A while back I outlined the general necessity of whittling down your plot to one sentence, one paragraph, and two paragraph pitches in order to give yourself a head start on the literally thousands of times you are going to need to summarize your work over the course of a book’s lifetime.
Today I want to zero in on the one sentence pitch for fiction and memoirs.
How to write a one sentence pitch
In previous iterations of this post, I have emphasized that a one sentence pitch is not something that is going to float or sink your book.
That’s now changing somewhat. In our current challenging marketplace, I’m increasingly seeing agents ask for loglines and emphasizing that they’re looking for high concept plots.
I still stand by the essence of past advice: Just because your book is not easily distilled down to one sentence doesn’t mean you’re dead in the water. And you don’t necessarily have to include a logline in a query letter. But the better your one sentence pitch, the more you’ll help your odds.
The one sentence pitch is the core of all the summarizing you’re going to do in the future. It’s the heart of your book, whittled down to one sentence. It’s what you build around when crafting longer pitches.
And there’s an art to it.
There are four basic elements in a good one sentence pitch:
- The opening conflict (or the Inciting Incident)
- The obstacle
- The quest
- The stakes
The quest can be a physical or interior journey, but it’s what happens to the character(s) between the moment when the plot begins and ends. The opening conflict is the first step in that quest. It’s how the journey begins. The obstacle is what stands in the way of that journey.
The resulting very basic pitch is this:
When INCITING INCIDENT happens to CHARACTER(s), they have OVERCOME OBSTACLE to COMPLETE QUEST in order to/or else STAKES.
I know Star Wars is a movie and not a novel, but everyone’s familiar with the story so it makes for an easy example. You can use the above framework thusly to arrive at a pretty solid one sentence pitch:
When young moisture farmboy Luke Skywalker encounters a mysterious droid who displays a message from a princess in danger, he must learn the mysterious ways of the Force and destroy a fearsome space station called the Death Star in order to save the Galactic Rebellion.
There are lots of different ways of structuring these basic elements, and you don’t necessarily need all four of them present if it makes the pitch unwieldy. But the more the better.
For instance, in the above pitch I included the ultimate quest but not the stakes. If I wanted, I could weave in the stakes instead of the quest like this:
When young moisture farmboy Luke Skywalker encounters a mysterious droid who displays a message from a princess in danger, he must learn the mysterious ways of the Force and destroy a fearsome space station called the Death Star or else evil lord Darth Vader will rule the galaxy forever.
The key to a good pitch: specificity
The important thing to remember is that a good pitch is a specific description of what actually happens in your novel.
It’s a one sentence description of the plot, not the theme.
So for instance, in my pitch about Star Wars, I’m not emphasizing that it’s a “coming of age” story, even though it is one. “Coming of age” is a really vague theme that can apply to thousands of stories so it ends up telling us extremely little about your novel. Those are completely wasted words in a one sentence pitch.
Instead, just demonstrate that it’s a coming of age story by focusing on the specifics. When I say Luke Skywalker is a young moisture farmboy who must learn and do some difficult-sounding things, it’s self-evident that it could be considered a coming of age story without using those literal words.
Push themes out of your mind. They’re just not helpful. They stop you from utilizing your story specifics and the resulting pitch inevitably ends up sounding generic.
A good pitch for the memoir Eat Pray Love is not “A recently divorced woman searches for love and happiness.” That sounds like, well, a million books published every year. A better pitch would be “A recently divorced woman travels to Italy for pleasure, India for spirituality, and Bali for balance, but she finds love instead.” That’s what actually happens.
Vagueness will kill a one sentence pitch. Every single word counts. Tell us what actually happens in your story, don’t zoom out to abstractions.
Once you’ve gotten the essence of your one sentence pitch down, try to add a dash of flavor. Flesh out your pitch with key details that give a sense of the character of your novel (funny, scary, intense, tragic, etc.), which goes a long way to giving a sense of your story’s unique personality.
I tried my best to live by the philosophy I have detailed above for my Jacob Wonderbar one sentence pitch:
Three kids trade a corndog for a spaceship, blast off into space, accidentally break the universe, and have to find their way back to their little street where all the houses look the same.
In addition to including as many elements of the four elements as I could, I didn’t just say “Three kids find a spaceship,” which is a true but flat/basic way of describing what happens. Instead, I utilize the (literally) flavorful plot point that they trade a corndog for the spaceship to give a more vivid sense that this is a wacky children’s novel.
Again: Every word counts. Keep trying to swap out what’s vague for what’s specific. Then try to swap out what’s specific for what’s flavorful.
Once you have your one sentence pitch down pat, you can build off it and add more detail for your longer pitches, and the rest of your descriptions will be gravy. On corndogs. Yum.
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Art: Paar im Gespräch by Simon Glücklich
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED May 20, 2010
Toni Ogden says
This is Gold! You’ve helped me so much. I’ve never seen a “how to” about pitches explained so succinctly. Thank you.
I’m seeing a lot of requests for the one sentence pitch in the Query Manager forms many agents are now using. So it is probably a really good idea to have one. Also, comps. And, who is the audience for this book?
Anne T Macdonald says
I agree that more and more agents are requesting a short pitch statement. Thanks…this is great info.