How To Pitch a TV Show

As I am soon heading off to StoryExpo, a screenwriting conference in New York, I figured I’d detail some of the things that go into preparing for it. This week, I want to share some advice about pitching to production companies.

Picture it:

Tables fill the open room, their polished surfaces cradling cellphones and stacks of paper. Behind them sit producers, ranging from the stylish, put-together woman with the expensive scarf, to the guy in a wrinkled T-shirt that ran in twenty minutes late and left for the day fifteen minutes later.

The writers stand in a line on the opposite side of the room, cradling their portfolios and cups of coffee. Some resemble George R. R. Martin, seated on stools as they regal those around them with tales of their previous pitching experiences. Others could be mistaken for Bambi, stumbling on their spindly baby writer legs as they furiously take notes in a leather-bound notebook, staring with wide eyes. Then you’ve got the guy in the suit (there’s always a guy in a suit), who oozes confidence, coupled with his megawatt smile. These are your peers. Most of them are sources of great knowledge. Speak to as many as you can. 

I don’t think I can stress this enough. The most important thing to do is speak to everyone.

The way pitching works, at least at StoryExpo, is that they have a list of the producers attending for each day, alongside what they’re looking for. Some just want feature films, some just want reality TV, and others only deal with animation. The best piece of advice I could give you is to try and talk to every one of them. Even if you’re not pitching to them, ask if they have advice, or if they have anyone that would be interested in your show. These people make connections for a living. Use them!

Pitching itself seems nerve wracking the first time you do it. You’re shaking as you walk across the room to the table. You want to come off as sophisticated and intelligent, while putting your show in the best light. But you’ve got to realize that these people are just that: people. They’re just looking for you to be passionate about your show. More often than not, even if they don’t want your show, they’ll give you some good advice or a connection, simply for the way you speak about your show.

I had a producer once tell me that I interested him in my show because of my passion. If you can speak well about it, and truly believe in the story you’re telling, nothing will stand in your way. I learned that through my work trying to get my TV show produced. People like your passion. Use it.

As for the pitch, you sit at the table and just start a conversation. You’ll give them your “elevator pitch” which is a two-minute MAXIMUM synopsis of your show. What does it boil down to at its core?

Then, you’ll discuss details. Where do you want the show housed? Which translates to: do you want it on a network, like ABC, or do you prefer streaming, like Netflix. How do you feel about a web series? How much of the show have you written? (Which should always be all of it. Don’t pitch an incomplete show.) Who else have you spoken with about it, do you have partners, etc. It flows like a regular conversation.

Keep a notebook with you. Write down what they say to you. And always, ALWAYS, ask for their contact information. Two weeks or so after pitching, reach out to those people. Refresh them on who you are, and follow up with them about your show. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Other than that, have a good time. Even if you don’t sell your show, you’ll come out with some sort of direction, invaluable pieces of advice, or some awesome contacts. You never know what’ll happen if you don’t try!

Writing TV Show Treatments

In March, I’ll be heading back to StoryExpo, a screenwriting conference in New York. These past few weeks I’ve been getting my scripts together, to pitch to production companies at the conference. As such, I figured it would be a good topic of discussion for my Monday blogs! Today, I’ll share my secrets for writing TV show treatments.

A TV treatment, also known as a show bible, is a breakdown of a TV show’s first season. It’s something you hand to interested parties (like agents or producers) that details the show. It lets them know that you’ve thought past the pilot episode, and have conceptualized what this show could be in the long run. Basically, it’s a way to let people see that this isn’t merely a hobby, but rather something that could be monetized.

Now, the most important part of any TV show is the logline. It’s a two-sentence (maximum) overview of the show. It should tell you the main conflict, who the characters are, and what the point it. You’ll have a longline for the show itself, and for each of the episodes in the season. The best way to think of this are the descriptions of shows on Netflix or Amazon. They’re a couple sentences that tell you what’s up. Loglines are the exact same thing, if not a bit more polished. It should give whoever is reading the longline all the information they need about the show. Think of it as a hook to get people interested.

Once you’ve got the logline down, the rest of the treatment is a piece of cake. You’ll have a one-paragraph synopsis of the pilot episode, which is self-explanatory.

Next, you’ll breakdown the entire season in a detailed synopsis. I’d keep this down to a page, maximum. While you do need to show everything that happens in the first season, don’t make it too detailed. The best way to think of this is to check out a movie plot on Wikipedia. Iron Man is a fantastic example. Follow that format and you should have a great synopsis.

After, you get to my favorite section: character breakdowns. This is where you describe your main cast. A good character description should tell you the essence of a character in three-to-four sentences. What are they struggling with? What’s their character like? Why are they essential to this show? Once you’ve got that, you get to find a well-known actor that best resembles your characters. This is necessary for producers to get an idea of what you see in your head, seeing as you can’t provide in-depth character descriptions in the script itself. This has to be my favorite part. I love going through my favorite TV shows and movies and finding the perfect actor or actress to portray my characters. It’s a lot of fun!

Lastly, you need to include titles and loglines for eight to ten episodes in the season. And you can have fun naming the episodes! Be creative, show them your imagination!

I recommend doing this section after you’ve written the first season, so it’s a little easier to summarize. And it is important to note that you should have a complete season written if you’re looking to pitch it to anyone. Producers like to buy complete projects. It doesn’t even have to be well-written, so long as it’s complete. So, put your fingers to the keys and get it done!

Now, you’ve got a complete treatment! Make sure you have other people read over it. It’s always better to have feedback, and make sure what you’ve put down on paper makes sense outside of your head. Once it’s complete, make sure you register it with the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA). Then, you can share it to your heart’s content, and you don’t have to worry about anyone taking your idea. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

I actually find the process of writing a treatment to be pretty cathartic. It keeps me organized, and allows me to better understand the story I’m trying to tell. 

As far as advice goes, however cliché, all I can say is to enjoy it. This treatment is the entire first season of your TV show in a few sheets of paper. It’s everything your story could be; it’s a culmination of your hard work. So relax and just have a good time.

World Building

I recently drafted a blog post about world building. As I was putting my thoughts down on paper, I realized it was a bit difficult to put everything down about world building that I knew. It’s such a person-specific topic that it’s hard to give general advice. So, rather than post that jumbled mess, I figured I’d break down how I do world building and try to give some advice along the way.

First, I want to preface this by saying I got a minor in history when I was in school. I focused on holocaust studies and histories pre-American Civil War. All of this plays into my novels.

Most of my books have historical settings, likely as a result of my love for history. But also, because it’s much easier to modify a setting/time period that already exists. Let me explain.

When you write an alien civilization or create a world that doesn’t currently exist, you MUST ground your new world in something human. If your world, your characters, even your names are too alien, your readers cannot connect and will therefore lose interest. Think of it like you’re a scientist trying to explain your new discovery to a room full of high schoolers. Some will understand the complexities you’re talking about, but the majority wont.

It’s great to have things that are otherworldly, and alien, and manifestations of your incredible imagination. But at the same time, there must be something recognizable embedded in there. Which is why I like to use historical settings in my novels.

You can take something that already exists and change it to suit your needs. For example, in my standalone novel I’m working on, I have an alien civilization that lives on a watery moon in a made-up solar system, but their town is inspired by Colonial Williamsburg. That way, the world isn’t too overwhelming to understand for my readers. (Plus, I really LOVE Colonial Williamsburg.)

Another thing to remember when building a world is to let your imagination run wild. The best example I have of this is the short-run TV show Defiance. It took three humanoid races (the grounding aspect for watchers) and added incredible intricacies. Sometimes, the best world building is rooted in culture.

I do this in my Anastasia Series. There are 10 races, each one with their own dimensional world. And each race is based on a culture that exists/once existed. There’s Hinduism, Victorian England, ancient Scottish and Irish, Native American, Renaissance… They form the basis for my characters, upon which I can build and create and give them all intricacies. That way, they’re just recognizable enough for my readers, and yet different enough to cause intrigue.

The best thing to take away from this is to simply have fun. World building might seem overwhelming, but it’s most often the best part of novel writing. Do what you love and the rest will follow.

Writer’s Block

Writer’s block. That sneaky, depraved demon that wraps its claws around your brain and turns you into an unimaginative robot. You know what I’m talking about. When you sit there staring a blank screen, trying (and ultimately deleting) anything to progress on your latest work. It impacts all writers, but I’ve discovered some things to cure, or at least treat the symptoms of, writer’s block.

  • Start outlining your work. A lot of writer’s block can stem from a lack of direction. It helps to look up plot summaries of movies or books that are similar to your manuscript, and then follow their flow and structure.
  • Already have an outline? Work on one for another book. Or work on fine-tuning the one you have. If that fails, character development is always fun. Look up some in-depth character-building sites and go nuts!
  • Reread what you already have. There’s a quote from Once Upon A Time that says, “You know, when I get struck by a block, I usually reread what I’ve done, rather than plow ahead blindly. Sometimes, I find there’ll be a little nugget of inspiration left behind.” You’re in a different head space when you first start writing. Sometimes, a flash of that previous intention can help spur you on.
  • Read other things you’re working on, read a book, or watch TV/a movie. Sometimes, we see things and wish we could’ve written them differently. Often, that’s all it takes.
  • Take time off! Yes, we all have deadlines. However, writer’s block could just be your mind’s way of saying you need a break. So, step away from your writing for a week. Usually, I only last a couple of days before my manuscript’s sweet siren song calls me back.

Do you have another way you work around or treat writer’s block?