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Writing a Pitch Document and Character Tips from BoJack Horseman

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In your screenwriting career, there are all kinds of other writing besides screenplays that you’ll be asked to create. Treatments, synopses, one-pagers, pitch materials, and many other things (or essentially the same things called by different names). It can be confusing, overwhelming, even panic-inducing.

(I know this because I’ve gotten the panicked emails from writer clients: “They’re asking for a _______ ! What do they mean, and do you have any examples I can look at??!)

There’s plenty of instruction out there on how to write a great screenplay (I do my best, anyway 😉). But it’s harder to find good information on how to write all the other stuff (and what that other stuff even is).

I’ve covered the one-page synopsis for feature-length screenplays before, and I go over loglines extensively in my (free in most places!Logline Shortcuts book. Today I thought we’d talk about something for the TV writers.

If you’re already on the TV-writing path or you have series ideas you’d like to pitch one day, familiarizing yourself with some of the collateral now means you’ll have less of a scramble later, when the opportunity arises.

So let’s look at a real-life pitch document and break down some lessons we can take from it.

Ready? Download the BoJack Horseman pitch document here and let’s get started!

BoJack Horseman is an animated series (for adults) created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg. The show is designed by cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt. In the download you’ll see what the series is about, who the central characters are, and a bunch of potential episode ideas.

We can learn a lot just by seeing what this document includes and how it’s laid out. (And, worth noting: there isn’t really one standard way of writing a series pitch document, but the components included in this one are pretty universal.)

The main takeaways I want to focus on today come from the character descriptions. So here are 4 quick character description (and creation!) tips from BoJack Horseman.

1. Active character traits

The character descriptions in this document give us a great sense of who each character is, and if you look closely you’ll notice that they focus on active character traits. These traits manifest externally – we can see them, and they affect the interactions with other characters. If you think about it, this is pretty important for TV and movies.

Things like:

“Engages the world with a nihilistic prickliness…”
“The cheerful yin to BoJack’s depressed yang…” and even
“Desperation wrapped in a used suit…”

…are all evocative descriptions that are easy to activate on screen. We’ll be able to see these characteristic behaviors play out in scenes.

Sometimes newer writers inadvertently set themselves up for an uphill battle by missing this important tip. They’ll fill their character descriptions with traits that are internal or sort of theoretical, rather than practical. The BoJack character blurbs are great examples of practical descriptions that will translate well from idea (or pitch document) to finished product.

Those more internal or passive traits can help make great characters, too. Those traits can be layered in and subtextual. But active traits make scenes easier to write. (And, honestly, make your character descriptions come alive in the mind of whoever is reading your document.)

The description of central character BoJack himself makes sure to cover both, with plenty of active traits but also a clue that there’s something to discover beyond the surface: “someone with high impenetrable walls around a lonely and scared center.”

We know how BoJack is going to interact with the world and other characters, and we also know there are deeper, complex layers to be mined and revealed.

2. Where do episodes come from?

Somewhat related to the “active descriptions” tip, another thing you might notice is how the BoJack descriptions emphasize what the characters do. Their specific kinds of action. That gives us a nice, clear sense of what we can expect to see in episodes.

Questions you’ll hear a lot about series pitches: “What are we watching?” Or “Where do the episodes come from?”

Descriptions like this help answer that question:

“Spends his days lounging by his pool, watching reruns of his old show, venturing out into the world as little as possible…”
“Throws parties at the house and goads BoJack into going out and meeting people…”
“Constantly breaking up with BoJack because of his toxic attitude and inability to commit. However, she continues to work for him…” and
“Constantly getting suckered in by pyramid schemes and other get rich quick scams…”

And one vital thing that’s conveyed throughout these character descriptions really comes down to conflict. We know where episodes come from because we can see character goals or objectives, actions the characters will take in service of them, and we can see the counter-actions other characters will take. All of that generates episodes.

3. Variety and distinctiveness

In the BoJack descriptions you can also see how each character inhabits a distinct space in the series. Even if there’s some overlap – like how Todd Chavez and Mr. Peanutbutter are both upbeat, optimistic types – we still get a clear difference in the role they play in BoJack’s life and how he interacts with each of them.

So you can think about variety and distinctiveness in terms of individual characters, but also in terms of the dynamics between characters.

4. Something at stake

We’ve talked a lot about stakes before, but it’s one storytelling element that’s always worth revisiting. And you might be surprised to note how each character’s stakes are included in these brief descriptions.

But that’s because stakes are so important. Stakes motivate characters and put them in conflict with each other as each character tries to protect what’s important to them. And, as we already mentioned, conveying conflict is vital to a series pitch because it lets us know where episodes are going to come from.

Stakes create motivated characters. Very motivated characters will take action and fight hard for what’s important to them – meaning, they’ll engage in conflict. You need those characters in your series.

Episode ideas grow organically from character descriptions

The character description portion of this document is actually pretty short; most of the document showcases those characters through short pitches of possible episodes.

But it’s worth noting how those episode ideas grow organically from the character descriptions. Those active traits, relationship dynamics, conflicts, and stakes all show up – and not just show up, but generate the example episodes.

And – one last quick tip – keep in mind when you’re writing your own pitch document: the character descriptions focus on characters and suggest how their traits may manifest in episodes, but the description of specific plotlines is saved for the episode ideas section.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe