Do not worry about spoilers in a query letter.
“But wait, I saw an agent say in an interview that they don’t want spoilers in a query letter! It’s right there on their website!”
Do not believe them. I repeat: Do not worry about spoilers in a query letter.
“But I want them to be surprised by my big twist!”
See above. Do not worry about spoilers in a query letter.
You don’t have to tell the agent how the novel ends, but when in doubt about whether to include a spoiler: Do not worry about spoilers in a query letter.
Do not worry about spoilers in a query letter
This is simultaneously one of my more controversial and most ironclad beliefs about queries. I really, really don’t think it pays to be coy and vague in a query.
Jacket copy? Sure. You don’t have to spoil the twists.
Synopsis? You’re supposed to spoil everything.
But it’s the query letter that gets people fretting about what to reveal.
Writers love their big twists and they want an agent to love them too. But here’s the thing: You need to get the agent to read your novel to begin with. And the best way to do that is to be specific in your query about what happens in your novel.
It’s much better to get the agent to say “Ooh, cool twist!” when they’re reading your query than it is to say “I don’t understand what that means entirely.”
Specificity vs. vagueness
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen this phrase in a query letter I’d be buying Twitter myself:
“A shocking secret from the past changes everything.”
What does that even mean?? It could literally be anything! It ends up meaning nothing.
And because the supposed shocking secret is vague, it’s inevitably confusing what the protagonist then has to do about it. The rest of the query letter invariably descends into a morass of people doing vague things for vague reasons with vague stakes.
Which of these is better: “A shocking secret from the past changes everything” or “Luke finds out his grandfather was a giant lobster, which explains his unusually strong hands and aversion to boiling water.”
This is why I just don’t believe agents who say they don’t want spoilers in a query letter. I can’t fathom that they would rather have a vague reference to some secret or shocking twist than to be able to actually understand what happens in the novel they’re considering representing.
Specificity pays. Vagueness kills.
Agents don’t read like normal readers
But even aside from getting past the query stage… agents and editors just don’t read like normal readers.
Anyone who spends quite a bit of time editing books is used to reading a book multiple times before it reaches publication, often through several drafts where there are major changes. In order to assess how well an author did with their revisions, you have to be able to put yourself in the shoes of a reader who is coming to the novel fresh. You get used to the mental jujitsu of asking yourself, “Would I be surprised here if I didn’t already know what was going to happen?”
Also, if you spend enough time around books: there is no such thing as a spoiler. I literally can’t remember the last time I’ve been surprised by a plot twist in a novel. I’ve gotten so attuned to the nuts and bolts of craft and storytelling that I can typically see them coming a mile away.
That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading novels with juicy twists! I’ve just ceased reading like a civilian.
So yeah. In queries? Spoil away.
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Art: Lobster and Two Shrimps by Utagawa Hiroshige
Neil Larkins says
Thanks, Nathan. This will help a lot of us. It will me when and if I ever decide to give querying a try again. (BTW, Luke must have been pretty shocked. I know I was… and lmao!)