Being able to pitch your story within a couple of sentences is vital in the book industry with the aptly named Elevator Pitch coming from the idea of being able to pitch your idea should you ever find yourself in a lift with an agent or editor. Similar things to the pitch are loglines and hooks but basically what all of these do is make the hearer want to know more. So a pitch is a sales tool and is needed because your story will have to be sold (quickly) numerous times: to an agent, to an editor, to the acquisitions team, to the booksellers, to librarians, to the parents and, in the case of children’s books, to the child, so if you can crack it early on, it will make everyone’s lives easier and help give your story the best shot at going somewhere.
That said, defining a pitch and what makes it good or bad is tricky and is, as with the stories themselves, subjective. It is essentially the heart of the story, the idea at the centre of it. Blake Snyder in Save the Cat talks about testing his pitch out on random people he meets in the street and while this is certainly one way of strength testing your idea, you can also try the fractionally less scary route of trying it out on friends and family, or local friendly writing group.
If you’re finding it hard to write your pitch, it maybe there is some problem with your manuscript, so here are some questions that might help you discover the essence of your story:
- What is the plot line, the tangible thing that’s happening in your protagonist’s life?
- Where is it set?
- What is the premise?
- What does your character want?
- Is there an emotional/internal journey that’s happening alongside the plot?
- What are the characteristics of your main character?
- What is their goal and motivation?
- Where does the conflict come? Who or what is in opposition to the goal of the main character?
- Is there a theme?
- Could your title be stronger?
Be specific, as that’s what creates the interest.
In the screenwriting world the pitch is often written before the script, and the book world looks to be going in a similar direction as market forces squeeze – I’ve even spotted one small press asking writers to submit their title, pitch and target market before sending any of their manuscript. So if you are in the position of starting out on a new project, perhaps put some thought into the pitch first. Can you make your story stronger by adding conflict from the protagonist’s character, or goals, or situation? Perhaps test a few out and see which gets the best reaction. Listen and watch how people react, then tweak and try again. Try writing a pitch for a few of your favourite books or films. Read examples online. Immerse yourself in it till you’re pitching teatime to your kids.
It isn’t easy and sometimes you (as the writer) are too close to the story. Ask your beta-readers if they can summarise it, brainstorm ideas, write all the rubbish ones down, imagine someone asking ‘so what’s it about?’ and then, once you’ve got it, all you have to do is write a killer story to match!
I am indebted to the SCBWI conference in November 2017 as they ran several sessions on pitching which hammered home how important and tricky a pitch is, and yet how sweet it is when one works.