You may never be so lucky (or unlucky, depending on your anxiety levels) as to pitch an agent your book in an elevator. The idea of the pitch is generally boiled down to a one-sentence summary meant to entice them into wanting more; in reality, I would imagine a pitch being more than one sentence, allowing for a bit more detail. But the usefulness of a good pitch is that it can also be applied to just about anyone who wants to know what you’re working on—and if you’re very lucky, other people will use it to tell everyone else about your book. The stronger the pitch, the stronger the sale.
There are plenty of good articles out there on crafting the perfect elevator pitch. This was the one that really got me thinking about it:
And the second chapter “Premise” in John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story is absolutely brilliant for crafting a premise with all the right parts and in how to develop that premise into a full story. I highly recommend it.
But the basics of a pitch are: [A character] [facing a problem/conflict and/or taking action] [against obstacle/for certain stakes]. You might add a general idea of a setting.
You can click on the link above for some examples; here are a few from The Anatomy of Story:
Star Wars: When a princess falls into mortal danger, a young man uses his skills as a fighter to save her and defeat the evil forces of a galactic empire.
The Godfather: The youngest son of a Mafia family takes revenge on the men who shot his father and becomes the new Godfather.
Harry Potter: A boy discovers he has magical powers and attends a school for magicians. [Most other examples for Harry Potter’s premise add the fight against “the dark lord who killed his parents”]
There’s no perfect method for crafting a one-sentence summary. The goal is that it is easy enough to understand that it can entice anyone to want to read your book. Now, the key for me is not to get too caught up in, “everyone has to like my story,” because that’s impossible. As long as I would want to read it, that’s all that matters.
You might think you need to write your story first before you can develop a one-sentence summary—and if you’re the type of writer who explores your story through drafting, then that’s probably the best choice.
But I think developing the one-sentence summary first can help clarify and mold your story into exactly what you want it to be.
For example, it may help you narrow in on your major characters. It will also work wonders on clarifying the central plotline and primary action that your characters take in the book. And it can give you an idea for what the most engaging and interesting elements of your story are, based on whether the summary is enticing enough.
One problem I’ve faced in the past with this is that it’s easy to get discouraged about your story as a whole if you either can’t come up with a summary, or can’t come up with one that’s “good enough.”
First, I would try to remember that you can gloss over the specifics and pump up the drama for the summary, as long as you’re still able to deliver what you promise. For example, the complex conflict between nations in your fantasy world may be too (for lack of a better term) “weird” to engage a passerby’s interest. But if you summarize it as “a clash between nations” (and perhaps add an adjective such as “barbaric,” “fantasy,” “power-hungry,” etc.), it’s more compelling to someone unfamiliar with the details of your world. This is also where you want to look for “buzz words” that would intrigue a reader—again, as long as you are fair in delivering on that buzz word.
Second, keep in mind that some of the most successful stories of all time don’t always condense into an easy summary. I always think of Lord of the Rings; the website I linked to above (quoting a book on writing, actually) gives the example: “A hobbit learns that destroying his magic ring is the key to saving Middle Earth from the Dark Lord.” It summarizes the story well, but I’m not sure how enticing it is to someone with no experience with the story… It gives a good sense of the epic conflict, so that’s good. I’m not judging it so much as suggesting that the execution of such a rich and detailed story simply can’t be condensed into an easy summary, so don’t despair if yours can’t either.
And third, remember that your story will change in the drafting process, and the summary can change with it. I think getting a basic idea for a summary is a good place to start in shaping your idea for the story, but it isn’t set in stone yet. If your summary isn’t as good as you want it to be, remind yourself that once the draft is written, you’ll have more material to work with in finding the good stuff.
I think the key things to look for in your elevator pitch that signal how your story should shape up include:
Is there a romance or even just a suggestion of sexual tension in the summary (marked by the mention of some kind of couple)? If you want to have romance, consider including it somewhere in your summary (even just saying they’re working together or come in contact somehow).
Is there a way you could make certain elements more interesting? Could the setting be more unusual, the hero’s occupation more distinct, or the villain more iconic? What about adding a famous or recognizable element if it fits in your world (such as setting it aboard the Titanic)? Look at the specific words in your summary and think about bumping them up a level—as long as it still fits your story. If in doubt, elements of contradiction, surprise, or emotional depth can intensify a summary.
If you saw this summary, what kind of book would you expect? What tone, what pace, what style? What sort of “primary plot” should come from this summary—a war, a competition, an investigation, a road trip, a romance? Whatever main plotline your summary suggests, that’s what the bulk of your scenes should cover since that’s what the reader is expecting.
Developing the elevator pitch first is just a technique to narrow your wild and vague ideas down into a single clear plotline that you can begin to outline. If it doesn’t feel engaging or exciting enough, don’t panic; as long as you can see where your idea might take you and want to get there, then the story you write can be compelling and brilliant, even more than a one-line summary could ever contain.