As we head into “writing conference” season, I thought I’d revisit my post about how to write a pitch. This post originally ran several months ago, but the information never gets old. (In fact, I’ve used this to help myself write pitches lately.)
Pitches fall into many categories, from loglines and elevator pitches to queries and pitch sessions. Essentially, they all perform the job of letting an agent or editor “speed date” through many submissions.
Pitches aren’t about selling a manuscript. Their sole purpose is to get to the second date—a request.
Basic Pitching Advice
Let’s first start with the basics. These tips can apply to all of our writing, but they’re especially important when we have only a sentence or paragraph to make an impression.
- Be specific: Details can make even the most formulaic story sound interesting. Avoid cliches by being less vague.
- Be brief: Whether we’re pitching a short story or a novel, we have to make every word count. (“bully” vs. “mean kid”)
- Be clear: Our audience hasn’t read the story. Convoluted sentences and subtext/allusion don’t work with speed-reading or listening.
- Be appropriate: The tone of the pitch should match the story and genre (comedies should have amusing pitches, etc.).
- Be narrow: Focus only on the main characters and the core conflict of the plot. This tip goes double for any pitch shorter than two paragraphs.
- Be visual: Instead of character names, create a picture with adjective noun combinations (tax-evading fireman, vegetarian vampire, etc.).
- Be active: Use active verbs to describe the plot conflict (“struggles” is better than “decides,” etc.). Themes and character arcs aren’t a story.
Core Elements of a Pitch
Stories have characters, goals, motivations, and conflicts. We see the same elements in pitches. All pitches, no matter their format, give us an idea about:
- the protagonist (character),
- the antagonist (person or situation to overcome) (goal),
- what’s at stake (motivation),
- and the obstacle (conflict).
In addition to making all that clear, pitches should also:
- focus on what changes (not what happens),
- show the story world (genre, romance potential, etc.),
- include a hook or unique element,
- and show emotional appeal (the “why should we care” factor).
Easy-peasy, right? *smile*
Methods for Writing a Pitch
There is no “perfect” pitch, so rather than trying to come up with something brilliant (that I can’t duplicate with my own stories to save my life), I’ll touch on the various pitch-building methods out there. Some stories might lend themselves to certain approaches more than others.
(Click on the links following some of the methods for more information about how to put a pitch together using that approach.)
- Focus on the Stakes:
Complete this formula: An ADJECTIVE NOUN (protagonist) must ACTIVE VERB the ANTAGONIST before BAD THING HAPPENS (which would prevent the protagonist from reaching his/her goal).
- Focus on the Goal:
Complete this formula: An ADJECTIVE NOUN (protagonist) wants GOAL WITH ACTIVE VERB because MOTIVATION (why the protagonist wants it), but he/she must first OBSTACLE/ANTAGONIST WITH ACTIVE VERB and STAKES WITH ACTIVE VERB.
- Focus on the Conflict:
Complete this formula: When OPENING CONFLICT happens to CHARACTER(s), they have to overcome OBSTACLE to GOAL. (via Nathan Bransford)
- Focus on the Obstacles:
Identify the protagonist and what they want and why. Describe what keeps him/her from getting it. Think along these lines: SOMEBODY wants SOMETHING and has a HARD TIME GETTING IT. (via Jane Friedman)
- Focus on the Twist:
Identify what’s unique about the protagonist and what connects that to the core conflict and the inciting incident or first turning point. That plot point is where the story changes to put the protagonist in a bind and is often a “gotcha.” (via Janice Hardy here and here)
- Focus on the Choice:
Identify the protagonist, the choice he/she faces (conflict), and the consequences of that choice (stakes). (via Query Shark)
- Focus on the Inciting Incident
Identify genre/setting, what makes protagonist unique, inciting incident, core conflict, and consequences of failure. Unlike the Focus on the Conflict method, this approach often only hints at the goal. (via Stina Lindenblatt)
- Focus on a Question:
Identify the Character, Situation (why the protagonist has to act), Objective (goal), Opponent (antagonist), Disaster (obstacle). Sentence one states the character, situation, and objective. Sentence two is a yes/no question asking if character can overcome the opponent and disaster. (via Camy Tang)
(Note that Camy mentions using the Black Moment for the Disaster, but many sources say to limit pitches to the first third or so of a story, so this might instead be the first turning point in the plot.)
- Focus on the Emotions:
Brainstorm all the themes, events, climaxes, and words that describe the story, main characters, struggles, and emotions. Pick the most important and compelling words or phrases and combine in the pitch. (via Nicola Morgan)
- Focus on the Character:
Identify the protagonist’s flaw, the job or situation that forces him/her to deal with that flaw, the action he/she takes to overcome the flaw, and what he/she wants (and is prevented from getting because of the flaw). Flaw + Situation + Action + Goal (via Cyndi Faria)
- Focus on the Theme:
Complete this formula: When a ADJECTIVE NOUN (protagonist) wants GOAL, he/she must learn THEME in order to FINAL OUTCOME.
Now What Do We Do with This Pitch
Many of those above formulas are geared toward one-sentence, logline-type pitches. But once we have that sentence, we can expand it to create a longer pitch, like for a query letter. Cyndi Faria has a great post about how to turn a one-sentence hook into a five-sentence paragraph.
Pitches aren’t just for those authors following the traditional publishing path. Yes, short pitches have the obvious application at pitch sessions and long pitches are essentially query letters, but their usage goes far beyond that.
Short pitches can also be used to answer the “What’s your book about?” question we get from everyone. They can introduce our story in sales copy (think bookmarks, advertisements, press releases, etc.).
Longer pitches can also be used for our online book descriptions at Amazon, or the back cover copy. They can introduce our story in requests for book reviews or cover blurbs.
Many published authors say they’ve had to answer the “What’s your book about?” question from far more people after they were published than they ever sent out queries or did formal pitches before they were published. Unless a story is shoved in a trunk, we will always need a way to describe it to others.
What are some ways you’ve used pitches? Have you started with a short pitch and expanded it? Or do you develop short and long pitches separately? Do you like using formulas?Pin It