Crafting a 25-Word Pitch

Last month, literary agent Rachelle Gardner posted on her Facebook page, “In 20 words or less, tell me about the book you’re writing right now.” Within a day, 87 people commented. And like a person driving by the site of a natural disaster where the earth had swallowed half a house, I couldn’t look away. I read them. All 87.

writing an elevator speechAnd I saw some great pitches for books I’d read. A couple even made me say, “I wish I’d thought of that.”

I also saw the same mistakes repeated over . . . and over . . . and over:

  • too vague to be interesting or clear
  • incomplete sentences to fit into the word limit
  • use of character names

Very few knew how to do a 25-word pitch (or in that case, a 20-word pitch) correctly, but if you want to sell your book, you need to write one. So here we go . . .

Generalize About Your Main Character

Your pitch is the one place where you have permission to use stereotypes. Because of the limited word counts, stereotypes help you get across a lot of information quickly.

And that’s also the exact reason you don’t want to use your character’s name. It tells the reader nothing. They have no reason to care about or be interested in a name. Phil Connors could be anyone. A cynical weather man, however, lets us know right away what we’re dealing with.

If your main character doesn’t appear in your pitch, do not pass go and do not collect $200.

What’s the Conflict?

The second key element in your 25-word pitch needs to be the conflict, because without conflict, you don’t have a story. Even literary novels require conflict.

A cynical weather man must live the same day over and over again . . .

I don’t know about you, but living the same day again and again, no matter how good that day, would soon become boring and feel futile to me, and I’d try everything possible to escape.

Your story is likely to have subplots, which means sub-conflicts. Choose the main driving force behind the story. For example, if you’re writing a romantic suspense, your main conflict is going to be whatever threatens the main character’s life, not whether or not she gets the guy.

Another common mistake is to try to include your character’s emotional journey or the theme of your novel in your pitch rather than describing the conflict. Your character should grow and change over the course of your novel, but your plot is the challenge she faces. And theme arises out of the story. It isn’t the story. (Check out Rachelle Gardner’s post on the necessity of conflict when pitching a novel.)

Add the “Or Else” or “So What” Factor

What does your main character stand to lose? Why should they care what happens? If they don’t care, if they don’t have any reason to act, then the reader won’t care.

A cynical weather man must live the same day over and over again until he learns what real love is (Groundhog Day). The consequences are two-fold. Not only would he be trapped in the time warp forever, but he’d also never know love.

A cable repair man must figure out the secret to defeating the invading aliens’ ships before they kill him and his family (Independence Day).

Sometimes the consequences are implied within the conflict. If they are, then you don’t need to repeat them.

What Will You Use It For?

If you were MacGyver, this 25-word pitch would be your Swiss Army knife. You’ll use it at conferences, in query letters, and when creating promotional material for your book after it’s published. You’ll be ready to wow whoever you need to in less than 15 seconds. You’ll also use it to keep you on track while writing the book.

Examples of One Sentence Pitches

I love examples, and find I learn a lot from them, so here are some links to when Randy Ingermanson did a series on his blog analyzing one sentence pitches sent in by aspiring authors.

Characters in a One Sentence Pitch

An Excellent One Sentence Pitch and Why It Worked

Are you brave enough to give it a try and share your 25-word pitch with us? If you already have a published novel out, we’d love to hear yours as well.

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Advertisements

55 comments on “Crafting a 25-Word Pitch

  1. Ok, I’ll try it:

    A divorced woman looking for peace and escape from her stalker ex-husband moves to Australia, only to be followed by her ex and a new, more dangerous threat.

    @V.V. Denman: I want to read your book!

    • There’s not much I can say about yours Joanna, but here are the little tweaks that came to mind 🙂

      A divorced woman looking for peace moves to Australia to escape her (insert term to tell us why they divorced–e.g.violent, cheating, jealous, alcoholic) ex-husband, only to be stalked by her ex and a new, more dangerous threat.

      Basically I just rearranged a few of the words, but I think this gives us a hint of the catalyst for why they divorced and why she feels the need to move to a whole new continent to escape him and also allows you to use the strong verb “stalked” in place of “followed.”

      Marcy

  2. Marcy will chime in here I’m sure – but @V.V. I think you could really crank up the tension in your pitch. A social outcast falls in love with the preacher’s son – is he invested in her? What about: “A (add adjective – shy, boisterous, goth-loving, etc.)teenage girl shunned by the church falls in love with the (add adjective – handsome, clean-cut, etc.) preacher’s son, and he risks (everything, – what?) to be with her.
    idk – just a suggestion – but there’s lots of great tension built in there. Good stuff.
    Lisa

  3. An insecure teenage girl shunned by the church falls in love with the kind-hearted preacher’s son who risks his reputation and the stability of the local congregation to be with her.

    (I’m in a muddle now. My little brain is fried.)

    • Lisa gave pretty much the same tips I was going to on your first attempt.

      You’ve made this second version much stronger. To tighten it up just a little bit, I’d cut “local.”

      I don’t know the whole storyline, so this might not reflect it, but what about changing “stability” to “unity” as well. Using “unity” implies that the preacher’s son’s actions could lead to the church splitting (big stakes), whereas “stability” implies discord within the congregation but not necessarily the church breaking apart.

      Marcy

  4. Gulp! Here’s my 19 word pitch.

    Two cultures, two teens, one volleyball tournament—and a twist of fate tangle both rivals in its complicated web.

    But I actually wrote 53 words. I cheated.

    An angry, spiteful, young Filipina lives a bleak existence in a squatters’ village in the Philippines. Ten minutes away, a Canadian girl with control issues leads a sheltered life at a missionary boarding school. Two cultures, two teens, one volleyball tournament—and a twist of fate tangle both rivals in its complicated web.

    Thanks for the challenge, Marcy.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the challenge 🙂

      I loved the characterization in your 53-word version, and I think you can bring that into your 25-word pitch. So I’d suggest starting your one sentence version with something like . . .

      “When a spiteful young Filipina from the squatter’s village meets a control-freak missionary kid…” (14 words)

      Then tell us something specific about the complicated web or the twist of fate. What challenge are they going to have to face together, and what do they stand to lose if they can’t manage to cooperate?

      Does that help?

      Marcy

  5. Saw your post on #MyWANA twitter. This was so helpful. There’s a blog featuring a twitter-length pitch contest, and like you, I read all 80+ pitch submissions. Definitely not easy, but I learned a lot just from reading them. It’s great practice.

  6. I’ll throw my hat into the ring. 🙂 Here’s my pitch:

    After a trick goes wrong, a mediocre magician must track down the illusion’s creator and battle a ghost cult if he’s to save his assistant’s life.

    • I like it! I think I’d change the word mediocre – because that’s pretty subjective. Replace it with something that better describes his skill (or lack of) like magician in training, or newby … idk. I’d read it 🙂
      Lisa

      • I hate to be a trouble-maker and disagree with Lisa, but I actually like the word “mediocre.” I think it gets across his skill level rather than his level of training (which newby or magician-in-training would imply). While I’ll agree that mediocre is subjective in the sense that “what one person considers mediocre another would consider great,” we all know objectively what’s meant when someone is called “mediocre.” We know that means that by some standard they’re okay but they’re not really talented.

        And I’d read it too 🙂

        Marcy

      • Thank you both for your input! You’ve given me much to ponder and I’m glad it was interesting enough that you’d read it. 🙂

  7. Wow. That was a test. Here’s what I came up with–but I’m sure it could be improve:

    An unskilled clairvoyant must solve a ghost’s murder or face enslavement by a greedy psychopath who plans to use her clairvoyance for monetary gain.

    I have a question. What’s the difference between this pitch and the three line pitch?

    Thanks so much for sharing the useful information. 😀

    • I suppose you’re looking for a better answer than “it’s longer” 😉

      A couple of unique points are that you’ll usually give your character’s name (while still including the same description you used in your one-sentence pitch) and you’ll give away more about the ending.

      There’s a lot of different opinions around the three sentence pitch (or paragraph pitch) and how it should be structured. A couple of ways . . .
      –the story setup (inciting incident) is one sentence, the major disasters are one to three sentences, and the ending is one sentence.
      –character gets one sentence, conflict and “or else” gets one sentence, how your book is unique (or who will read it) gets one sentence

      Since I can’t really cover everything here, I’ve jotted your question down so that I can do another post on it in the future.

      Marcy

      • I’ll really look forward to the blog entry on pitches, and I appreciate your doing one. I’ve subbed to this blog, so, hopefully, I won’t miss it. 😀

  8. A very interesting post! I found it very helpful in crafting my own pitch. Here it is:

    A recently orphaned teenager must find his kidnapped brother before they take his life – and give him a darker path to follow instead.

    • One thing you need to watch is pronoun confusion. Whose life are they taking–the teenager’s or his brother’s? Who will be given the darker path to follow?

      I’d also like to know a little more about the “they”? It might help to replace “they” with a clearer noun (e.g. vampires, gangsters). By giving the reader/agent that extra detail, you’ll help them slot your work into a particular genre.

      Marcy

  9. Amy – not being familiar with the story – I think, since you have space, I’d expand on how the ghost kills people – because that statement isn’t self-explanatory to me IMHO. And maybe flesh out in a couple or three words why the psychic can’t just move to another city or something – what’s compelling him to stay and sort things out with this ghost.
    Lisa

  10. Here’s another stab. I could only whittle it down to 26 words.

    A typhoon wreaks havoc on a volleyball tournament, and unless a control-freak missionary kid steps in, her spiteful rival from the Filipino squatters’ village is doomed.

    Or… at 27 words

    When a typhoon wreaks havoc on a volleyball tournament, a spiteful teen from a Filipino squatter’s village is doomed, unless a rival control-freak missionary kid steps in.

    • Huge improvement! You’ve got the hang of it now.

      I liked the second one best. Here are a couple more little suggestions for polishing the new version.

      (1) Can you be more specific about how she’ll be doomed? For example, a spiteful Filipino teen from the squatter’s village will drown/bleed to death/run out of oxygen unless . . .

      (2) How does the rival step in? What might stop her from stepping in? If someone else’s life is at stake, most of us wouldn’t hesitate to help unless a major obstacle stood in the way (e.g. it would put our own life at stake, we had to conquer a paralyzing fear).

      So, just an example . . .

      When a typhoon wreaks havoc on a volleyball tournament, a spiteful Filipino teen from the squatter’s village will drown unless her longtime rival can overcome her fear of water.

      Making these changes will likely put you over the word limit, but unless you’re entering this in a contest of some sort (or responding to an agent’s question on Facebook/Twitter), it’s better to go over by a couple words and create a spectacular pitch than to force it to be 25 words rather than 28.

      Marcy

  11. Okay, I’ll play. 🙂 I’m another one with a hugely complex story that crosses genres, so it’s hard to know which aspects to focus on.

    A stay-at-home mom is dragged into a secret society of immortal guardians and must defy the power-hungry traitor in their midst.

    • First of all, I just want to say how much I enjoy your blog, Jami 🙂

      For your pitch, I’d like to know what’s at stake. What will be lost if she doesn’t stand up to the traitor?

      Marcy

      • Ah! Good point!

        A stay-at-home mom is dragged into a secret society of immortal guardians and must defy the power-hungry traitor in their midst to return to her family.

        Oops. That might be 26 words. 🙂 And thanks for the kind words about my blog!

  12. Alright, fair’s fair. Here’s ours. We’re not completely happy with it, but it does everything Marcy’s post says it should (and we had a bestselling author help us write it) – but still:

    An Amazon princess must produce a daughter with the heir to Scythia’s throne who’s been ordered to produce a son.

    Lisa

    • We might play around with it and add a few more words to show the consequences of either of them not bringing home the baby. I think the stakes could be made more clear.

      Marcy

    • Yes, the stakes could be more clear. You have “must produce” and “ordered” to show the conflict, but not the problems if either fails.

      Also – and this could just be me – but I had to reread it a second time to understand who the “who’s” in “who’s been ordered” referred to. Would it read cleaner with a comma before the “who’s”?

    • Lisa here: I would articulate the conflict differently – be more specific. What’s at stake, and what compels her to sort it out – ie/ unable to just leave or avoid the problem.

  13. Ok, late to the party, but I’ve been trying to boil it down… I’m a bit wordy 🙂 I’d love feedback or suggestions… There are two leads and I’m leaving one out in the description, but in order to get it in one sentence I had to.

    A young man must find and kill his father to stop the Revenant he created from becoming powerful enough to rule the world.

    • Hi Antonio,

      That’s okay. We’re glad to have you stop by 🙂

      I do have a couple suggestions:
      (1) Can you add a descriptive word to give us a little better handle on what makes this young man unique/interesting? It will help us know him better. You could also narrow his age down some as well. Is he a teenager? A boy?
      (2) What’s at stake would become more clear if we knew how killing his father would stop the Revenant.
      (3) Rather then saying “the Revenant,” which doesn’t currently mean anything to your listener, could you tell us what they are instead? e.g. mutated, sentient tigers? reanimated corpses?

      Hope that helps.

      Marcy 🙂

  14. Pingback: Boiling down a plot into one sentence – argh! « Angela Quarles

  15. Pingback: Merry Christmas From Marcy & Lisa | Marcy Kennedy & Lisa Hall-Wilson

  16. Pingback: Crafting Your 90-Second Pitch | Marcy Kennedy & Lisa Hall-Wilson

  17. Great Post!!! Thanks!
    Here is my pitch after much pondering. (24 words to be exact) : D

    “A business venture opened the door to a game of seduction and adventure; where she must choose between endless regret or risk of heartbreak.”

  18. Pingback: So, What is the Pitch and Story line? «

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s