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When I first started pitching, I was telling stories from a place of, "Here's a cool idea I thought of..." And the response I got was lukewarm. What took my writing to the next level was when I started pitching stories from a place of "Here's something that happened to me, or something I’ve experienced, and this is why I need to tell this story." People became engaged and interested. They lean in more when a story comes from a personal place.

We’ll be exploring THREE WAYS of making your pitch personal in a minute. But first, let’s explore THREE KEY REASONS making your pitch personal is a good idea.

THREE REASONS TO MAKE YOUR PITCH PERSONAL

It grounds your pitch

One of the more common complaints you hear from talent reps, producers and execs is that most of the pitches they hear/read feel “inauthentic” or “made-up”.

When you make your pitch personal, you paint your world with details that feel real and lived-in. It’s those details that adds richness and texture and makes it feel real.

If they feel you know the material firsthand, it instills confidence that you are the right person to tell this story. They’ll feel reassured you won’t get lost… so they’ll let you take them wherever you want to go.

It elevates your pitch

I hesitate to bring up anything I’ve written for TV as an exemplar of great writing.  But I can attest that the best writing I’ve done for TV has been my most personal.

The pilot script I wrote for a teen music/drama series for CTV and The N called Instant Star (millennials might remember) was highly personal.

I wrote about my parent’s divorce, my fear of being judged a sell-out, my intense fear of failure… I could go on.  What’s amazing to me now is how the pilot episode we aired is so shockingly close to the first draft I wrote.

Why did the first draft of my pilot script (with some tweaks) go to air?  I think it’s because I was under such a time crunch that I had no choice but to draw from my own life – I needed the material!

It might lead to a job

One of those industry clichés which just happen to be true is that it’s all about relationships. And hearing your series pitch is a great way for a producer, exec or talent rep to get to know you as a writer and creator. Even if they pass on your pitch, it can be the start of a valuable relationship.

A writer friend of mine went down to LA to pitch an autobiographical sitcom.  An exec she pitched to liked the pitch okay, but not enough to buy it.  A few weeks later, that same exec green-light a pitch quite similar to hers.  The exec immediately thought of her as a potential writer in the room.  My friend wound up getting staffed on the series, kicking off her Hollywood writing career. Which would have never happened had she not leaned in to the personal and wrote a pitch that reflected her personal experience.

My friend, in-demand Screewwriter/Coach Daniela Saoni, explains that pitching from a personal place also comes with an ancillary benefit:

 

I really do believe that when we write from personal experience it helps us finish the script faster and write it better because we have more passion for it as a story we can tell. The other big benefit is that we have a much likelier chance of staying on the project as a new writer, if we are able to sell it.

THREE WAYS TO MAKE YOUR PITCH PERSONAL

CASE STUDY: INSECURE

A creator who knows her character inside and out.

Issa Rae on how to pitch

My favourite saying is “Greenlight Yourself” – meaning, don’t wait for someone to give you permission to start writing and creating, just start doing it. There’s no better exemplar of “Greenlight Yourself” in action than writer/actor/creator Issa Rae.

In 2011, Rae came up with the idea of creating a comedy web-series for her to star in, giving rise to the smash YouTube series ‘Awkward Black Girl’. 

Rae wrote, directed, produced and starred in the series as J, a call center employee who has a hard time fitting into her office group. Rae modeled the character of J on her own life experience.

In 2013, Rae collaborated with the legendary writer and comic Larry Wilmore to create a series which (long story cut short) led to Insecure for HBO.

Like its YouTube predecessor, Insecure captures the exciting, but terrifying, sense of possibility that typifies life in your mid-20s to early-30s.

Issa Rae plays Issa Dee, making plain that this is a character drawn from her own life. But Rae also drew from her immediate circle by basing the fictional character of Molly on her own real-life best friend. It doesn’t get more personal than that.

Now, I’m not suggesting you need to emulate Issa Rae’s success by doing exactly as she does. Not everyone is as gifted, compelling and fluent as an actor.  Nor is everyone comfortable opening themselves up to a wide audience of strangers.  I know I’m not. 

But I think we can all draw inspiration from Rae’s ability to recognize the universal in her own life experience… And by her relentless drive to produce quality content.

CASE STUDY: MARE OF EASTTOWN

A creator who knows his world inside and out.

Mare of Easttown is a testament to the old writing adage “the specific is universal’. Easttown is highly specific, yet there are towns just like it all over the world.  

Easttown, PA could just as well be Hamilton, Ontario or Sheffield, South Yorkshire . Gritty, working-class towns that were once thriving… but which are now turning to rust.

In an interview The Credits, creator Brad Inglesby said it was his deep desire to explore this rustbelt world that drove him to create the series:

That was kind of the catalyst more than anything. Just wanting to return home and write about the people and places and rituals of life in this town and around the town where I grew up.
Ingelsby combined Delaware County (where he grew up) with Chester County (where his parents were from) to create the fictional Easttown, a blue-collar hamlet outside Philadelphia. Though fictional, you’d swear Easttown is a real place.  Everything feels authentic and keenly observed.  Down to their clothes, favourite sayings, choice of beer, and choice of snacks.
I dislike the phrase “Write what you know” but I do believe you should always “Write who you know”.  And I can think of no better example of that principle than in the writing of Mare of Easttown. If you haven’t already, consider moving your series to a world you know backwards and forwards.  Then drill down into that world – and the people who inhabit it – in your pitch.

CASE STUDY: BARRY

Creators fascinated with their series’ themes.

Bill Hader as Barry

Creators Alec Berg and Bill Hader don’t know anything about the world of contract killing (I’m guessing).

But they clearly drew upon personal experience when writing about the cult-like world of acting classes.  

You know instantly when watching a scene in Gene Cousineau’s cringe-inducing acting class that the writers know this insular and pathetic world inside and out. 

But according to co-creator Bill Hader, the inspiration for Barry actually came from a more philosophical place.  Hader told The Guardian“From the start, I said, ‘I want to explore the version of the disease that’s in Barry, that’s also maybe in everybody. That thing that makes us keep making bad choices, so let’s explore that.”

What made the pitch personal to Hader is its central question – What is this thing within all of us that keeps making bad decisions? It’s a question the series returns to, again and again. And it poses other meaningful questions like: 

What is a veteran supposed to do when ejected back into civilian life? 

Does killing make you beyond redemption? 

Can salvation be found in an acting class in the San Fernando Valley? 

So, remember to use your series as a vehicle to explore the QUESTIONS and THEMES that are deeply important to you, and to clearly articulate that in your pitch. 

When the person hearing your pitch knows this material is deeply fascinating to you, they know there’s a good chance it’ll fascinating to others as well.

THREE PRACTICAL TIPS

I hope this post has given you some ideas on how to put the personal into your tv show pitch. I’ll leave you with three practical tips:  

  1. Find a model for your main character. So, you haven’t walked a mile in the shoes of your central character.  So what?  Find someone quite similar to your central character.  Take them out for coffee. Do a “ride-along” if you can. Bring along a notebook and jot down their favorite sayings and craziest stories. Remember: Don’t write what you know, write who you know.
  1. Become an expert in your world. You don’t need direct, firsthand experience in your world to be able to write about it. A writing colleague of mine wanted to write about the restaurant world but had no experience. She befriended a head chef who allowed her to hang out in the kitchen with her notebook. And of course, there’re always books, podcasts and reddit AMAs, etc. But  don’t just go to the usual sources. If there’s a true crime podcast everyone is listening to, go in the other direction. Bring something new to the table with your research. 
  1. Meditate on your series’ themes and questions. I encourage all creators to reflect on what their series concepts mean to them.  It can be super helpful in a pitch to be able to articulate what your series is really about to you on a personal level.  Because if the questions raised by your series affect you, it will probably affect others too.

 

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