Last week’s Wednesday post took a look at the four elements that build a winning elevator pitch. This week? We’re mushing them together and creating the perfect
lasagne er, pitch. (Perfect lasagne has four elements too, but that’s a different post.)
To recap, the elements you’re looking for are your novel’s protagonist, active antagonist, stakes, and high concept. And remember: the high concept might or might not make it into your pitch, but you need to keep it in mind.
I’ll continue using my novel Claws of the Cat, as an example, primarily because the pitch worked exactly as intended–it found me an agent, piqued my editor’s interest, and (in slightly modified and expanded form) appears on the jacket copy for the completed novel.
Here’s the original pitch:
When a samurai is brutally murdered in Kyoto teahouse, a master ninja has just three days to find the killer in order to save the Jesuit priest that the ninja has pledged his own life to protect.
Can you spot the four critical elements?
1. Protagonist: A master ninja. You’re better off using the archetype–“master ninja” or “undead barber”–than giving the protagonist’s name. Archetypes are more descriptive and harder to forget.
If I tell you “Hiro Hattori” has three days to solve a crime, you don’t know who or what he is. You might or might not care. But if I tell you a ninja has to find a killer, suddenly you’re curious–because usually, the ninja IS the killer.
Your pitch must put the protagonist front and center. The listener should have no doubt who this book is about.
2. (Active) Antagonist: “The killer” is the overall antagonist – and the killer does appear here too, but the active antagonist in this pitch is actually implied: it’s whoever will kill the priest if the ninja doesn’t find the killer in three days’ time. It’s OK to imply the antagonist, as long as the stakes are high enough.
I opted to imply the active antagonist because it would have taken too long to describe the active antagonist in detail. In Claws of the Cat, the active antagonist is the dead man’s son, who happens to be a policeman. He wants revenge for his father’s death, and if he can’t find the real killer the Jesuit will do.
Look at your novel and ask yourself: 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.
If you don’t describe the antagonist in detail, you need to make sure you nail element #3:
3. The Stakes: In Claws, the stakes are a ticking clock and the imminent execution of an innocent man, both of which appear in the pitch. The secondary stakes are in there too: the ninja has pledged his life to protect the priest – so if the ninja fails to find the killer, both the priest and the ninja will die.
Your pitch MUST explain what’s at stake in your novel. Fail at that, and the listener will not care. Stories require tension; tension requires stakes. In many ways, the stakes are the most important part of your pitch, because it’s the stakes that make the listener need to hear the rest of the story.
4. High Concept: “Ninja detective.” Short and to the point. You’ll notice my pitch never actually says those words, but the pitch as a whole makes it clear that I’m telling a ninja detective story set in Japan.
It’s the little details of the pitch that convey high concept. “Master ninja,” and “find the killer” give a ninja detective vibe. “Kyoto teahouse” tells you the novel takes place in Japan, and if you know about Japanese teahouses, might make you suspect there’s a geisha or two in the mix. “Samurai” and “brutal murder” suggest the era, since medieval Japan was the age of samurai.
Find similar unique details in your novel. Wedge them into the spaces between your protagonist, antagonist, and stakes.
Every word in your pitch should have a reason for its inclusion. You don’t have room for filler words that do not “earn their keep.” Generally, try to use no more than one adjective per noun, and don’t use adverbs if you can avoid it – they break the flow.
Start by building a single sentence that describes–in a single breath worth of words--what your story is about. If you can’t say it all in a single breath, cut it until you can. Then–and only then–revise it. Justify each word and use the strongest words you can. Say the pitch aloud. If it isn’t smooth, revise until it rolls off your tongue as easily as your name. Don’t over-rehearse, but make sure the pitch is smooth and easy to say, because odds are you’ll be saying it when you’re nervous, and it’s easy enough to trip over simple phrases when you’re stressed, to say nothing of long, overcomplicated prose.
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.
Your homework this week is to pull the four elements from your work and build a pitch of your own. Build it strong and polish it to a shine–and then get out there and pitch!
Remember: if you leave a comment any Wednesday post in the month of June (meaning any post tagged as #Publishing Law and dated before June 30) I will enter you in a drawing to win a signed ARC of my upcoming shinobi mystery novel, Claws of the Cat!
And, of course, the legalese: To be eligible to win, you must be at least 18 years old, leave a valid name and email address in the comments and and live or have a mailing address in the US or Canada. No purchase necessary to win. Odds of winning vary with entries received. One entry per household. One winner will be drawn at random from eligible comments.
11 thoughts on “Elevator Pitches: If You Build it, They Will Come.”
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Thank you, Susan. This is very helpful information. I plan to save it for future reference.
I’m glad it helped, Janet!
I just finished my first draft of my first novel. I’m going to take a crack at this tomorrow! People keep asking me what the book is about, and I keep fumbling around.
Glad to hear it, Leslie! The elevator pitch is an excellent way to answer questions about your novel, not just with agents and editors but with anyone who asks.
Thank you. I paid for 15 minutes with a speaker at 4 different writers’ conferences to work on my pitch. None of the authors told me this valuable information.
I’m really glad the information helped! Sometimes, it’s a matter of breaking the novel down into little parts so you can reconstruct a pitch that works. I hope you’re able to get a knockout put together now!
So how about translating this for non-fiction?
This is a great request, Sandra. I’ll get to work on it right away and put together a non-fiction version of the method!
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