Pitching a Novel, Hollywood-style

9th November 2003

To sell a movie in Hollywood, you're supposed to be able to pitch the whole thing in a single sentence. If you can't be as succinct as that, you don't know what your movie's about.

Some way through the process of writing my recent novel, Look Who's Watching, I decided to try the same approach on fiction. I had previously managed to sun up the whole book in a paragraph. Now it came down to ten words:

A boy haunts his killer before reincarnating as his son.

This focus proved great in helping me shape the novel. I boosted that central theme, increased the hauntings, and realized the whole book was shaped by that father / son dynamic.

Hollywood has invested many millions in working out how a story works. I'm coming to suspect that novelists could learn a great deal by studying the basic rules commercial screenwriters know by heart. "A film should only ever be about one thing," a film producer declared in passing while we shared a dinner in London last night. That 'one thing' is what fuels the one-line pitch. A book can be about many things, have many plotlines interweave, but ultimately I suspect the best ones truly are 'about' one thing.

Dining with this producer, I also yearned for the collaborative nature of the film business. We speculated for a while on what Jane Austen might have learned from Hollywood: while not wanting to change a word of her books, we came up with several alterations that might have appealed to her.

As a novelist I love running the whole show. I love getting a book to be perfect in my own eyes. Then I love being edited. Three times now I've enjoyed some great professional editing - my first novel, some magazine work in LA, and my last published story. That's a poor record for the amount I've published. This producer I dined with has been working intensively on the same film project for two years, and much of that time has been given to editing its script. Directors, cast, costumiers, designers, musicians, all will subsequently add their own input. So long as the writer is listened to in this process, the collaboration must be glorious. The writer knows what he/she wanted to achieve, and others can know how effectively that has been done - and help steer the appropriate effects home.

Few screenwriters get to collaborate in that way of course. I'm sure the system screws you, as it screws most things. As a novelist it's grand to have your solo vision safe within the covers of a book where nobody can tamper with it. But it would be fun to throw that same novel into the film production process and see what new lessons in story-telling technique come to light.

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