How to Pitch Stories for Star Trek
When I was on the writing staff of Star Trek: Voyager, one of my duties was to take pitches every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. So, how did writers get in to pitch for Voyager?
At the time, all the Trek shows had an open script submission policy, which meant anyone could send in an episode they wrote, whether they were represented by an agent or not. Someone on the Voyager staff would read all these scripts, looking for two things: a good story idea or a good writer. If they liked the story idea, the producers might buy it. If the story didn’t work but the writing was good, they’d call the writer in to pitch other ideas.
However, many non-professional writers had no experience in pitching. They consequently made some basic mistakes.
One of the most common mistakes was going into too much detail about the story. As someone on the receiving end, I always appreciated a short initial pitch, consisting of a log line and a few more sentences giving me the concept of the story and which characters it featured. If I was intrigued by that, I could always ask the writer for more detail. The advice I always give new writers about pitching is to pretend you saw the episode last night and are telling a friend about it today. Hit the highlights; what makes this episode interesting?
One reason for passing on a pitch was that the story just didn’t feel like our show. And, yes, I know how annoyingly vague that sounds. But if the story was too dark or violent, or was about an alien society more than our characters, it would get a pass. Most importantly, a story pitch couldn’t involve our characters behaving in ways they simply wouldn’t. Writers needed to do their research. We didn’t expect them to have seen every episode of Voyager, but to have watched enough to get a feel for the characters and overall tone of the show.
There was also budget to consider. A story that took place in many different locations on an alien planet was simply too expensive to produce. Big space battles also had a hefty price tag. The most prized type of story was an interesting “bottle show;” that is, one which could be shot on our standing sets, without too many guest stars or special effects. Those episodes were money savers.
Another common reason to pass on a story was if it was too close to a story we already had in development. This is the “best” reason you can hear for someone passing on your idea. It means you’re in sync with the producers and on the right track.
Pitching to any show is not for the thin-skinned. No matter how much experience you have, most of your stories won’t sell. Most of the ideas the Voyager staff writers pitched to each other got shot down. It’s a mark of professionalism to gracefully take “no” for an answer. One of the worst things writers did in pitch meetings was to argue with me about an idea I had passed on, hoping to convince me to change my mind. This never works, and will hurt your chances of ever being invited in to pitch again. Before Voyager, I pitched to Deep Space Nine four times before selling them a story. Being invited back means the producers are impressed with you and want to hear more of your ideas.
If the person you’re pitching to starts to play around with your story idea and posing “what ifs,” don’t fight it. This is a very good sign. It means the producer sees potential in your idea and wants to help shape it to fit into the show. I heard pitches from some writers who refused to consider changing a thing about their idea. If the basic concept was strong enough, the story might still sell, but the producers will be wary of working with that writer again. In addition to selling your ideas, the purpose of a pitch meeting is to establish relationships with the people you’re pitching to, so that they’ll look forward to seeing you again.
So, what if the producers loved your idea? Most often, we would buy the basic concept from the writer, then write the script ourselves. It’s just faster that way and television shows have unrelenting deadlines. But, if the writer had a great writing sample, and had consistently pitched good ideas, they might get the opportunity to write a first draft of the script. Which would then be polished up by the staff. Again – deadlines. And once the staff bought a story, they could basically do whatever they wanted with it, such as seeding small ideas from the story over the course of a season, rather than using the full story in its originally intended state.
Unfortunately, the current Trek shows don’t read scripts or take pitches from non-professional writers anymore. Neither does any other show on television. You can blame that on lawsuits. Remember when I said we’d sometimes pass on pitches because they were too close to a story we already had in development? When the similar episode aired, a few writers decided that Trek producers had stolen their idea and sued the studio. The truth was, the producers went out of their way to avoid even the appearance of stealing ideas. If a pitch was like a story we already had, we would sometimes buy it just to head off misunderstandings. Professional writers know that similar story ideas can occur to different people without either one of them taking it from the other. Especially when they’re working from the same source material.
It really is a shame that the door has closed on script submissions, since many Trek writers got their start that way. Now, they only take pitches from writers who come to them through an agent. Still, the best way to get your foot in the door is to write a great sample script, then get it into the hands of as many people as you can.
A staff writer on Star Trek: Voyager, Lisa Klink worked on that series for three years. She has also worked on several other shows, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Roswell, and Pandora. Lisa has written or co-written four novels, as well as short stories, graphic novels and screenplays.