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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

One Page Pitches: Concepts and Character Journeys

So my Red Planet Reflections threw up this intriguing nugget from the marvellous Bingethink:

Interested to hear what you say about character journeys and their importance in the one-page pitch.

What would you say about the character journeys in Doctor Who, Ugly Betty, Lost, New Tricks or Holby City in a one-page pitch.

By which I don't mean that there are no moving / dramatic / artful / engaging character journeys in those shows - just that the way I would describe any of those programmes in a one-page pitch wouldn't focus heavily on any one's character journey.

For me, a TV series is about the concept of the show. The concept should allow for a multitude of stories to be told. The key characters should be designed to best inhabit those kinds of stories. I'm not sure any of that demands a character journey as such - that sounds to me far more relevant to a finite serial or movie screenplay
.

I think there's two aspects to consider here. First off, what exactly is a "concept" when it comes to a drama series. Secondly, what is meant by a "character journey"?

I agree absolutely with Bingethink that concept is everything when trying to sell a story via the one page pitch. When I read pitches I'm often struck by the fact that scribes can very often nail their characters but not actually the *point* of them - why we're watching. However because there is no *set* way of describing how we see these elements, we can get confused on what we're actually trying to achieve or even explain, but I'll try to unmuddle my own thoughts on this one...

For me, concept IS the very story you're trying to sell - ie. the premise. It's this that will drive your logline: after all, you don't say to a producer, "Hey, I have this great story about a bloke!" You say, "I have this great story about a bloke who_________" or "About the world of____________" or even better, "about a bloke in the world of_____________".

If we think of Dr. Who then, one of Bingethink's examples, for me it would be roughly something along the lines of: "About a time-travelling humanoid alien in a phone box who helps human beings out a variety of historical, future and present (often doomsday) scenarios." (I know, pretty crap. But you get the gist - that couldn't actually be anything BUT Dr. Who really, could it?). It's this idea of the premise then I often find is "missing" from pitch docs - scribes don't sell this enough, preferring instead to concentrate on who the story is about, neglecting WHY it's about them, in essence.

So if concept is in fact the whole premise you're trying to sell to someone via your pitch doc, then for me character journey is something that DRAWS your reader in, makes them WANT to invest in your story. After all, I'm not a big fan of the PREMISE of Dr. Who as everyone on this blog knows (Police phone box? What? Never got that), yet there have been elements of that show I've adored, Silence in The Library/Forest of The Dead being two episodes of FANTASTIC television. I absolutely loved those - and one of the reasons for that is not just because Stephen Moffatt is a God, but because I loved the journey we saw The Doctor take with River Song.

However, if we were to look at a pitch doc for Dr. Who, then no doubt it would make no reference to River Song. She is part of the plotting WITHIN the show, not the concept OF the show. This is a returning drama series after all and it would make no sense at all to suppose that all that was laid down in advance (especially considering Dr. Who was created donkey's years ago). Writers have to have some room to breathe and create AS they go along in drama series, that's the whole point of TV drama in my eyes.

The character journey in the pitch doc to me then is inevitably connected to concept. In other words, you have the concept or premise of the show - the WHY of the story, in effect - then you build UPON that by saying in a *more general way* WHO it's about and WHAT they do.

So if going back to the "bigger" part of Dr. Who then for the pitch doc, it would be his motivations for trying to save the human race I suppose - he's the last of his kind, he looks like a human, knows a lot about them (so can presumably relate to them); maybe he's "making up" for his failure to save the rest of the time Lords (I'm guessing here, I have only really watched series 4 of the last lot of Dr. Who and watched virtually none as a child, so if that's far off the mark Who fans - soz.)

Of course, something like Holby City then is completely different to Dr. Who. Dr. Who is the lynchpin of his series, he is really the whole point of it. There have been episodes in which he has not figured as the most prominent character or even at all (Donna's episode where she turns the wrong way the most obvious example), but without him there would be no show. This is not the case with Holby City: any of the characters can be replaced at will - and they have, for I think I'm right in saying now that not one of them is an original cast member from the start in 1999. Plenty of other shows like Holby City share this similarity. So how they hell do you write that in a pitch doc?

Well actually, I think you can still do it the same way. You still need a concept and you still need a character that will START your drama off; even if they can be replaced further down the line, their journey is still important in the meantime, else why are you asking us to watch? But if that doesn't sit well with you, you could write the cast of characters as a whole, relating the story to their individual threads in a more general, loose way - dependant on what the characters do for a living or within the storyline, you can relate their journeys to the movement forward of the concept.

So, the way I see it in "nailing" the pitch doc is: you're selling a story, so first and foremost you need to underline the premise for the reader, make sure they know WHY we're watching. Secondly, ensure they know WHO that concept is about and WHAT they're supposed to be doing, linking it back to that WHY. You can try and tick as many different boxes as you like, but end of the day I see those as the most important two elements - and it's nearly always concept that suffers in the pitches I see.

What do you think? Over to you...

2 comments:

terraling said...

I think you're spot on that the priorities are the Why then the Who and then the What.

Can't recall exactly where I read it, though, but the conventional advice for writing/pitching recurring episodic series is that the characters don't have arcs, they never learn from their mistakes etc. so that the writer working on episode 8 knows what he's dealing with even though another writer hasn't finished episode 7 yet (guess I read it in the context of American shows).

With my own Red Planet Pitch I mostly wrote about the key characters in the context of and having established a strong theme which itself derives from the arena. I think it was pretty clear then where the story possibilities lay.

Writing a pitch for an enclosed story - a film or a serial - is a completely different ballgame.

Lucy said...

---SPOILERS FOR HOUSE & LoM---

That sounds more American Terra - after all, House crashes from one thing to the next, always the same: even when he went into the rehab centre in the last series, he never really got off Vicodin thanks to "Voldemort".

Compare that to LoM, Sam Tyler very MUCH changes, as does Alex in AtA. We don't know what will happen to Alex yet of course but Sam wanted to get out of his dream world only to seek it out again through suicide when reality failed his expectations.

So I think we expect our characters to change in the UK - and I certainly want them to, I never stick with US TV in the same way I stick with Brit TV. Brit TV is inevitably shorter in runs or altogether, but I think too much of a good thing sometimes... Already the shine has come off CSI for me, won't be long before House does too I don't doubt.