The Art of the Pitch and Synopsis

Every author I've met hates writing the elevator pitch. They hate the synopsis they have to write for their novel even more. There's something soul sucking about condensing the entirety of your book into a couple of sentences, or a page's worth litany of events. It's like pulling teeth.

But you have to do it. So let's get to it.

The most important part is the conflict. If you fail to do it well, it's gonna fall flat.

The Pitch

The pitch is painless. It's short. You're trying to convey in a few short sentences what your book is about, why it's good and why it's going to sell. It'll come in handy the next time you're at a convention and meet people who are going to ask ''So what's your next book about.'' What you're really hoping for though, is a Don Draper kind of situation where you meet some kind of white unicorn agent or publisher, you chat with them for a while and then drop your carefully constructed elevator pitch on them and they sign you on the spot, blown away by your charisma and amazing idea.

Or, more realistically, you include it in your query letter when you're hunting for an agent.

Either way, you need a good pitch, to make you and your novel stand out, grab their interest and make sure they read the pages you sent them. That's its only purpose: To make them want to hear more about your book.

The Basics

  • Protagonist/Characters
  • Conflict/Stakes
  • Setting

Your protagonist is important. Depending on the genre you're writing in, they might be less so. A thriller might just describe him as ''a father'' because that's all it really needs. A Young Adult novel needs a cool character that teenagers can identify with. Pitching is essentially marketing, so market your characters well. Don't describe their appearance, age or favorite hobbies, just pick something that makes them unique and lead with that. Try to illustrate your setting or seed the conflict to come.

A malfunctioning android detective

is fairly good. We know the genre (noir), a little bit of the setting (probably the future, there's androids) and perhaps a small part of the stakes.

I'm not gonna spend too much time on characters. I'm not saying you can get away with a boring protagonist, but they're not the crux of the pitch. The most important part is the conflict. If you fail to do it well, it's gonna fall flat. Conflict is king.

Malfunctioning android detective investigates crimes against androids.

It's not great. We don't really know what the plot is about, just that some guy is solving crimes. At least we got that in there. Let's move on.

It's a good idea to include a tiny bit of setting information. Again, depending on your genre, this might be just the name of the city for a crime book (In Baltimore), a geographical location for a thriller (Ozark Mountains) or some convoluted thing for a science fiction book (On a spaceship full of cat people). Again, don't be boring. Make sure the little bit of setting you're presenting is unique and interesting.

Malfunctioning android detective investigates crimes against androids in a dystopian megacity.

I mean...sure. Megacities sound cool.

Malfunctioning android detective investigates crimes against obsolete android models that the police won't.

Here we imply some things about our setting. There is some kind of hierarchy of androids. The police don't care about the older models. I mean, we don't know why, but we've successfully mixed our setting with our overall conflict.

A better pitch would have all this, but also some specifics about the plot. It's unlikely that the novel revolves around a detective solving a myriad of crimes. It's likely just one. Fortunately, we have plenty of room to add to it, because I kept my pitch to a single sentence (it's actually about 100 characters, just the right size for Twitter).

Tips

Aim for originality. Even a great pitch won't land you an agent or sell your book if it sounds like more of the same. Even if your novel isn't very original (you should look into that), make the pitch good enough and you have a better shot at getting published. If you wrote the next Hunger Games, but it's perhaps too similar, don't pitch it in a way that makes it sound just like Hunger Games (unless that's the whole point). Focus on what makes it unique and different.

No need to mention a character's name in a pitch. No matter how cool you think it is.

Personally, I recommend avoiding mentioning other books or media that are similar. ''It's Die Hard meets Harry Potter'' might sound fun, but your novel is unlikely to live up to that promise. It might turn off the reader too, because who knows, they might hate Harry Potter. Nobody hates Die Hard.

Don't end it with a question like on those old pulp paperbacks. ''Will they make it out alive?'' If you did this right, you've already established the stakes, so you're just repeating yourself. Also, it's dumb.

Don't editorialize. Saying that your book is original or amazing doesn't make it so and nobody will take your word for it.

You may or may not include the genre in your pitch. Some agents prefer knowing exactly what your target audience is. I'm on the fence about this one, but I usually don't mention genre.

The Synopsis

The dreaded synopsis. Every agent and publisher is gonna ask you for one, when you query. It's unavoidable. The synopsis is painful, because you're asked to describe the entirety of your book in half a page. It's going to sound boring and soulless, no matter what you do. You can only do your best to make it less so.

The synopsis is made up of the same things the elevator pitch is. You just have more room to talk about them. Get your protagonist, conflict and setting in there first. Feel free to elaborate a little on who the protagonist is, what he's hoping to achieve, the particulars of your setting and any important side-characters. The main thing is, you have to lay out the plot. In my slush reading moonlighting years, I've read a lot of synopses that just come off as boring and flat. Usually the problem is that it's simply a list of events that happen to the protagonist, without any real context or stakes mentioned. ''Protagonist goes to City, meets Character, goes to City 2, does Thing, goes back to City'' just doesn't make for good reading. I don't care about the particulars, I care about the how and why.

If you've read any books about writing novels or scripts (check my earlier article about it), you know about story beats. A beat is an event, decision, or discovery that alters the way the protagonist pursues his or her goal (courtesy of Wikipedia). The way I approach synopses is to use the novel's beats to map out the plot. I don't go into particulars, I simply dedicate a short paragraph to each story beat and leave it at that. It makes for a punchier, shorter and far more effective synopsis, which blends elements of the elevator pitch in it.

There are different approaches to beats, but the core is usually the same:

  • You set up the main stage: Your setting, your characters, and the status quo.
  • The inciting incident kicks off the book's main plot, introduces the conflict, the antagonist and the theme of the book.
  • The midpoint is the meat of your book. It's unavoidable that you'll have to summarize your plot here. Try and do it with some flair.
  • Raise the stakes in preparation for the climax. The conflict is amped up, we're nearing the end of the book.
  • Resolution. Giving away the ending of your novel is never fun, but it's important to finish strong.

Grab Save the Cat or Story Engineering for more details on story beats. They go into much more detail than I have room for here.


If you're working on a pitch and you're not shy, put it in the comments and I'll take a look at it. Got any good tips about pitching? Let me know.

Image of Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need
Author: Blake Snyder
Price: $17.33
Publisher: Michael Wiese Productions (2005)
Binding: Paperback, 195 pages
Image of Story Engineering
Manufacturer: Writer's Digest Books
Part Number:
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George Cotronis

Column by George Cotronis

George Cotronis lives in the wilderness of Northern Sweden. He designs book covers and sometimes writes. His stories have appeared in XIII, Big Pulp and Vignettes from the End of the World. He is also the editor in chief at Kraken Press and Aghast: A Journal of the Darkly Fantastic. You can see his work at www.ravenkult.com or read his rants over at his blog.

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Comments

C Patrick Neagle's picture
C Patrick Neagle from Hood River, Oregon is reading words, words, words July 23, 2015 - 6:53pm

I have five frickin' novels ready to roll (well, pretty close to rolling -- some of the tread may be a bit loose in places) and the pitching/synopsizing shuts me down every time. It's almost come to the point where I'm going to have my girlfriend write the bloody things, because I rarely know what to say about my books. But having a tight little synopsis of writing synopses is useful, so thanks!

Jon Gibbs's picture
Jon Gibbs July 24, 2015 - 10:18am

My current project is called Abraham Lincoln Stole my Homework. It's about a sixth-grade loner who gets chased through history by the time police and a cold-blooded killer, for crimes he hasn't even committed . . .yet 

Josh Zancan's picture
Josh Zancan from Crofton, MD is reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck July 24, 2015 - 11:00am

Does the pitch have to be one sentence? Here's an attempt for a story I wrote and am currently editing:

A detective mistakes a woman's accidental death at a horsetrack for murder after suspicious circumstances and a resentful loan shark convince him the races are fixed, leaving a bloody trail of misunderstandings in this dark comedy.

I usually don't like including genre, but I dunno...felt right here. Still not sure though. Might be redundant? The irony is already implied earlier in the pitch.

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb July 24, 2015 - 2:09pm

I've been re-writing a synopsis recently. If I post it here will you take a look at that too?

Marša's picture
Marša from Wrocław (Poland) August 6, 2015 - 12:23am

I think I have to print this article on big piece of paper and hang it somewhere where I could read it involuntary time after time until it will melt into my brain. Toilet door sounds like an option because every time I have to write pitch or synopsis I feel like hitting brick wall with my head. And here you managed to systematize it and make it clear and straightforward. Probably you saved me few bumps on my forehead, thank you!