short answer: Subtext enhances storytelling by tapping into the subconscious to make the story more memorable and more impactful. It applies to every genre and every medium.

The really short answer: Subtext helps tell a better story.

But how, exactly?

Storysci.com's illustration of how subtext creates depth in storytelling.
Subtext adds depth and dimension to your story.

Subtext Sets Tone, Atmosphere & Mood

At its most basic level, subtext communicates the overall feel of the story. This can be a subtle undertone, a collection of background mood elements, or the setting of the story itself.

For example’s sake, let’s take the following sentence, devoid of subtext:

Hawker walked through the street that night.

Now let’s add a bit of subtext in the form of mood:

Hawker pushed through the murky night, parting the dense fog like a shadow in a snow drift.

Quite a difference, isn’t there?

Take it a step further by throwing in a larger atmosphere element that recurs throughout the story. Maybe everyone Hawker passes on the streets walks briskly, arms tucked, closed off from communication, not stopping when they bump into him.

Without having to directly tell the audience anything, the added subtext communicates Hawker’s isolation and introspective defensiveness, putting him into a world where every individual must fend for oneself.

For a few real-world examples, check out:

TV: Twin Peaks
LIT: The Red Badge of Courage
FILM: Body Heat

Subtext Illustrates Story, Reduces Exposition

You’ve probably heard the mantra, “Show, don’t tell.” The idea here is to aim for illustrating story through the playing-out of conflict, desires, obstacles and goal-seeking rather than telling the audience what happens through direct exposition. Here’s where subtext comes in handy. Subtext is all about showing because it doesn’t allow you to explain things outright (“on-the-nose,” or literally as they are).

Subtext illustrates story by communicating between the lines. It’s as simple as that. Much of the time, this kind of subtext naturally arises during the storytelling process through the choices our characters make. The selflessness or selfishness of the decision in that situation expresses something about their character, and so long as the narrative doesn’t come right out and say “this is what that choice means for this character,” then the subtext happens all on its own.

This is where the superhero genre really excels: The protagonist is repeatedly put into situations where (s)he must choose between a selfish, gratifying act or a selfless, self-harming act. Subtext comes into play when the hero makes that key decision. We (the audience) know that if the hero makes a selfish choice that (s)he will be personally rewarded, but because of ignoble cowardice and/or weakness. Likewise, we implicitly know that the hero’s selfless act will come with great struggle and personal pain, and will win our admiration for doing the right thing. All of that from a choice—and we don’t even have to spell it out for the audience. They’ll get it. Audiences are smart.

Want to see this in action? Try:

TV: The Office
FILM: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2
LIT: Of Mice and Men

Subtext Creates Emotional Impact

As we’ve mentioned previously, subtext communicates below the textual level, nesting itself in the pregnant quiet space beneath the surface message to create immediacy, greater meaning and emotion than would otherwise be possible. If you’ve ever seen a sitcom, then yes, you’ve seen this aspect of subtext in action.

Imagine a TV show conversation between Rock and Stone. Rock has been in love with Stone for 10 years. We’ve been following Rock and Stone’s comical near-love connection mishaps for 5 seasons now. They’ve never actually gotten together but both characters have repeatedly demonstrated their secret love and willingness to sacrifice all for each other since episode one. During the season 5 finale, Rock accidentally reveals those feelings for Stone in public while accepting an award. Embarrassed, Rock flees to hide beneath a tree. Having heard the flub, Stone finds Rock and confesses the same feelings. That fuzzy, tingly, heart-swelling moment that accompanies their first kiss? That’s right. From subtext.

But how?

The text of the moment isn’t all that interesting by itself: Stone finds Rock beneath the tree, confesses feelings and they kiss. How many times have we heard a story like that? What lends this particular situation the gravity and emotional impact is the fact that in that scene between Rock and Stone, we carry the subconscious build-up of all past 5 seasons of unrequited love. The power of everything that led to this huge payoff is the subtext. As the audience, we don’t have to be reminded of the past 5 seasons because we’ve already experienced it, so by not calling attention to that directly, we’ve avoided blocky exposition to let the subtext ride out the moment.

Additional great examples:

TV: Friends
LIT: Age of Innocence
FILM: Lord of the Rings trilogy

Subtext Adds Depth by Conveying a Greater Message

Here’s where subtext gets storytellers really excited. When your story is attempting to convey a theme, moral, or greater commentary, subtext is the most effective means to do so. Beginning storytellers tend to go straight to soapboxing—beating the idea over the audience’s head through direct exposition. This preachy/didactic approach rarely sticks with the audience for long, and can even turn them off from future connection with the story if it rubs them the wrong away. The more proper—and challenging—way to communicate higher messaging is through skillful implementation of subtext.

Returning to the idea of showing, not telling, the subtext of greater messaging emerges not in one particular moment or scene, but over the course of the longer story as the various arguments associated with that message are played out through the plot. In a high-level sense, we can call this subtextual messaging theme, but it also extends to motif, religious/political messaging, morals, commentary or criticism, warnings, thought experiments and what-if scenarios as well. The means by which subtext illustrates this greater messaging is by showing how that main idea (and its subsidiary ideas) play out through goal-seeking, obstacles and conflict, rather than coming out and telling the audience exactly what it’s doing. After all, would you rather have someone explain a painting to you or see it for yourself?

Satirical TV shows like Family Guy or South Park make use of subtext to lampoon political and religious ideas on a regular basis by putting characters into the situation they wish to comment on, and then using humor to express the desired opinion or viewpoint of the show as the situation plays out during the episode. George Orwell’s famous novels Animal Farm and 1984 both take a more serious approach, using literal situations to illustrate the dangers of communism—without ever directly saying “communism is bad.” In this way, the plot (“text”) tells a compelling story while the subplot simultaneously acts as an invisible force, forming the proverbial iceberg beneath the water and granting the plot its impact and staying-power.

Wan more real-world examples? Check out:

TV: Family Guy
LIT: 1984
FILM: Harold & Maude

Whew! That is a lot to digest—and there’s more to come! Stay tuned for Part 3: How to Use Subtext, where we will move away from theory and dig into the more practical applications of subtext in storytelling.

In the meantime, share your thoughts and favorite subtext-laden stories with us. We’d love to hear from you!

Still lost? Receive additional guidance from StorySci by contacting us or filling out the form below:

Subtext, Part 1: What is Subtext?

Subtext is one of the strongest, most powerful narrative tools a storyteller has in their arsenal.

That’s awesome! But what exactly is subtext?

The short answer: Information that is communicated without coming out and directly saying it.

The very short answer: What ISN’T said.

What does that mean?

Great question. Big, complicated answer.

To answer that question thoroughly, we will start by grazing the surface of subtext with Part 1 in our article series before proceeding to a deep dive into the subject. Part 2 will explore what subtext is, how it functions, and the many forms in which it can be used in significantly greater depth.

Back to the question at hand:

What is Subtext?

Subtext is many things, and nailing down a helpful description in a single phrase always falls short. The trickiness lies in the fact that subtext isn’t directly written, stated or spoken. It is the ever present invisible context inhabiting the shell we call text—that is, the underlying story beneath the outer story crust.

Like any informational source, story consists of two layers: Text and Subtext. In a conversation between two people, text represents the words each participant says to the other while subtext includes everything they aren’t saying. That doesn’t mean subtext includes everything they could possibly or potentially say in that situation, but rather the meaning behind the strategy and delivery of the text.

storylayers_sqx2.jpg
Where Subtext falls in the layers of storytelling.

 

If Person A asks Person B, “Did you drive today?” The text of Person A’s question is obvious—exactly what (s)he came out and said. However, the subtext—what Person A didn’t say—is far richer and meaningful: Do I have to give you a ride today? The tone of Person A’s voice, the emotional backing and the context in which the question was asked add subtext as well. So while the text may be a simple question, the subtext alters the meaning depending on whether it was asked with a groan or with the intent of helping out a friend in need.

What Does Subtext Do?

The short answer: Subtext creates meaning.

The not-as-short answer:

Subtext represents the emotional core of your story. Not restricted by genre, medium or storyteller, subtext is the hidden power that gives the text its emotional and thematic punch. Depth and nuance are almost entirely contained in this layer of story.

A story cannot succeed without effective subtext because the text itself cannot adequately communicate meaning in a way that feels fulfilling or satisfying. The audience will notice when subtext is missing—whether they are consciously aware of it or not—because the story will feel hollow, motivations poorly formed, and characters lacking in dimension.

If Subtext is so Important, Why Do I Need Surface Text?

The short answer: You need both. Always.

The not-as-short answer:

Surface text acts as a simple vehicle to put the subtext into a context that makes it tangible, specific, and easy to understand. By itself, subtext comes across as abstract and vague. Text without subtext feels superficial and forgettable. Therefore, every story needs both subtext and text because the story will feel incomplete with only one or the other.

To review:

  • Surface text tells us what happens, not what it means.
  • Subtext tells us what it means, not what happens.
  • Text + Subtext tells us what happens and what those events mean.

How Do I Create Subtext?

The short answer: By talking around the obvious.

The not-as-short answer:

Subtext arises through restraint from revealing the mystery and explaining all, creating implication of the greater struggle that lies beneath the surface—conflict, the heart and soul of story. Basically, by not using direct exposition (text). Don’t say what you mean; say all the things that approach the subject indirectly without giving away the whole story. Think about the exposition as an aerial view of the whole forest but the audience only gets to see the trees up close at ground level. Subtext provides clues to solving the mystery without directly saying, “The butler did it.” The audience will absorb the evidence and come to that conclusion themselves, but in a way that creates a more cathartic experience because they were actively involved in the emotional journey and not just a passive participant.

A few ways to approach subtext:

  • If a character wants something in a scene, don’t let them say so. Have them employ different tactics to approach the subject indirectly without identifying the want directly.
  • If a character feels an emotion, don’t let them say exactly who they feel. Have them express or explore other secondary emotions or outward effects without dialing in on the root cause.
  • If a setting or environment evokes a certain ambiance, don’t say so. Describe it in terms of sensations, feelings, emotions and similarities without pigeonholing it with over-simplified description like “creepy” or “romantic.”

What’s Next?

We’ve only just started talking about subtext here in Part 1 of our article series. Stay tuned for Part 2: What Does Subtext Do?

Feeling lost? Story Science is here to help! Contact us right away and we will help you find your way.