Sunday, May 17, 2015

The "Becomes Pitch"

The pitch for "Breaking Bad" became almost as famous as the show in writing circles: Mr. Chips turns into Scarface. I call this the "becomes pitch". Writers tend to praise brevity, and whether you find the spoiler-ish nature of this approach off-putting, it's hard to deny its power as a writing exercise. The becomes pitch is a great test for whether or not you know what the heart of your novel or short story is. You can then potentially use it to quick sell your story.

This method has its drawbacks. You have to link your existing protagonist at both the beginning and end of the novel to a character or public figure just about anyone could immediately identify. If your potential publisher doesn't recognize one of them, your pretty little query gets recycled. Also, it doesn't allow for those truly original characters who can't be linked to an existing archetype.

I feel confident about selling my first novel, "Jesse Rules", because it passes the becomes pitch test: Holden Caulfield becomes Leopold and Loeb. I'm kind of cheating on the end there, but it's hard to identify one of those sneering psychos without the other. And I'm disinterested in a publisher who doesn't know those names.

Of course, this is an exercise in reduction, but what else could one call taking your big, beautiful, nuanced piece of art and selling it in a one-page cover letter and synopsis? Some writers are probably turned off by the very idea of taking their wonderfully complex machine and limiting it to the protagonist's main arc. But given limited audiences and publishers, reduction is a necessary skill.

I can't reduce my fantasy novel to a quick tag yet, though I'm leaning toward "Frodo becomes an atheist Martin Luther". It needs work, in part because the hero's journey is the most typical part of my fantasy novel. I'm also completely ignoring the villain's journey, because I have no idea which archetypal figures to link him to.

The becomes pitch can be oddly addictive. "Gone Girl" can be "Every missing white girl becomes Satan's bitch puppeteer". Tyrion's journey in "Game of Thrones" can be "Useless drunk dwarf becomes heroic drunk dwarf". It could be a party game for demented English majors. Or a way to kill time at the asylum.

Try it and see if it helps you identify the center of your story, or use it to see which of your stories are ready for public consumption.