Hollywood pitching bible

‘The Hollywood Pitching Bible': Introducing main characters

by Douglas Eboch & Ken Aguado

“My story is an action film about the search for the lost Ark of the Covenant on the eve of World War II. The Nazis are looking for the Ark because it’s supposed to have supernatural powers. The FBI sends an American to find it first. The American finds the Ark first in the ancient ruins of Egypt, but the Ark is seized by the Nazis and put on a truck convoy to Germany. The American must recover the Ark to prevent Hitler from taking over the world!”

What’s missing from this pitch for Raiders of the Lost Ark?

That’s right, the most appealing element of the story: Indiana Jones.


In “‘The Hollywood Pitching Bible': The way of the pitch” we talked about our view of pitching as a way to not only sell your projects in Hollywood, but also as a way to decode the DNA of your idea itself. This week we will talk about presenting character and why doing it right is so crucial.

As our above anecdote illustrates, you can be absolutely accurate in a story description and at the same time be absolutely bloodless. Why? Because the soul of any great pitch originates with the point of view of the main character(s). We sometimes joke that every film or TV show ever made is merely someone we care about not getting the thing they want. Okay, it’s a little more complicated than that, but not by much. So your first challenge in a pitch is giving us a character we care about. The second challenge is letting us know what that character cares about.

Summarizing the story you imagine – with all its nuance and detail – into a brief pitch is a tremendous challenge. Just as the characters are the audience’s way into your story, they are also the buyer’s way into your pitch. To capture the feel of the story that’s in your head, you need to start by bringing your characters to life and focus relentlessly on how the events are experienced from their point of view.

Compelling characters connect us to a great story. A great story connects us to great art – and great art connects us to the human condition. Kinda cool, huh?

Hollywood Journal has graciously offered to publish a few excerpts from The Hollywood Pitching Bible. The second excerpt is “Introducing Main Characters.” In this piece, we discuss options for introducing the main characters in your pitch in a way that draws the listener into your story.


“Introducing Main Characters”

Once you’ve successfully introduced the nature of your project, it’s time to dive into the actual story you want to tell. We’ve been calling this “the plot” of your story even though we’ve advised you that it’s really more than this.

First, you will need a strategy to introduce your main characters. You will have to decide whether to present your characters as they appear in the normal course of your story or introduce them before your launch into your plot.

You may want to set up your characters before the plot if establishing your main character requires a long description. In this situation you might not want to stop the flow of your story for a long-winded aside. Perhaps your listener needs to understand the past or “back story” of a character to make a plot point in the story work. In the script you might handle this by using a flashback or a short preamble but both of these devices can be deadly in a pitch, unless the events they present are very dramatic. Or perhaps your main character is not human and lives in a fantasy world. For example, imagine how tough it would have been to explain what a Hobbit is if the Tolkien books had not existed! In our heist story, it shouldn’t be difficult to establish John’s character as we meet him. In the first few scenes we can easily dramatize what John does for a living, how he tries to help customers (including Tony) and how this causes conflict with his boss, Kent.

On the other hand, what if a significant plot point of our heist story required the listener to understand something that happened to John in his childhood? We may not want to have a flashback in the pitch, or describe the scene where John tells Tony this information in the course of their growing friendship. If the story about John’s childhood is really important, we might want to tell the listener about John’s character, including this incident, before we launch into plot.

Another reason to establish your character up front is when you have multiple lead characters in your film and you’re afraid introducing too many characters in the body of your pitch will confuse the listener. This situation can occur if you are pitching an “ensemble piece.”

Frequently it is better to start off by describing each member of the ensemble in comparison to each other, focusing on the key similarities and differences that are critical to the thematic elements of the story. So if you were pitching The Usual Suspects you might want to describe the five criminals that compose the gang, or if you were pitching Little Miss Sunshine, you might start by describing the six members of the family.

When choosing this approach, be sure that you have given a solid logline in the set-up so the listener knows where you are headed. Also, it can be easier for the listener if essential characters are referred to, not by their names, but rather by what they do or how they are related to the main character. So using our heist example, John’s branch manager’s name is Kent, but as we pitch it may be clearer if we just refer to him as “John’s boss,” after his initial introduction. Once you’ve given more than about three or four names, it will be difficult for the listener to remember who’s who.

Another aspect of introducing characters has to do with how you describe them in ways that allow your listener to understand their essential nature quickly and efficiently. There’s a little bit of poetry involved in this challenge, especially if you decide to introduce your characters in the body of your pitch where brevity is key. Naturally, some of your character descriptions will involve things like their job, their age, or their sex. The more difficult task is helping your listener get a grasp on your character’s personality in a concise but vivid way. One trick is to identify two significant traits for your main character: one strength and one weakness. In our heist example we can describe John as a “20-something loan officer, the kind of guy that will give you the shirt off his back, then buy it back from you at a mark-up.” We could have just said John is “generous but gullible,” but we hope you see that this latter version lacks the same poetry. What you are establishing in the pitch are the key characteristics, desires and flaws that will come into play in the story. You will likely reveal far more about the character in the script, and know even more than that before you start writing, but again, the goal here is the best fifteen minute version of the story.

Excerpt from: The Hollywood Pitching Bible: A Practical Guide to Pitching Movies and Television by Douglas Eboch & Ken Aguado Copyright 2013 – All Rights Reserved

Douglas Eboch & Ken Aguado

About Douglas Eboch & Ken Aguado

Douglas Eboch is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. His credits include the original script “Sweet Home Alabama.” Follow Douglas on Twitter @dougeboch and his Let's Schmooze blog. Ken Aguado is a producer living in Los Angeles. His most recent film is “Standing Up,” written and directed by DJ Caruso. They co-wrote “The Hollywood Pitching Bible: A Practical Guide to Pitching Movies and Television," which is available at Amazon, iTunes and selected bookstores around the country.

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