by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
A listener will usually know in the first ten seconds of hearing about your story if their curiosity has been piqued or not. Every word should be chosen wisely when pitching your idea. However, no other part of the pitch has as much potential to invite the listener in as the action of the protagonist. What are we going to see the character actually do in the story?
It can be highly tempting to use verbs that describe an inner process as opposed to ones that speak to the visuals we will see on screen. Any time we mention that a protagonist realizes, learns, or recognizes something in our pitch, a red flag should go up. These are all actions that happen inside the character’s psyche and must be accompanied by external actions if we are to know these processes have taken place.
Here are eight power verbs that will strengthen your story pitch or logline and leave little doubt in the mind of your audience that the character is actually going to accomplish something over the course of the narrative.
Forcing a protagonist to choose between two equally compelling or less than compelling options is a sure way to bring significant conflict to that character’s world. These sorts of decisions are universal and we all relate to being in such situations. In Thank You For Your Service, war veteran Adam Schumann must decide between getting the help he needs immediately or instead letting a friend, who might need it more, take his place.
A politician named Sam Rayburn once said that any jackass can kick down a barn but it takes a carpenter to build one. When a protagonist is tasked with building something, it speaks to the quality of who she or he is. It tells us that that character comes with qualifications and that other characters must trust that person. Ray Kinsella is tasked with building a baseball stadium in Field of Dreams. The goal of creating this magical space is enough to powerfully drive the entire journey of all the characters involved.
One of the oldest actions to occur in storytelling happens when one group of characters tries to overcome another. This archetypal pattern is the basis for most military and sports films, as well as stories that involve one class of people attempting to win something from another. Kingsman: The Golden Circle has the Kingsman joining forces with an allied spy organization in the United States to conquer a common enemy.
Another ancient model for crafting a narrative is based around an individual or group that must escape another. Sometimes the scale of the escape is large, as with soldiers who must make it to the border of a dangerous territory. Other times, the scale is personal, as with a lover who must escape their abusive partner. In Panic Room, Meg Altman and her daughter must escape from their own home when three men break in looking for a missing fortune.
As with an escape, the scale of a capture can vary. A protagonist may be tasked with capturing a villain on the run or simply the heart of another character. When what must be captured is an object, it often must be found first – leaving the capture to occur in the third act. When the capture involves a person, the goal may be accomplished sooner, allowing us to observe the ramifications of the capture afterwards. In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Captain Jack Sparrow must capture the trident of Poseidon while on the run from the ghost of another pirate.
Many of the most impactful stories are not about a protagonist accomplishing something at all, but rather stopping another character from accomplishing something. These types of narratives are most effective when a deadline is in play, motivating the protagonist to prevent the antagonist’s actions before they cause damage to innocent characters. Shameless revolves around protagonist Fiona Gallagher trying to prevent the destruction of her family from forces both within and outside the house.
While the entire mystery genre is built around this action, what must be solved varies from story to story and even expands beyond the realms of this genre. Sometimes what must be examined is the past in order to make sense of the present. Other times, the plot of a story involves getting to the bottom of who another character is. In Mindhunter, two FBI agents attempt to solve the mystery behind what causes serial killers to commit their monstrous acts.
While often a protagonist may be tasked with saving a tradition, a building, or a relationship, audiences can rarely resist a narrative that involves saving another person – even if that person is the protagonist herself. The Mountain Between Us takes a unique spin on this classic story by combining two characters into a situation where they must save themselves and each other, as their environment becomes more treacherous and their relationship grows.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.