Crafting the Perfect Elevator Pitch (Part 1)

An “elevator pitch” is a hook, high concept, and/or logline-style pitch for a novel (or other creative project) which a writer presents to an editor, agent, or other unsuspecting victim who ends up trapped in an elevator (or other awkward social situation) with the author.

Good pitches are short, distinctive, and make the listener want to know more.

The pitch is the way you persuade someone to read your manuscript or novel. Authors need a solid pitch for every project (and series), whether the work is published, unpublished, or in progress. Also, the pitch must be deliverable in less than a minute,  preferably in a single breath–regardless of the genre or complexity of the work.

A Good Pitch Focuses on Your Novel’s Strengths – Hook, High Concept, or Logline. Today, we’re looking at logline-style pitches (we’ll look at the other types in the weeks to come.)

Effective logline pitches should contain four critical elements from your work: the protagonist, antagonist, stakes, and high concept. 

1. The Protagonist: The hero or main character of your novel. 

The best pitches refer to the protagonist by his or her archetype rather than by name. “A ninja detective” or “an undead barber” is more memorable than “Hiro” or “Steve.” Archetypes are more descriptive, harder to forget, and don’t fall prey to the complex-alien-name issue that often plagues descriptions of fantasy and speculative fiction.

Archetypes offer another advantage in the elevator pitch, too: they’re shorthand terms that pack a lot of background punch for the listener. If I tell you my protagonist is “Hiro,” it means nothing, but if I call him a master ninja, and go on to explain that he has to catch a killer, the listener is more intrigued–because normally, the ninja IS the killer. Let the archetype do your heavy lifting.

Also, a logline pitch must put the protagonist front and center. The listener should have no doubt who this book is about.

2. The (Active) Antagonist: who or what must the hero overcome? 

In logline pitches, the antagonist can be mentioned directly or implied, as long as the listener gets a sense of what the protagonist has to overcome. 

Consider your manuscript and ask: what’s the easiest way to describe what my hero is fighting? That’s your active antagonist, and you have to either state or strongly imply its existence in your pitch.

Again, it’s better to paint in archetypes: a killer, a Nazi, a rabid bunny rabbit that murders knights – when you have to get through the entire pitch in a single breath, each word must pull its weight. 

3. The Stakes: What will happen if the hero loses? 

…and it better be serious. 

A logline pitch MUST explain what’s at stake in the story. You don’t have to give away the ending (with mystery, in particular, it’s better if you don’t). However, you have to make the listener care enough to read the novel–and the easiest way to do that is to explain the compelling reason why the hero must succeed.  Fail to deliver the stakes, and the listener/editor/agent will not care. 

In many respects, the stakes are the most important part of a logline pitch, because the stakes are what make the listener need to hear the rest of the story.

4. High Concept: What is your story “about” in a larger sense?

The high concept for “Jaws” is “massive shark terrorizes seaside resort.” Simple, easy to understand, and powerful in the listener’s imagination.

 The high concept for my series is “Ninja detective & Jesuit priest solve mysteries in samurai-era Japan.”

The logline pitch doesn’t have to include the high concept, in so many words, but has to reflect high concept in some way.

Small details of a pitch can convey high concept. 

Here’s the logline pitch for my first novel, Claws of the Cat: When a samurai is murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, a master ninja has only three days to find the killer and save the lives of the beautiful geisha accused of the crime and a Jesuit priest that the ninja has pledged his own life to protect.”

“A master ninja” and “find the killer” suggests the “ninja detective” concept. “Kyoto teahouse” tells you the novel takes place in Japan. We’re talking about a samurai, which suggests historical fiction. Put them together, and the high concept is right there, in the details.

Look for similarly unique details in your novel, and wedge them into the spaces between your protagonist, antagonist, and stakes.

Every word in your pitch must earn its keep. You need to get the pitch into a single sentence, or single breath, so you don’t have room for filler or backstory. No exceptions. Try to use no more than one adjective per noun, and don’t use adverbs if you can avoid them – they break the flow of the pitch.

Start by building a single sentence that describes your story’s protagonist, antagonist, stakes and high concept. If you can’t get it all in a single breath or sentence, revise until you can. Justify each word and use the strongest words you can. Read it aloud. If it isn’t smooth, revise until it rolls off your tongue as easily as your name.

Make sure the logline pitch is smooth, because you’ll be saying it when you’re nervous, and even simple phrases become more complicated when you’re stressed.

A single sentence is easier to remember, flows off the tongue, and inspires the listener to start asking questions–exactly what a good pitch ought to do.

In closing, I want to mention that this system of logline pitching works regardless of your genre. Even fantasy and sci fi can and should be pitched in a single breath. Backstory and complicated plots can be simplified to fit this format, and remember: the pitch is the start of a conversation–you’ll get to say more when you’ve hooked the listener in.

Has this helped you craft a pitch? Have you got other tips that work for you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!