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PITCH WORKSHOP: CC's Feedback (Entry #8)

Hey, folks—

I wanted to spend today responding to CC’s Pitch Workshop submission for her one-hour TV dramedy, Sarah Weekly.

First of all—thanks again to CC for submitting to this! Whether you’re pitching Steven Spielberg, a low-level TV exec, or just looking for critical feedback, it’s never easy putting your ideas out there in the world to be judged, so I applaud you—and everyone else who has participated in the Pitch Workshop—for sticking your neck out. (The Pitch Workshop is also one of my favorite parts of this blog, so double-thanks to all of you… as well as future submitters!)

Second of all, thanks to everyone who has given CC feedback. I’m sure she appreciates it, and I love seeing chatter and activity in Script Notes’ comment section.

It looks like you’ve gotten some terrific feedback and lots of positive responses, CC, so I hope it’s been helpful!

For those of you who haven’t read the original post, here’s CC’s idea…

Logline: "Sarah Weekly" is a light-hearted drama that follows 30-year-old Sarah Neel as she tries to navigate a path to a new life with her weekly horoscope as her guide.

Synopsis: The morning of her 30th birthday Sarah Sofia Neel had a nice life: nice boyfriend, nice job, nice apartment. By noon, all that's left is her 30th birthday. When Sarah finds a weekly horoscope that seems to have warned of her life's recent upheaval, she wonders what else her horoscope might be able to reveal. With some weekly insight into what's ahead, Sarah tries to build a new life more fulfilling than the one she had before. Along the way, she learns that life has a reason for everything -- and everyone -- it puts in your path.

So, here are my thoughts and suggestions to add to the pile…

As everyone else has pointed out, I think you’re tapping into some really fertile narrative and emotional territory. Chick-lit TV is incredibly popular right now, from the original godmother of Sex and the City to hit broadcst shows like Samantha WhoGrey’s Anatomy and to failed shows like Cashmere Mafia and Lipstick Jungle… and even Showtime’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl. And as Matt points out in his comment to your submission, last February ABCFamily acquired Sophie, CBC’s show about a young talent agent. So I think you’re playing in a rich, lucrative sandbox.

You also have a fun hook in Sarah’s weekly horoscopes… they’re kind of your version of Meredith’s thematic voice-over that bookends each episode of Grey’s Anatomy. So you’re off to a good start!

Obviously, CC, as the comments to your submission indicate, people are responding to the “horoscope framework” of your show idea, both the chick-lit territory and the narrative device of the weekly horoscopes. But to be honest, I think your series, or at least your pitch, is still missing the one thing it really needs to get sold, and that is…

Who the hell is Sarah Sofia Neel?

That’s the one thing producers and executives really want and need to know… and it’s the bedrock of your entire series. After all, no one is going to tune in to see a weekly horoscope… the horoscopes are merely a device, a gimmick (albeit a good one), to introduce each episode’s theme or story. People are going to tune in because they relate to, root for, invest in, and—quite literally—fall in love with Sarah Neel. (…in the same way that no one tunes into Grey’s Anatomy to hear Meredith’s thematic bookends and learn her “lesson of the week”; they tune in because they understand and relate to Meredith Grey. Her desires, passions, fears and frustrations mirror the emotional experiences of her viewers. In other words: in Meredith, viewers see some kind of representation of themselves… and if she’s not exactly the same person as all her viewers, she’s someone they hate… or would like to be… or fear becoming. She is, somehow, an extension of some part of her viewers’ emotional lives. Thus, you would never pitch Grey’s Anatomy by focusing on her voice-over and the beginning and end of each show; you’d focus on truly bringing to life the character of Meredith Grey.)

So while all the little tidbits of Sarah’s backstory (losing her boyfriend, job, and apartment) are interesting, and they certainly help usher us into Sarah’s story, your most important task in this pitch is to let us get to know Sarah as intimately as possible in the short time you have.

And by “get to know,” I do NOT mean telling us her hometown or her favorite food or the name of her cat or what she has for breakfast on Saturday mornings.

What I mean is… you need to give your pitch’s audience a crystal-clear sense of how this woman sees the world. Is Sarah a starry-eyed optimist, who—even when her job, her home, and her boyfriend are ripped away—forges ahead undaunted? Is she a broody cynic who believes the world is a dark, dangerous place where each day is simply a battle for survival? Does she view life as a game, a vicious race to some undetermined finish line… and the prize goes only to those who aren’t afraid to do whatever it takes to win?

Maybe Sarah sees herself as a victim, an unwitting mark in some cruel cosmic joke, and she must learn to grow a spine and take charge of her own destiny. Or perhaps she views life as a cutthroat war… a war in which she has always been a cunning and ruthless warrior… and the loss of her job/apartment/boyfriend is a wake up call that tells her she needs to find some heart and compassion. Or she’s always been a devout atheist who believes solely in free will… until—just after she loses all that’s important to her—she stumbles across these uncannily accurate horoscopes… and must suddenly re-evaluate and re-strategize her life.

I’m not saying any of these suggestions is right for you, Sarah, or the show… I’m just saying that whomever this character is, you need to know it and articulate it to us, your audience. And this isn’t simply a matter of listing adjectives or boiling her down to a few short sentences; it’s a matter of understanding her at the deepest level.

Think of people who are close to you in your life: your parents, your sister, your husband or boyfriend, you best buddy, your college roommate, etc. If I were to ask you to think of any of them in certain situations, you would probably know IMMEDIATELY how they would behave. How would your mother act if you asked her to loan you $10,000? How does your sister behave on a first date? 
Who’s the first person your husband/boyfriend would call if you told him you’d cheated on him? What would your best friend say if she met her favorite rock star? Where would your roommate go immediately after learning she was failing out of school?

I’m guessing most of these answers were gut reactions—you know these people so well the answers barely need thinking about. This isn’t because you know all their favorite bands or least favorite movies… it’s because you know how they see the world. You know that your mom views the world as an obstacle course of deadly dangers… and her job is simply to protect those she loves. You know that your husband or boyfriend views the world as a constant party… and his job is to never grow up and have as much fun as possible. You know your best girlfriend views the world as a façade… a gigantic illusion where common people falsely believe they have purpose and free will, when—in reality—we’re all just pawns of the rich and powerful.

TV characters work the same way. The Office’s Michael Scott views his Dunder Mifflin branch as his family and he’s the father... even though he's totally unaware that he's a manchild who lacks the maturity to actually lead. Prison Break’s Michael Scofield views the world, or society, as a chessboard on which there are clearly two sides—good and evil—and society’s rules can be twisted, bent, or broken as long as it’s done in the name of good (the lines he’ll never cross, however, are betraying those close to him: Lincoln, Sucre, Sara, etc.).

This is how well you need to know Sarah Neel. Now, I’m guessing you know some of this—and maybe more than you think—you simply haven’t articulated it in the pitch. But based on the framework of your series, here are some personal, emotional, and thematic areas I’d explore to help find some insight into who Sarah Neel is…

OTHER PEOPLE IN SARAH’S LIFE. Characters are defined not only by who they are as individuals—by how they, as individuals, see the world—but also by their relationships with other people. Who are the most important people in Sarah Neel’s life… and how does she relate to them? Her brother, an arrogant womanizer whom she views as lazy child? Her mom, a mid-fifties wannabe actress who has always acted more like a girlfriend than a genuine parent? Her father, a money-grubbing workaholic who views children as annoying (but necessary) appendages? Her old boss, who sees every employee—female OR male—as a potential sexual conquest?

Think about the other people who populate Sarah Neel’s world. They’ll not only be essential parts of the series; they’ll be essential parts of the pitch. Think about how each of them sees the world in their own unique way. How does Sarah feel about each particular person. How do their world-views clash? How does Sarah NEED each of these people… and vice versa? How is Sarah vulnerable in a unique way around each of these characters? What would Sarah tell each person that she wouldn’t tell any of the others?

THE HOROSCOPES. While the horoscopes are indeed a strong hook, they also raise certain inescapable questions about how you (the storyteller) and Sarah view life, free will, destiny, etc. It’s not enough just to say that Sarah gets “weekly insight” from her horoscope. How does she view these weekly insights… and what does her feeling about the horoscopes say about her larger world-view? For instance, is Sarah a snarky non-believer in all things metaphysical… until the horoscopes start proving themselves true? Is she a dogmatic believer who blindly follows each horoscope’s advice… thus constantly finding herself in awkward and hilarious misadventures? Or is she a pragmatic skeptic who believes the horoscopes aren’t divine advice, but the brainchild of a kindred spirit… and if she can meet the man writing them, she’ll find her soulmate?

Whatever you decide, I think you’ll find that Sarah Neel’s attitude toward the horoscopes—and all the issues surrounding horoscopes: fate, pre-determination, karma, etc.—reveal a lot about who Sarah is and she sees the larger picture of her world.

WHERE DO YOU WANT SARAH TO END UP? What’s her personal/emotional journey? And while she may not (in fact, almost definitely WILL not, if your show makes it on the air) actually end up where you initially envision her, thinking about where you’d like her to go often helps illuminate the central questions and issues of her life. For instance, if you know you’d like her to go from homeless, jobless, and partner-less to having her own husband, a sexy husband, and an enormous mansion, you can start to realize the emotional and narrative steps it’ll take to get her there. But those steps and lessons are different than if you want Sarah to wind up remaining single (but realizing she can survive on her own), struggling in her career (yet enjoying the challenges), and in a tiny one-bedroom house (which she bought with her own meager savings). And THOSE emotional steps are different than if you want Sarah to start off with a successful career, a knock-out boyfriend, and a killer townhouse… then lose it all and wind up alone, penniless, and sleeping in a gutter.

When you’re actually pitching this to producers or executives, you probably won’t tell them where you think Sarah’s journey (and the series) will end—in fact, having your series pitch that choreographed can hurt your chances of selling it—but it WILL help you zero in on the core pillars of who Sarah is… and, therefore, how she sees the world around her.

Anyway, CC, I hope this is helpful feedback. As your other readers have clearly pointed out, you are off to a great start… you’ve created a terrific device to get in and out of your stories… you have the seeds of a vibrant character and a wonderful world… and I think you’re well on yor way to fleshing out a terrific hit series!

As for the rest of you (and CC, too)—thanks for all your feedback… and please CLICK HERE and offer some supportive criticism for our latest entry in the Script Notes Pitch Workshop: Wendy’s sitcom pitch for Three-Two-One.

Talk to you all soon!


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