Sunday, October 8, 2017

How to create home-run stories with a perfect pitch sentence

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I’ve talked before about the importance of the “pitch.”  This is a single sentence you can haul out whenever anyone asks you to describe your book.  Here, I’m going to give you my secret “formula” for creating awesome and compelling pitch sentences.

But first – why do you need a pitch?

  • For talking to agents or editors, if you ever get a face-to-face meeting
  • For including in your cover letter
  • For chatting with friends and other children’s writers
  • For writing your back-cover synopsis if you’re self-publishing

Most importantly, though, the pitch helps YOU. 

If you can’t sum up your picture book in a single sentence, you’re either trying to cram too much into your story, or you don’t have a clear enough idea what it’s about.

So here’s my secret formula – and it’s actually not all that secret, because lots of other successful children’s writers use the exact same formula or one that’s very similar to it:

Ready???  Here goes…

  1. When _____ (character)…
  2. has to _____ (story problem)…
  3. he/she must _____ (quest / hint at resolution).

Step 2 is also sometimes known as the CONFLICT, the “opening conflict,” or, according to Robert McKee, the “inciting incident.”  Make it a juicy one!  Here are some classics…

Note that the order of these elements doesn’t matter, so mix them up however you like – but don’t forget any of them.

Author Nathan Bransford sums up these elements like this, which is also a useful way of remembering the essentials:  “When OPENING CONFLICT happens to CHARACTER(s), they have to OVERCOME CONFLICT to COMPLETE QUEST.” (see his full post here)

Although this looks like four elements, I actually believe that to be most succinct, you can ditch his final (“complete quest") element.  You don’t want to give away too much, after all. 

He gives an example from one of his books:  “Three kids trade a corndog (FLAVOR) for a spaceship, blast off into space (OPENING CONFLICT), accidentally break the universe (OBSTACLE), and have to find their way back home (QUEST).”

When he mentions “flavor” – what he means is that your character / story problem should be unique.  It shouldn’t be something agents or editors have seen a million times:  “When an 8-year-old boy has a messy room…” (yawn!)  Instead, toss in a corn dog.  Toss in something they haven’t seen before! 

How about: “When 8-year-old Murphy ‘forgets’ to clean his room for two years running, his sock piles comes to life – and now it’s coming after HIM…”  A little better.

Or how about one of my favourite books of the last few years:  “When a brand-new school is suddenly overrun with children, it has to learn to cope with mess and chaos…” (School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex)

Make your characters interesting; make your conflict juicy; make your quest a challenging one.  Here are a few I’ve created for my own books – with the main elements in UPPERCASE letters to show you what I think are these all-important elements:

  • "When a YOUNG GIRL’s grandmother decides SHE’S TOO OLD for a birthday party, the simple act of crocheting a blanket teaches them both AN IMPORTANT LESSON about love, family, and belonging." (Oma is 100)
  • "When ONE LITTLE OTTER has to say the Mah Nishtanah (Four Questions) ALL BY HERSELF at the Passover Seder for the first time, she MUST FACE HER FEARS about everything that could go wrong." (Otter Passover)
  • "When A ZOOKEEPER decides to PLAY MATCHMAKER for a large (and hungry) king snake, he DISCOVERS LOVE himself in an unexpected way." (A Match for Shraga - still unpublished, unagented, unloved)

It’s worth mentioning that two of these are on the “quiet” side for picture books – they’re not exactly rollicking adventures.  Still, I think they’re sweet and nice stories, and creating a one-line pitch helps me focus while I’m writing and preparing the stories to help choose a market for them (or to see how marketable they ultimately might or might not be).

So – think about one of your stories.  Let’s get all those elements in place and create the perfect pitch:

  1. Who’s your main character???  Think of one way you can make him/her interesting or differentiate him/her from the crowd!
  2. What’s his / her problem?  Make sure it’s one we haven’t seen a million times before! And finally…
  3. What’s the quest / resolution?  Don’t give away too much, but hint at the interesting journey we’re in for if we join you along the way?

I’d love to hear your pitches – leave your ideas in the comments!

(Title photo: Pitcher's motion, Cincinnati Reds, 9/15/2004, © Rick Dikeman)




3 comments:

  1. This was so helpful for me. Here's what I came up with for my PB MS I LOVE YOU, GROUNDHOG POOPSIE PANTS:

    When his attempts to befriend an adorable groundhog go awry, 5-year-old Anders must find a way to show this shy rodent how much he cares without scaring her away from her flower patch forever.

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    1. Phaea,
      I'm actually in suspense - great work! The name "Anders" is a good choice because it's not too common.
      I wonder if there might be a way to make it even more powerful - "5-year-old Anders must ___ and find a way to show this shy rodent..."
      Does Anders have any obstacles that he has to overcome to solve the problem?
      For instance, if he keeps getting impatient then maybe what he needs is to "conquer his impulse to wiggle"... if he doesn't know enough about groundhogs and their habits, maybe he has to "find out what his new friend really needs" (by reading books, I guess?).
      Don't be afraid to play around! I think there's a fine line between making it too wordy and sneaking in every tantalizing drop of information about what makes your story unique.
      Good luck with your story!!!
      Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod

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    2. GREAT advice, thank you. I'm going to play with getting some more detail in there.

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As always, I love to hear from you.