By Susan Spann
Last month, we took a look at the four vital elements of a winning “elevator pitch.” This week, we’re putting the elements together - just in time for Colorado Gold!
To play along, you’ll need a list with your novel’s protagonist, active antagonist, stakes, and high concept. (Remember: high concept might or might not make it into your pitch, but you need to keep it in mind throughout the process.)
It’s easier to see a pitch in motion when you’re actually seeing it thrown, so I’ll use my novel, Claws of the Cat, as our pitch example today. I’m using it mostly because the pitch worked as intended–it found me an agent, piqued an editor’s interest, and (in a slightly expanded form) ended up on the dust jacket of the completed novel. In other words: I know this one works, and when you need an example it’s nice to have a functional one at hand.
The original pitch:
When a samurai is brutally murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, a master ninja has just three days to find the killer in order to save the life of the Jesuit priest that the ninja has pledged his own life to protect.
(Note: Yes, this is rough. I’m sharing my original pitch to show you this can be done fairly quickly and doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect to do its job.)
Can you spot the four critical elements?
1. Protagonist: Here, a master ninja. Always lead with your protagonist, and use an archetype instead of the character’s name. Archetypes are more descriptive and harder to forget. Also, they give information about the novel that names alone cannot convey. Would you rather hear that “Sam” has to go find “Charlotte” or that “an undead barber” must locate “the kitten he left behind”?
Good pitches put the protagonist front and center. The listener must have no doubt who your book is about.
2. (Active) Antagonist: The pitch must tell us who or what the protagonist is fighting. (And It’s OK to imply the antagonist, as long as the stakes are high enough.)
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 it outright or strongly imply it in your pitch.
Note: The active antagonist is NOT the various bells and whistles, twists and turns, hot dogs and lack of doughnuts that plague your antagonist along the way. Those are window dressing (even if they seem important) and don’t belong in the pitch. Big hero, big villain, big stakes get the job done here.
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. Secondary stakes appear there too: the ninja has pledged his life to protect the priest – so if the ninja fails, he’s going to share the Jesuit’s fate.
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 only the stakes make the listener need to hear the rest of the story.
4. High Concept: In my case? “Ninja detective.” However, you’ll notice my pitch never says those words. The pitch as a whole makes the concept clear.
The little details of your pitch convey high concept. “Master ninja,” and “find the killer” give a ninja detective vibe. “Kyoto teahouse” sets the novel in Japan, and suggests there’s a geisha or two in the mix.
Find the unique details in your novel. Wedge them into the spaces between your protagonist, your antagonist, and your stakes.
Every word in your pitch must add something to the whole. You don’t have room for filler words that do not “earn their keep.”
Try to use no more than one adjective per noun. Try not to use adverbs – they break the flow.
From your elements, build one sentence that describes your story in one breath’s worth of words.
If you can’t say your pitch in a single breath, cut it until you can. Then–and only then–revise until that sentence 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 it’s easy enough to trip over simple phrases when you’re stressed, to say nothing of 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.
Pull the four elements from your work and build your pitch. Build it strong and polish it to a shine–and then get out there and pitch with confidence!
Thank you for joining me here this week – I look forward to seeing many of you at Colorado Gold!
Bio: Susan Spann is a transactional attorney and former law school professor whose practice focuses on business and publishing law. Her debut Shinobi mystery, Claws of the Cat (Minotaur Books) released on July 16, 2013. You can find Susan online at http://www.susanspann.com, or on Twitter @SusanSpann, where she created the #PubLaw hashtag to provide business and legal information for authors.