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June 5, 2012

The Ultimate Guide to Pitch Writing

Array of spices for sale

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 Ticking Clock/Deadline:

Complete this formula: When CHARACTER discovers CATALYST, he/she must OVERCOME X before DEADLINE, or else STAKES. (via Naomi Hughes)

  • 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?

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25 Comments on "The Ultimate Guide to Pitch Writing"

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Carradee

Something I’ve found that helps is to write the query/cover blurb at or near the start of a novel-length story, to figure out my genre. (For example, I have one story that’s fantasy, but I had to pick if the story’s focus would be on the political, romance, or coming-of-age subplot.)

If I can’t figure out that blurb, I go back to the formulas like above, filling things in until the core of the story “clicks” for me. (I’m a character-oriented writer, so a lot of the theme and plot work is done by my subconscious. When I’ve checked that “Save the Cat!” formula, though, I seem to hit it.)

For short stories, though, I’ve found it helps a ton in writing them if I sit down and write who the protag and antag are, what their goals are, and how those goals conflict.

It’s gotten to the point that when I get stuck on something, I ask myself “Have I written the pitch and blurb?” If not, that’s my first step for overcoming writer’s block. 🙂

Amanda

Very timely post, Jami. I’ve done the one line pitch and the 25 word pitch, and now I’m gearing up for the three line pitch. The one and only time I tried to write a blurb/synopsis/pitch before I’d even started writing the story, I veered so far off course I just don’t do it anymore 🙂

Melinda Collins

Ah, another awesome pitch post! 🙂

I’ve only written a few pitches, and that’s been since the first of the year. With every one I’ve gone back to your original post from earlier this year. Looks like I’ll be adding this post to those going forward.

I tend to write long pitches then shorten them up with what’s more important (with the help of writerly friends 😉 ). Formulas seem to work best for me since I normally don’t know where to begin half the time. But thanks to posts like these that give BIG arrows on where to go for the ‘write’ advice, I should have this pitch writing thing down after a few more tries. 🙂

Thanks again, Jami! For everything!

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Oh how I missed your blog!!
Two months ago I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t visit, post or comment on social media of any kind until I finished my WIP.
I had to do it. I was spending more time surfing than writing.
I’m glad to say I FINISHED a few days ago. I wrote THE END and cheered!
So did my whole family:)
I’m glad I took the time off from social media, but I’m sure I’ve missed a lot in the 60 days I’ve been gone. I’ll have to scroll through your archives to catch up!
That being said, WOW, this is the absolute best post I’ve ever read on pitches.
You’re awesome!
Thanks for the links and your wisdom.
Glad to be reading you again,
Tamara

Buffy Armstrong

Hi Jami,

Great post! It makes pitch writing seem not so daunting. Who am I kidding? It will always be daunting, but this helps. A lot.

Lena

Hi Jami.

Very informative post. Would have loved to read an example pitch from you.

Lorna Collins

Excellent material. A few years ago we did a workshop on how to write your elevator pitch in 25 words or less. That seems nearly impossible for many people. And writing a brief synopsis seems difficult as well. But pitching our stories is a major part of what we have to do as authors.

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly
A week ago, I was at MISCON and attended a session on pitching. Really good. Of course they went over the basics. Don’t use a gimmick (slide your manuscript under the bathroom stall). * Submit it in the format the agent/publisher lists on their website. They’ve a system, so don’t mess with it. * Research. Find the right agent/publisher. See what they’re looking for. Spell their damn name right. * Have your manuscript finished and ready to go when you pitch. * Meeting them face-to-face gives you a much better chance. * Don’t burn bridges. If they turn you down, don’t respond unless they give you real feedback, and only thank them. The publishers and agents eat lunch together on a regular basis, and they’ll chat about pitch horror stories. You’ll be blacklisted. * Court them before you pitch. Introduce yourself, ask them if they’re having fun, tell them about your dog, whatever. Once they realize you’re a nice person, they may even ask if you’ve got something. * You’ve two floors in an elevator ride to git them hooked. About 25 words. Not enough time for character development, lengthy plotlines, etc. (mine: “A Seattle barista chick has problems with a Mesopotamian demon”, “The 1% become obsolete. Oh, and by 1% I mean the stock brokers, lawyers, and so on.”) * 80% of pitches don’t follow the basic rules listed above. Really, they spell the agents name wrong, use pink, scented paper, or slip the manuscript under the bathroom stall.… Read more »
Reetta Raitanen

Brilliant advice, Jami. Everyone will find a formula that works for them from the ones you shared. These pitch examples also help in the book planning stage if you write the pitch first. But like you said in the comments, the original pitch likely won’t be the same as your final one 😉

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