I’m wrapping up the general submission how-to we’ve been doing the last week with pitches. A pitch is a little different from a hook, though they’re very similar. Pitches are designed to be spoken, hooks are written. But the same one can be used in both formats with a little tweaking. I’ve chatted about pitches before, so let’s cover some new ground today.
A pitch means several things (the terminology is used interchangeably), so let's clarify first. A one-line pitch is the elevator pitch. It's what you say when someone asks "what's your book about?" A hook is similar, usually a one-line description of the novel that captures the twist or reason that makes it unique or compelling. A pitch paragraph is the entire description of the novel (and the bulk of your query). A query hook is the same thing. Today. I'm talking about one-lines pitches. They can be either spoken or written.
Okies, now let’s look at what makes a good one-line pitch.
1. They’re short.
One sentence usually, because you have to be able to whip that sucker out every time someone asks, “So what’s your book about?” This holds true even after you publish (actually, even more so after you publish).
2. They convey the core conflict of the novel.
No matter how many other cool subplots and themes you have going, the core conflict is the big kahuna driving your story. Note the word “conflict.” Character arcs usually don’t play a strong role here, even though they are important to the book itself. Which sounds more compelling?
The story of a girl who travels a magical land with three new friends and discovers there’s no place like home. Or…Of course you do have to make sure your pitch accurately describes your novel. If your pitch is accurate but misleading, you’re going to disappoint your reader.
A farm girl must evade a vengeful witch to help her dysfunctional friends and find her own way home.
Or my personal favorite… Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again (quoted from John Scalzi’s “accurate but misleading” AMC column)
3. You can visualize the book from one sentence.
This is what they mean by “high concept.” You instantly get a sense of the entire book from that one sentence. While not everything is going to be high concept, the more evocative your pitch, the more likely you’ll have someone respond “ooo that sounds good.”
So, how do we do all this?
Identify who your protagonist is and what’s unique about them. Try listing three or four things you might use in your pitch. The most critical things someone would need to know about this person (or people if you have an ensemble cast).
Identify the most important things about your story. Make of list of three or four of these. They can be anything you want, not just plot or world details. Next, if you had only one of those details to tell someone, which would it be? Odds are this is your core conflict, but it could be details about the situation.
Identify the twist in your story. You have an interesting person with some interesting trait, added something interesting about the world they live in or the situation they find themselves in. Now list how these two things are connected. Your conflict will come into play here, and there’s a good chance it’ll be your inciting event. Why? Because inciting events are the setups for your novel, and that when the “line in the sand” is drawn. Character faces problem and decides to act. They cross that line and the story begins.
Putting it all together so it sounds interesting. Yep, this is the hard part, because “interesting” is so subjective. You can have all the right pieces in the right places and still not have a pitch that will make anyone want to read the book. Formulas will only get you so far here, because uninteresting details make for an uninteresting pitch.
One reader did ask me how to write a pitch that sounded like you and not like all the other writers out there. Truth is, one-line pitches do kinda all sound the same. While your query will capture your voice and style, the pitch itself follows a basic structure. It’s okay if it sounds like something you’d read in TV Guide. That means you’re probably doing it right.
How do you figure out what a good pitch sounds like?
You guys know how valuable I find examples. Believe it or not, a great place to read a lot of pitches is Netflix. On their site, you can hover over the movie and it brings up a fly out box with a one (sometimes two) line description about the movie. Some are pretty good and make you want to read more. Others are pretty bad and don’t grab you at all. You can also try the Internet Movie Database. Sadly, there is no similar site for books, which is a shame. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the pitch by the cover as you browse through online sites? Anyway…
Let’s look at a few random ones. While these are for movies, the same principles apply to books.
High school student Dave decides to transform himself into a masked crime fighter – and becomes an Internet star. (Kick Ass)When you break this down you get: High school student Dave [The protagonist] decides to transform himself into a masked crime fighter [What’s important about the story ]– and becomes an Internet star [The twist. The anonymous youth becomes famous.]
An elite assassin learns that someone from his past has put out a contract for his now-tranquil life. (Killers)Breaks down to: An elite assassin [The protagonist] learns that someone from his past has put out a contract for his now-tranquil life. [What’s important about the story]
See what’s missing? There’s no twist here. No sense of conflict. Where’s the “and then?” Having seen this movie (which was better than I expected) I know the twist is that he then has to explain it to his kinda-boring wife. The “never longed for excitement” wife now has to dive into the “way too much excitement” life of her assassin husband. Just as he was trying to get out of that life by marrying her. Granted, that’s a lot to sum up in a pitch, but it can be done. Remember, you don’t have to say all of that, just suggest it.
To save 10-year-old Lilith from abusive parents, a social worker brings the girl into her own home – only to learn Lilith isn’t what she seems. (Case 39)Break it down: To save 10-year-old Lilith from abusive parents, [What’s important to the story] a social worker [The protagonist] brings the girl into her own home [A second detail]– only to learn Lilith isn’t what she seems.[The twist. I know nothing about this movie besides this pitch, but I can already see the girl is the trouble here, not the parents. Odds are the parents were fighting for their lives in some way.]
This one has all the right pieces, and a little extra to show that you do have some flexibility with these. There’s conflict and a suggestion of how the movie is going to unfold.
However, there’s nothing unique enough here to make me want to see it. The plot is pretty common, and “isn’t what she seems” can be any number of things. This is a great example of a pitch that uses a cliché that doesn’t actually help it any. It sounds cool as a glance, but the more you think about it, the more you realize how little it says about the story.
Another one along these lines…
Slacker Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski gets involved in a gargantuan mess of events when he’s mistaken for another man named Lebowski. (The Big Lebowski)Break it down: Slacker Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski [The protagonist] gets involved in a gargantuan mess of events when he’s mistaken for another man named Lebowski. [What’s important to the story]
And again we’re missing the twist. See how flat a story can be without it? Also note that this is basically “a guy gets into trouble due to a mistaken identity.” Do you have any idea what the story is past that? Is it a comedy? A drama? Is this a series of hilarious shenanigans or a gripping drama? No clue based on this. A good pitch tells you enough to get the whole book.
Let’s look at one I think works fairly well.
A meek bank teller discovers a magical ancient mask that unleashes his deepest desires -- and gives him superhuman abilities to act on them. (The Mask)Break it down: A meek bank teller [The protagonist] discovers a magical ancient mask that unleashes his deepest desires [What’s important to the story] --- and gives him superhuman abilities to act on them. [The twist]
What I like about this pitch is the word choice. “Meek” conjures up a particular type of person. “Unleashes” suggests setting something free. Unleashing the deepest desires of a meek person has a lot of potential for conflict. Pair that with the twist – superhuman abilities – and you suddenly see where this can go. Meek goes wild. It accomplishes a lot by the words chosen.
Do you need a pitch line in your query?
There’s a lot of advice out there that says open your query with your pitch. Personally, I think a pitch in a query is like introducing yourself after you’ve been introduced. A query and a pitch do the same thing, just in different formats. Save the space for a great few paragraphs that describe your novel. The one-line pitch is more for those elevator encounters and when folks ask you what the book is about. Opinions are mixed here, so if you want to open your query with your pitch line, feel free. But you don’t have to. There’s just as much advice about jumping right to the hook as starting with a pitch.
Whatever you choose, being able to describe your novel in one sentence is a skill you’ll find valuable the entire life of the book.
Do you have a pitch line? What do you find most frustrating about them? Want feedback on yours? Feel free to share.