The Tyranny of the Elevator Pitch

Amazon offered me a free 30-day trial of Prime. Save a few bucks on shipping, and lots of free movies! What’s not to like?

Well, the movies, that’s what. I skimmed through a few dozen thumbnail descriptions and had a look at a couple of opening scenes without finding anything that even remotely appealed to me. I write prose fiction, and there are some basic differences between prose fiction and movie/TV/video scripts. Other things that I’m glimpsing are just as jarring.

The actors and actresses are all shockingly beautiful, and that’s an annoyance. In a typical romantic comedy, or for that matter an action thriller with young unattached protagonists with suitable gender identities, we can rely on leaning into what Erica Jong, in her novel Fear of Flying, called a zipless fuck. That is, the sex is going to follow very soon after the attractive young couple meet, it will be spontaneous because they just can’t resist one another, there will be no discussion of birth control or donning of a condom, and the sexual appetites of the participants will be, in the old-fashioned phrase, according to Hoyle, with no awkward discussion of odd turn-ons, turn-offs, or malformed body parts.

But that’s just Hollywood, it’s not a criticism that offers any penetrating insight into fiction technique.

The story premise in most movies is very simple, and the story is likely to be about one lead character (or about two, if they’re about to fall into bed). A movie is better compared, in its length, to a short story than to a novel, and the premise of a short story is best kept simple too, so it’s hard to fault movies on that basis, though we’re bound to concede that a movie makes a poor template for the prospective novelist.

One of the major problems with movie stories is that they rely too heavily on what we might call the Hollywood verities, or mainstream American culture. A movie that takes too muscular a jab at American culture or relies on exotic knowledge about Bali or Nairobi may show up at Sundance or Cannes, but it’s not likely to get funding in Hollywood. Hollywood executives want to make profits, and they do that by catering to a mainstream audience. They make some bedrock assumptions about what most people will and won’t want to watch, and those assumptions build a wall around the screenwriter.

The novelist may encounter something of the same mentality when pitching a manuscript to an agent, because the agent and publisher want to make money too, but on the whole I would guess that the novelist has a bit more leeway, because readers of novels are likely to be somewhat more thoughtful than the people who flock to the cineplex.

After digging our way through this chaff, we get to the wheat of what I wanted to mention. A screenplay has to convey most or all of the plot information in dialog. There it is. Voice-overs in which the lead character does a bit of narration are not unknown, but they always feel a bit artificial, a bit pasted on. And conveying complexity in dialog is just too darn difficult.

If the essence of the story can’t be conveyed entirely in dialog, the story is not going to work well as a script. This is the reason, by the way, why Rex Stout’s marvelous mystery novels about Nero Wolfe were never turned into a successful film or TV franchise, while Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books were a runaway hit. Gardner started his career before television became a prominent entertainment medium, but in essence he was always writing for TV. As a character, Perry Mason is a nonentity. He’s a strong, smart, courageous guy, and that’s all he is. That’s what a good script demands. The interplay between Wolfe and his amanuensis, Archie Goodwin, is complex, because both of the characters are complex and quirky, and because their back-and-forth is reported by Goodwin in a voice that’s wry and off-the-cuff. His narrative voice is what carries the stories, and you could never capture it on the screen.

Even in a story that has a more serious tone, the fiction author can supply essential information to the reader in a sentence or two, dropping an explanation into the middle of a scene that is mostly dialog. You can’t do that in a movie. This, over and above the limited length and the need to appeal to mainstream American movie audiences, is what keeps Hollywood screenplays simple. You just about can’t convey complex information — about a foreign culture, say, or a character’s childhood — in dialog. Simple information that anybody can understand instantly because it already conforms to their expectations, yes, certainly. Complex information that requires the audience to construct some sort of mental framework in which to store the information, no. Not in a movie or a TV show.

The elevator pitch, as every writer knows, is what you need to have on the tip of your tongue should you find yourself (at a convention) in an elevator with a high-powered agent or publisher. You have 30 seconds, no more, in which to pitch the other person on your unpublished manuscript. There’s no room in an elevator pitch for a complex story arc. If you can’t hit the agent’s hot buttons immediately, you won’t make the sale.

A good novel may very likely not have a story suitable for an elevator pitch. Sure, you can concoct something (“A young runaway floats down the Mississippi River on a raft with his friend, an escaped slave”), but the pitch will, of necessity, ignore most of what makes the book worth reading.

That’s why I write prose fiction, not screenplays.

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