Originally published in Nelson Literary Agency’s monthly newsletter
Here are three examples of a formula I’ve seen many times in our query inbox. See if you can figure out why the formula doesn’t work…and why we’re probably going to pass on reading the sample pages:
Example #1: Middle Grade
“Protagonist and his friends go on many exciting adventures. Along the way, they encounter a band of pirates, a herd of mystical unicorns, a swarm of angry fairies, and one club-swinging giant who just wants to find his way back to his home in the Mountains of Malfesioria.”
Example #2: Coming of Age
“It’s the last summer before college, and in the wake of his father’s death, Protagonist needs to figure out who he really is. He takes off on a cross-country road trip in Dad’s old Jeep. Along the way, he meets a wise homeless man who teaches him about gratitude, a scrappy orphan who teaches him about forgiveness, and a blonde cocktail waitress who teaches him about love.”
Example #3: Crime Fiction
“In her quest to capture a serial killer, Detective Protagonist must interview one quirky character after another: a past-her-prime exotic dancer who bakes the world’s best chocolate-chip cookies, a grouchy old chess champion with an eidetic memory, and a cynical comedian whose dark sense of humor has managed to offend nearly everyone in Setting City.”
Each of these story-summaries is based on the same formula—a formula I call “The Wandering Protagonist.”
Keep in mind that there’s nothing inherently wrong with a novel in which the main character goes on a journey. And, of course, anyone on a journey is bound to meet interesting folks (human or otherwise) along the way. However, journeys and interesting side characters are neither story nor plot. As such, these three summaries have all missed some very crucial marks. What they’re missing, in the immortal words of Debra Dixon, are Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. I’d also add stakes. (Donald Maass puts his lesson on stakes at the very beginning of his book The Breakout Novelist.)
Let’s look at each example a little more closely.
In Example #1, our middle-grade protagonist has no goal—at least not one that’s mentioned in the query letter. (Hint: The protagonist’s goal should be present in the query letter!) What does he want? What is he looking for? Why? (That’s motivation.) What happens if he finds it, or doesn’t? (That’s stakes.) How can you (the author) make me (the reader) care about Protagonist’s impending success or failure? While this example does hint at conflict (pirates, angry fairies, a club-swinging giant), none of that conflict is directly hooked into the protagonist’s goal. Do the angry fairies want the same thing Protagonist wants, and will they do anything to prevent him from getting it first? Are the pirates the swashbuckling sort, or are they another antagonistic force standing in Protagonist’s way? Do our heroes end up helping the giant get back home? While the author might answer all that in the manuscript itself, this summary, unfortunately, is too vague and does little to pique my interest.
In Example #2, we have a goal, but it’s not a very strong one: Protagonist wants to find out who he really is. We’re missing motivation: Why does he need to find out who he really is (whatever that means), and what happens if he fails (stakes)? We are given hints of conflict: He’s mourning the death of his father, and apparently he needs to learn about gratitude, forgiveness, and love. But in this example both goal and conflict are internal to the protagonist. Remember that there are two kinds of dramatic conflict—internal and external—and that a good story develops both. Give this protagonist an external goal (to visit his grandmother in Sedona, or to scatter is father’s ashes at Niagara Falls, or to return something his father stole to its rightful owner) and some external conflict (the Jeep keeps breaking down, or the scrappy orphan steals his wallet, or his sister is chasing him across the country to stop him from, say, returning the object their father stole, etc.).
In Example #3, we have a goal that’s both clear and genre appropriate: To capture a serial killer. The motivation is implied: To stop the killer from killing again. The stakes are also implied: If Detective Protagonist fails, someone else will die. (Hint: For higher, better stakes, make the killer’s next target someone close to Detective Protagonist. Make the stakes personal.) So far so good. However, the author then wanders off into Wandering Protagonist territory, and there’s zero conflict in the rest of the summary. Perhaps this author, like the author of example #1, hopes to hook agents with his cast of quirky characters. But any author who thinks his secondary characters are more interesting than his plot probably needs to take a long, hard look at his manuscript!
To see if your query letter’s pitch paragraph is solid, print it out and grab a highlighter. Highlight your protagonist’s goal, motivation, stakes, and conflict. If they’re all present and accounted for, you’re on the right track!
Angie Hodapp has worked in language-arts education, publishing, professional writing, and editing for the better part of the last two decades. After completing her master’s thesis, a work of creative nonfiction, and leaving academia, she gave herself permission to write what she really wanted to write: speculative fiction and romance. Angie is currently the contracts and royalties manager at Nelson Literary Agency in Denver. She and her husband live in a renovated 1930s carriage house near the heart of the city and love collecting stamps in their passports.