By Susan Spann
Since I'm doctoring pitches one-on-one at the Colorado Gold Conference in September, it seemed natural to start my posting here on the RMFW blog by looking at pitch construction.
I've got two guest posts between now and Colorado Gold, so here's Part 1 of a 2-part series on "How to Build a Winning Pitch Pitch"
Now, there are many ways to construct a pitch, and I don't claim my way is the only one. It is, however, the one I used when pitching my debut Shinobi mystery, CLAWS OF THE CAT, and the one I use when helping other people pitch.
Winning pitches do one thing: they make a listener want to read your book.
Always keep that goal in mind. If your pitch does not intrigue, it fails, regardless of its contents. You start constructing a pitch by culling four elements from your work. We'll look at those elements today and then, on September 19, we'll put them together (just in time for the RMFW Conference!).
1. Who is the protagonist? Describe him (or her) with 1-2 adjectives.
For example: a ninja detective.
2. Who is your active antagonist?
The active antagonist is the person, place, or thing the hero is fighting against for most of the novel – the thing that creates “the stakes.” This might or might not be the same as the antagonist the hero ultimately defeats or reveals, especially in a mystery novel, because unlike a synopsis, the elevator pitch does not reveal the ending of the story.
3. Stakes! (Preferably, through the protagonist’s heart).
Note that I haven’t asked about where the hero started the journey, how many quirky talking teapots (s)he meets along the way, or why there’s a pregnant emu at the turn from Act 2 to Act 3. For purposes of your pitch, none of that is important.
Having trouble with stakes? Try to answer the question: What does your protagonist have to accomplish before “the end,” and why will the world fall apart if he or she fails?
Answer it in one sentence or less. If you can't, you might need to revisit your plot.
In my novel, the stakes are clear: a ninja detective must find a killer in three days time, or the ninja, his Jesuit friend, and a lovely young geisha will die. In addition, the death of the priest will plunge Japan into war with Portugal.
Those are stakes.
Stakes can be personal (death, financial ruin, homelessness, exile) or large-scale (war, natural disaster, the end of the world). Many novels feature both. A novel without stakes is boring, and a pitch which doesn't reveal the stakes won't pique a listener's interest.
Which brings us to the fourth and final element of the pitch:
4. High Concept.
High concept is premise. It’s what makes your story unique. In a nutshell, "high concept" is a concept with mass appeal that you can sum up in one sentence or less.
The high concept for my mystery series is ninja detective. The high Concept for the movie JAWS is "killer shark."
Your high concept might not appear in your pitch, but creating the pitch with high concept in mind will always result in a stronger pitch than one which ignores high concept.
Struggling with high concept? Try the “What if” method: summarize your story in no more than 15 words, the first two of which must be “What if?”
Between now and my next guest post on September 19, your homework is to pull these four elements out of YOUR work and get ready to pitch like a pro! Then, tune in for our second installment, in which we discuss transforming your elements into a winning pitch.
Do you have an elevator pitch for your work in progress? Does it utilize all four of these critical elements?
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.