How Screenwriters Pitch
Today, the 20th, is publication day for Do the Work in all three versions—hardback, electronic and audio—so please forgive me if I do a little marketing pitch for a sentence or two. Here’s how I described the book to a friend:
Do The Work isn’t so much a “follow-up” to The War of Art as it is an action guide that gets down and dirty in the trenches. Say you’ve got a book, a screenplay or a startup in your head but you’re stuck or scared or just don’t know how to begin, how to break through or how to finish. Do The Work takes you step-by-step from the project’s inception to its ship date, hitting each predictable “Resistance point” along the way and giving techniques and drills for overcoming each obstacle. There’s even a section called “Belly of the Beast” that goes into detail about dealing with the inevitable moment in any artistic or entrepreneurial venture when you hit the wall and just want to cry “HELP!”
Today’s post and the previous two have come, slightly modified, from Do The Work. Let’s pick up where we left off last week …
We were talking about the Foolscap method of starting a project–i.e., boil your idea down so it’ll fit on a single sheet of paper. And about how to organize that single sheet: break it into three sections—beginning, middle and end … Act One, Act Two, Act Three … setup, story, punch line.
Today let’s get into the final piece of the puzzle: theme.
The last item that goes onto our single sheet of foolscap is what the project is about.
Here’s a way that screenwriters pitch a movie. They know that the people they’re pitching to have a limited attention span, so they, the writers, need a method that delivers the goods fast while at the same time presenting the story in the most compelling way. One method they use is to eliminate everything except:
1) An opening scene that hooks the audience hard
2) Two major set-pieces in the middle
3) A killer climax
4) A concise expression of the theme
In other words, “three-act structure on one page, plus theme.”
Okay. How do we figure out our theme?
Complete this phrase: “My project is about _______________.”
Theme informs and completes three-act structure.
When we know what our project is about, we know its ultimate expression. We know the climax. We know the end. And when we know the end, we can work backwards to the beginning.
Casablanca is about a man deciding to set aside his personal, selfish needs in favor of the greater needs of his country and its allies at the brink of world war.
The Los Angeles restaurant “Animal” is about eating meat with no apologies.
Moby Dick is about the clash between man’s will and the elemental malice of Nature.
When we know the theme of Casablanca, we know that our hero, Bogey, must do the right thing in the final scene. All that’s left is defining what that right thing is—and making it as difficult as possible for him to do it.
When we know the theme of Animal, the menu writes itself. (And the restaurant names itself.)
When we know the theme of Moby Dick, we know we need a man, a monster and a clash that lets them duke it out to the finish.
Theme plus three-act structure equals a foundation/blueprint for our entire project. The rest is just details and, if you’ll forgive the phrase, doing the work.
P.S. I wrote last week that the climax of Act Three should be embedded in the setup of Act One. The connection between the two is theme. Theme, if it’s handled right, should be present from the opening of any enterprise.
When Gandhi traded European garb and donned a homespun dhoti loincloth, he was expressing the theme of non-violent resistance to British colonial rule. Theme was present at the start, even if few people recognized it.