How to pitch; use a formula or not?
If you meet an agent or an editor, you have a short time to pitch your manuscript. As short as an elevator ride; 30 to 60 seconds—some it is called an Elevator Pitch. Therefore, the first characteristic of a successful pitch is succinctness.
The pitch paragraph in a query letter is not different than selling a manuscript to an editor in person. The pitch paragraph ought to be concise. But, how to boil down a book into two sentences?
One way is to use a ready-to-go formula. Something like:
Having a formula is great: fill the blanks. Done!
However, we have got a tiny problem here. Are all types of stories representable in this formula? What if the status quo is insignificant? For example, a little boy has a new sibling! What if the consequence is intangible? Or what if the outer conflict is not that important (as it is the case in many picture book stories)? These thoughts occurred to me when I was unable to chop one of my manuscripts into the formula.
I took another approach; I need to understand the concept that sits behind these formulas before following it blindly. What is an effective pitch? What does the pitch aim to show?
Here is my research result in the blog posts and books that editors or agents wrote:
What is a pitch?
The correct term for the content of a pitch is that a pitch is the logline of the manuscript; A one- or two-sentence summary of the manuscript’s plot. It answers “what is the story about?”
The word “Logline” is coined in Hollywood, where the executives are far too busy to read a 120-page screenplay. So, they read 2 sentences! Since literary agents and acquisition editors are not less busier than Hollywood executives, the term became a household word in the book market too.
About the history of the word itself, I found two different stories:
- The big studios would own hundreds of scripts, and the studio head would keep a logbook that recorded concise summaries (or “loglines”) that described each script in the studio’s possession [Reference]
- The executives had their assistants write a very brief synopsis of the plot on the spine of the script. One sentence, or perhaps two, that enabled the busy executive to make a decision. These short summaries are called loglines [Reference].
Now, let’s get to the main question. How to write a Logline?
Among the many weblogs I read about Logline, one post gave an outstanding approach to thinking about the Logline. Logline wants to answer a question (i.e. what is the story about?). For a second, forget the content of the question and consider only the nature of the question. How do you answer a question?
We know from the problem-solving methods that a good answer covers the basic Five Ws (Who, What, When, Where, Why) and some people add some extra Ws to it (e.g. How). An effective Logline ought to address these Ws of the story! Graeme Shimmin in his aforementioned blog post connected the Five Ws to the components of a story. I took this image from his blog:
Keeping those Ws in mind, look at some examples:
If you look more closely, you see that a Logline is about a person (who; protagonist) who wants something (what; Goal), but cannot reach it (How; conflict)! This means for most of the Loglines only 3 elements suffice!
If the setting (Where) of the story is different and matters in the story world, it should be mentioned. For example,
Besides my own pitches, I looked at many pitches on the Pitch Practice page on the 12×12 forum page and at the tweets in the Twitter pitch parties (search hashtag \#pbpitch for example on Twitter). Almost all of them (including mine) lack a cohesive combination of these Ws elements! Mostly the pitches explain this happened and that happened—a situation. They don’t show the forest for the trees! In a Logline, it doesn’t matter how the story got started (Inciting Event) or how the Protagonist acted and reacted and felt and planned (Act II/Middle). Some pitches even included the story question; will the character be able to do …!
A good Logline is about SELLING the story, not TELLING the story. This sentence helped me to see the number one mistake in my own and most of the pitches. Writing an effective Logline takes practice. Reading many brilliant movies’ and books’ Loglines online helped me to see how pointless my pitches were (and still are)!
In a blog, I read a thoughtful piece of advice that perfectly explained the reason for my confusion and I would like to share it with you:
Confusions, dos, and don’ts about Logline
Logline is not Tagline
Taglines are very short, catchy phrases that you’d typically see on a movie poster. For example, on the top of the first Harry Potter film’s poster, you read:” let the magic begin”
Or, Shrek’s poster has “The greatest fairy tale never told”.
Both the logline and the tagline are meant to sell a product (a manuscript and a film). However, their target audience is different. Taglines are meant to intrigue the lay audience— moviegoers or book-buyers. These customers don’t need to be told anything about the plot or the Character Arc! They just want to know if, generally speaking, the product meets their interest. If someone doesn’t like fairy tales, watching Shrek is not the best option for him or her! Writing a tagline is the task on the desk of the marketing team, not the authors.
Loglines are supposed to sell a product to a different category of the audience; the agents and the editors. They need to know the plot of the manuscript, before making any decision.
If you want to see how frequently the Taglines are mistaken with the Loglines, I suggest you take a look at the Pitch Practice page on the 12×12 forum page or at the tweets in the Twitter pitch parties (search hashtag #pbpitch for example on Twitter). You easily notice many Taglines. Here are some examples:
Don’t name names in the Logline
When we want to introduce ourselves, the first sentence includes our name. When we want to introduce two people to each other, we start with the names. Based on this habit, a pitch should start with the name of the Protagonist. Correct?
I read this hint, for the first time, in How to Write a Great Query Letter: Insider Tips and Techniques for Success by Noah Lukeman, and it sounded counter-intuitive. Let put the habit aside and rethink what benefit names bring.
Compare this Logline
Do you see how successfully I demolished the pitch only by naming characters and places? First of all, the second Logline is longer. Second, names obscured the bare concept of the story.
Why would it matter if the Protagonist is named X or Y? Even if you have intentionally selected a name related to the story’s theme, the reader understands the connection between the name and the theme after reading the manuscript, not merely by reading the Logline.
So, if not name the names, what to do?
Look back again at my dysfunctional sample. Compare an orphaned boy with Harry Potter. Which one sheds more light on the essence of the story? Therefore, the better approach to introduce the Protagonist is to describe the Protagonist with adjectives.
I once saw advice on a blog to list 10 adjectives about the Protagonist and compare which one describes him/her better and, more importantly, which one is more related to the plot. For example,
- 10-year-old boy
- lived with his abusive aunt family
- weird ….
Ponder how much using “orphaned” raises the stake when it comes to battling the murderer of his parents! and how incomplete other adjectives of the above list are to describe Harry Potter.
Do not pitch the Theme
A Logline specifically explains the plot. General terms like “This book is about the adventurous journey of …” or “a book about love between parent and child ….” have no specificity. Logline should show how different this manuscript is from the books with the same theme published before!
Do Show, don’t tell
Don’t tell this “humorous picture book”. If there is an element of humor in the manuscript, it should be SHOWN implicitly in the Logline. People get it if you show it wisely.
Research and putting material together for this article illuminate some dark corners about writing a pitch for me. I heartily hope reading this article assists you to write a better Logline. My learning continues. Whenever I find something useful, I will add it to this post. If you have a good hint to add here, please let me know in the comments below or drop me a line.
Last update: 13.09.2021
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