The Ultimate Guide to Pitch Writing
Several years ago, I wrote about various methods for pitching our story. At the time, I was thinking mostly about traditional publishing, so my perspective was someone looking to pitch to agents, including queries and “elevator pitches” (a story pitch short enough to give during an elevator ride at a writers’ conference).
However, story pitches are used for self-published books as well as traditionally published books. No matter how we publish, we need to introduce our story to potential readers and interest them enough to want to look closer.
We might use a short elevator-style pitch sentence to start off our book description and back-cover blurb. Or we might tighten and punch it up to come up with a front-cover tagline. We might also use our pitch at book signings, when potential readers wonder what we have to offer.
I’m updating that previous post today with this fuller perspective of including self-publishing, especially as the information on how to pitch our stories never gets old. (In fact, I’ve since used the previous version of this post to help myself write pitches. *smile*)
Once we’re ready to work on our story’s pitch, hopefully this post will help us get started…
What Is a Pitch?
The term “story pitch” can apply to several different situations. Off the top of my head, I can think of the following (roughly in order from shortest to longest):
- Tagline: Punchy, short line for book’s front cover
- Elevator Pitch: Intriguing description short enough to give verbally (1-2 sentences)
- Pitch Session: In-person “speed dating” style sales pitch given to agents and editors (often somewhere between an elevator pitch and a back-cover blurb to allow time for follow-up questions)
- Back-Cover Blurb: Inviting description short enough to fit on the back of a book (around 100-150 words)
- Query Letter: Similiar to the back-cover blurb, but sent to agents and editors (around 150-300 words, including our author bio information)
- Online Book Description: Depending on the retailer site limitations, this is usually the back-cover blurb with extra sales information
What about Loglines?
One other word that’s often included with those applications above is logline. I didn’t include logline in the list because the word usually refers to a dry 1-2 sentence description of our story’s action that we might use to keep the gist of our story in mind during drafting and revisions.
In other words, it’s not usually a “sales” technique unless the word is being used interchangeably with tagline or elevator pitch. For all those other applications above, the pitch is meant to interest potential readers, whether that means getting an agent to request more from us or getting a customer to click “Buy Now.”
However, many of the techniques below will result in a dry sentence like a logline, especially at first. Don’t worry. We need to start somewhere and coming up with pitches by following several of these formulas will help us identify our story’s different elements. Then we’ll talk about improving our pitch further below. *smile*
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: Back-cover blurbs and book descriptions usually include the main character(s) first name but shorter pitches often don’t. 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’s no “perfect” pitch, so rather than trying to come up with something one-size-fits-all, I’ll touch on the various pitch-building methods out there. Some stories might lend themselves to certain approaches more than others.
Remember, our point here is to try to build pitches using as many of these techniques as we can. The variety will help us see which elements stand out and make our story sound unique and interesting. Then with the strongest elements, we can reorganize those ideas and add voice to create a sales-style pitch.
(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.
Making Our Description More Interesting
As I mentioned above, 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.
Often the first step to coming up with a sales-type pitch is figuring out the essence of our story and seeing which elements are most interesting (like which of those “Focus” approaches bring out our story’s unique aspects). We can take the best elements of our story that we discover with a boring logline and punch it up with word choice, sentence structure, and voice to create something more intriguing.
Julie Glover guest posted here a couple of years ago with her advice on how to take our blurbs and queries from good to great. She’s phenomenal (and helps me with all of my book descriptions!) and shares her tips on tightening, using power words, and including voice.
As Julie mentions, we want to get feedback on our pitches because we know our story too well. Just last month, Jefferson Smith shared a resource on how we can get feedback on our tagline and blurb.
Now What Do We Do with This Pitch?
In addition to the obvious applications above, pitches can also be used for:
- Creating promotional copy (bookmarks, ads, press releases, etc.)
- Structuring book trailers
- Requesting book reviews or cover blurbs
- Setting up library coding
- Etc., etc.
Once we have various-length pitches, we’ll find countless uses for them. 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.
Believe me, I know how frustrating it can be to compress our story down to a few paragraphs, or even a sentence, and still make it interesting. But unless a story is shoved in a trunk, we’ll always need a way to describe it to others. *smile*
What types of pitches do you enjoy writing the most? 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 formulas help you get started?Pin It
Timely post. Attending a new writer meet up on Sunday about novels and undoubtedly will pitch my manuscript at some point.
So once again you have given me great data when needed. Thank you Jami, the greatest humanoid, carbon-based life-form, writing being in three parsecs!
I have been bingeing on veggies, push-ups, & Dark Matter sifi lately. Can you tell?
Jami, You really out-did yourself on this post, it rocks! So many yummy nuggets of writerly wisdom. I can’t put it down. Thanks!
What I find the most difficult is talking about my current work, when asked. After I write and revise and polish, I take the time to work out a tagline and blurb. But then people inevitably ask, “What are you working on now?” And my reply usually sounds like, “book, good, pages” or something similar. What I am realizing is that maybe I should figure out a line or two for my current work, and this post will really help with that! I particularly appreciate the array of areas to focus, as I think at this point focusing on theme, character, or question, is what I need to do. Most information about creating pitches doesn’t give us so many options and ideas. Thank you!
This is the hardest part for me – condensing the story into a couple of lines AND making them interesting! I always dread the task. Thanks for a very helpful post!
Dani, you’re right, it IS hard to write an interesting pitch. But it is definitely worth the effort. I’ve found that taking the time to condense my story idea is a great way to overcome writer’s block.
And pitch to the right audience!
[…] The Ultimate Guide to Pitch Writing by Jami Gold. Just in time! The edit for “Alien Redemption” is done so I need to start shopping it. ? […]
I have a hard time writing these. Thanks for the help.
You may have just saved my backside, as I am not good at writing any sort of pitches (I’m in the process of writing a description for something online at the moment, and it is harder than I thought). This is going to be really helpful, thank you very much for this pose Jami!
Wow, this is a post that should get bookmarked by many writers! Lots of great advice and links. Thanks so much, Jami.
(Also, thanks for the compliment and for including my post in the list.)