Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, May 20, 2010

How to Write a One Sentence Pitch

Last week I outlined the general necessity of whittling down your plot to one sentence, one paragraph, and two paragraph pitches in order to give yourself a head start on the literally thousands of times you are going to need to summarize your work over the course of a book's lifetime.

Today I want to zero in on the one sentence pitch.

Caveat time: I don't want to oversell the importance of a one sentence pitch. It's really not something that is going to sink or float your book. A good pitch is not going to mean your book gets published and a bad pitch doesn't mean your book won't get published.

At the same time, the one sentence pitch as the core of all the summarizing you're going to do in the future. It's the heart of your book, whittled down to one sentence. It's what you build around when crafting longer pitches.

And there's an art to it.

There are three basic elements in a good one sentence pitch:

- The opening conflict (called the Inciting Incident by Robert McKee)
- The obstacle
- The quest

The quest can be a physical or interior journey, but it's what happens to the character(s) between the moment when the plot begins and ends. The opening conflict is the first step in that quest. It's how the journey begins. The obstacle is what stands in the way of that journey.

The resulting very basic pitch is: When OPENING CONFLICT happens to CHARACTER(s), they have OVERCOME CONFLICT to COMPLETE QUEST. There are lots different ways of structuring these basic elements, but they should be there.

The important thing to remember is that a good pitch is a description of what actually happens. It's a one sentence description of the plot, not the theme.

The danger of describing the theme in your pitch instead of the actual plot is that it invariably sounds generic. The pitch of Eat Pray Love is not "A recently divorced woman searches for love and happiness." That sounds like, well, a million books published every year. A better pitch would be "A recently divorced woman travels to Italy for pleasure, India for spirituality, and Bali for balance, but she finds love instead." That's what actually happens.

The last key element is a dash of flavor: anything you can do to flesh out your pitch with some key details that give a sense of the character of your novel (funny, scary, intense, tragic, etc.) will go a long way to giving the recipient of the pitch a sense of its unique personality.

I am by no means suggesting that I have a perfect one sentence pitch and will not be winning any pitch awards any time soon, but I have tried my best to live by the philosophy I have detailed above:

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)

Once you have your one sentence pitch down pat the rest of your descriptions will be gravy. On corndogs. Yum.






84 comments:

Joanne Bischof said...

Its a terrible feeling when someone, especially someone in the industry asks you what your book is about and you say "uh..." Thanks for laying it out so clearly. I love the concept of adding flavor!

Thanks

Remilda Graystone said...

Thanks! I needed to read a post like this because I've been having problems with the pitch for my current WIP. Now I have an idea of how I can actually begin.

Thanks, again.

April Wendy Hollands said...

Another really helpful post, written in an easy-to-understand AND easy-to-follow-in-yer-footsteps way. Thanks Nathan.

Jaydee Morgan said...

That's a very simple way of breaking it down - and one that doesn't seem quite so intimidating.

salarsenッ said...

Love the simple diagram. Already copied it on that sticky note in my head. Felt like I was in freshman English, again. Thanks for the time warp. Seriously, the more plainly put for me the better.

Kudos!!

Jennifer said...

Nathan, what about multiple POV novels like White Teeth or The Corrections???

Nathan Bransford said...

jennifer-

Then it's time to get creative. I think it's a matter of picking out some key elements or generalizing a bit more and filling in whatever specifics are possible. Easier said than done, I know.

Talei said...

Brilliant! Thanks so much for sharing your expertise I've learnt alot this week from your posts! ;)

Candyland said...

Excellent! Easy tips to boil it down:)

Amanda Sablan said...

And now it's my turn to craft that perfect pitch. Your tips will certainly help. Thank you. :)

Marilyn Peake said...

Love your one-sentence pitch for JACOB WONDERBAR! And I agree about EAT, PRAY, LOVE. A couple of days ago, I saw a trailer for the movie that mentioned those three key elements of the book (although, since it was a movie trailer, there was more than one sentence). I’ve seen the book cover a gazillion times, but once I realized the story was about three types of very interesting travel experiences, I immediately purchased the book.

Thanks for breaking down the three key steps in writing a one-sentence pitch. That’s very helpful!

Maureen said...

Great post, thanks for putting it so simply -- that makes it so much easier to understand and craft THE sentence.

Sarra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steph said...

As usual, super helpful. I have been struggling with this a lot recently, thanks for breaking it down as simple as possible!

Ishta Mercurio said...

Great post, as always. Nice and clear - thanks!

And I'd like to add that working out your one sentence pitch can be an important writing and revision tool. Being able to identify the core elements of your novel can help you stay focused during the writing process, and helps you identify unnecessary elements during the revision process. At least, that's what it's been doing for me this week! And that goes for all forms of writing, I think, from lengthy novels right down to 32-page picture books.

Nicole L Rivera said...

Awesome post. You are the first person to actually explain how to write a pitch. Most people simply suggest to go look at the one line in bold print on the back of the book. I literally went to a book store and took pictures of these one liners with my IPhone. I went home and studied them and still felt lost. I really needed this post. I'm going to print it out and keep it in my notebook :)

Magdalena Munro said...

Well said and I appreciate the pointers! I am a professional recruiter (Disney) and I always conclude interviews with candidates by asking them the simple question, Who Are You? There are a lot of similarities to what you wrote that I look for in a one sentence pitch/response from a candidate and it's nice to see the overlap.

madisonwoods said...

Thanks! Your direction made it easier than I thought it'd be to sum it all up in one sentence. But, wow, the sentence is a mouthful :)

Meredith said...

Thank you so much for this. I have been struggling with this for weeks, and then I read this, sat down and banged out something that encapsulates my WIP perfectly. (Ok, I banged it out, then had to edit it 4 times). But it works now! Thanks!!

lbdiamond said...

Lovely! Great tips! :D

Simon Hay Soul Healer said...

Thanks for that. In narrative nonfiction would you replace obstacle with theme? I'm just trying to apply your directions to a series of events.

Simon.

Nathan Bransford said...

simon-

It depends on the genre, but usually it would still be as much as possible about what happens. But if it's a particular subject matter, yeah, it could be the subject and the angle, if that makes sense.

Lia Keyes said...

Nathan, you darling man, thanks for posting on this topic. It's the subject of #ScribeChat, the weekly chat for writers on Twitter this evening (6 pm PT/9 pm ET). I was going to write a post to introduce the topic on The ScribeChat Review but have been feeling like death warmed up all day. If you have no objections, I'll do a short intro and link to your post here instead, as you've done such a great job, as always!

The one-sentence pitch is a truly valuable tool. I found myself sitting next to an editor from a major publishing house at dinner during the Big Sur Workshop and when she asked what I was writing I used a quick pitch, not wanting to bore her, and as I left at the end of the meal she asked me to submit it to her.

At the SCBWI conference a film manager asked me for what the movie industry calls a logline (the one sentence pitch) and liked it enough to request a one page synopsis.

But four years ago, when I first started writing this book, I couldn't have done it. Sometimes you have to know your book very well before you can identify the heart of it.

Claudie said...

Thanks for that post, Nathan!

I have a tendency to write books with multiple central characters and thinning it all down to a sentence is a hardship. This will be a great deal of help.

You rock!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, the last post on the subject led me to do exactly what you described today.

My first really intelligent effort at a query resulted. It's very similar to selling used cars and nothing at all like writing a novel. Until now I've been trying to re-write my novel as a paragraph.

tjpfau

T. Anne said...

This helps.

My sentence seems a bit paragraphish though. I'll have to iron out the bugs.

Olivia Herrell said...

Great post, thanks for your instructions!

Elizabeth Briggs said...

Great post. Maybe you could also do a few 1 sentence pitch critiques on a Monday (since that seems to be critique day now).

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I didn't want to believe you, that it could be this simple. But it was - it took about a half an hour, but my logline when from really? to rockin'.

Darn you Mr. Bransford, must you always be right? :)

Tambra said...

The best advice I was given was to look at how the TV guide summarizes movies.
It really helped give me a starting point to work with.

Wish I had Nathan's advice when I started having to write the pitches.

Thank you, Nathan. I'll go back and check the one-liners I already have and save the instructions for a future time.

Best,
Tambra

Angelica R. Jackson said...

I tried this a while ago and came up with one I mostly like:

After escaping a treacherous attack at sea, Isabelle Brandt is determined to see justice for her murdered friends----only to face imprisonment and hanging as the killers accuse her in turn.

The main problem is, there's no room in it for the ghosts that appear in my book!

ryan field said...

You explained this well. I enjoyed it and I'm going to be practicing it in the future.

wendy said...

Nathan, I second the request to do a sentence critique next Monday. And as so few have the opportunity to be critiqued by you, could we also post our sentences for a crit from each other?

Your post today was really helpful, and I'm feeling more optimistic about my one sentence pitch.

Thank you. :)

A Pen In Neverland: Angela Peña Dahle said...

Fabulous! This is so great I had to retweet it. Thanks! Usually I do pitches and queries first before I sit down to write it all. It helps to flesh it out, It keeps me focused. Anyone else do this?

www.a-pen-in-neverland.blogspot.com

Mira said...

This is great - you explained it in very clear, simple terms - very readable and easy to apply. Thank you!

I'm wondering - could this translate to queries? It seems like the synopsis part is the most difficult for folks, and that's what this is - especially the two paragraph pitch. If so, this approach could help with what is the hardest part of the query.

Just a thought.

cheekychook said...

I was dreading the idea of writing a one sentence pitch but the tips you gave have made it kind of fun. Not corndog-quality kind of fun, but definitely more fun than I originally anticipated. Thanks, as always, for the excellent advice!

Debbie said...

What do you suggest for nonfiction books? I know EAT LOVE PRAY was nonfiction but it reads as fiction.

J. T. Shea said...

You mean they don't fix the universe? What a bad example for kids! I bet JACOB WONDERBAR'S publication will be followed by a significant upsurge in reported universe breakages!

Sarra, if you've got a greater evil than the zombie apocalypse, spell it out a little! If you've got it, flaunt it! Like Robert McKee's famous eyebrows...

Anna Murray said...

Rancher brothers adopt trail-orphaned sisters, fight a range war, nurse their ailing mother, and work to build a family amidst the hardships of post-civil war Montana.

k m kelly said...

Hey, and you did it in under 25 words, Nathan. Wonderbar!

Jessica Peter said...

Greatly informative. I've been fiddling with mine for a while now, and my one-sentence pitch is technically.. two sentences. I think with this lovely formula, I may be able to make it just one!

hannah said...

For BREAK, my one sentence pitch has always been, "Jonah is on a mission to break all his bones." It doesn't have the elements you mentioned, but it's enough to make people go "What the--!?" which is one way to peak interest!

Anonymous said...

Around 40 comments and about 90% women -- for an article that was not gender slanted.

Houston, we have a demographic problem!

(Q. How many of you gals are writing about vampires?)

Good post though.

neurotype said...

The problem I'm having is translating this for a work of literary fiction: at the moment, I'm basically defining character developments as the plot.

Kathryn Paterson said...

I'm having sort of the same problem, neurotype, although I'm trying to go more mainstream than literary. But I have three POV characters, each of whom has her own quest. The quests all collide fairly soon, but I'm having a really hard time zeroing in on the "quest" part of the formula. For me the one and two paragraph pitches were much easier. I came up with about eight different one-sentence pitches, all of which I thought sounded good, but none of which actually captured the heart of the novel.

That said, the exercise itself helped me to clarify the catalytic event and some fuzziness in the characters' motivations, so THANKS!

Claire King said...

This is a really helpful post. Thanks, Nathan.

crawshawus said...

What a great teacher!

Elie said...

This is really, really useful. It helps with unravelling plot muddles too!
Thanks.

author Scott Nicholson said...

Do you think the character/conflict/quest has to be in any specific order, Nathan? I suppose that lends a natural beginning/middle/end structure but it may take some maneuvering.

Scott Nicholson

Erika Marks said...

A great post, Nathan. As someone who is going to have start marketing my debut novel in the next few months, I have been trying hard to come up with the one-sentence pitch and the mention of "flavor" is a helpful one.

Friends or booksellers--everybody wants to know: What's the book about? Of course they do--but funny how it ends up being a challenge to articulate it in a concise way.

Anonymous said...

A one sentence pitch! wow that seems hard! Good luck!

S.J.

Tamara Narayan said...

My old one-line pitch:

A young girl is kidnapped, and instead of destroying her life, the crime saves her and hundreds of others.

Boo hiss!

My new one-line pitch:

When a reluctant psychic (FLAVOR) kidnaps a three-year-old girl (OPENING CONFLICT), an FBI agent fights to keep the kidnapper free (OBSTACLE) in hopes she will lead the Bureau to a stolen cache of explosives (QUEST).

Better. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Excellent post.

Eric said...

I'll get back to work on my pitch after I memorize this excellent post.

Dara said...

Thanks for such a helpful post. It definitely showed me how I need to craft my pitch into something that actually makes sense now and isn't a rambling mess :P

Malia Sutton said...

Good stuff :)

The Zuccini said...

I really enjoyed reading everybody's pitches. There are some great sounding books out there.

Diana said...

Question for Nathan: when pitching a three-part series, does one aim for a 1-sentence pitch that captures the ENTIRE series? Or one that captures only the first book?

Kermit Rose said...

Helen Troy believed her newly acquired super powers would help her persuade everyone to quit their tobacco addiction, but found it only increased the number of problems to be solved.

mkcbunny said...

This was very helpful. Thanks.

Dick Hannah said...

Nathan,

As an avid reader of your blog, I'm hoping you saw (or will link to my blog wherein I mention and review) the article on e-books in today's WSJ.

Keep up the good work,


Dick Hannah

http://puborperish.blogspot.com/

patlaff said...

When struggling novelist Sean Keating finds out the best way for a debut author to get published is through non-fiction, he decides to writing about love, something he knows nothing about…until he reunites with his prom date.

That helps. Thanks, Nahtan.

Linda Gray said...

This is excellent -- thanks! I recently read a literary agent's advice to never use the names of characters in a query letter. It's distracting. What do you think of that, and also, what about in a one-sentence-pitch?

Sara Martin said...

Linda - I've also heard that about omitting character names. I look at the NY Times bestseller lists occasionally for one-sentence pitch ideas, but some use character names and others don't.

My problem is I can't decide how much detail to include. I have this spare, simple one-line pitch:

A teenage girl is drawn to a fictional relationship where she discovers a surprising reality.

But when I try to give it more detail, I feel like it gets too long:

A teenage girl is drawn to a boy she meets in a recurring dream, discovers his existence isn't entirely imaginary, and must uncover the truth of their mysterious connection before someone else does.

I wrote the longer one pretty quickly, so it could be better... but I'm just wondering if I should stop at the simple one.

Steppe said...

I followed this link from your site to a blog and then a website. It offers the long form in free e-book
http://www.writeagreatquery.com/

I decided to add a new five pages to my opening, very reluctantly; at first, but I think I was able to marry an active opening that makes my protagonists motivations and quest extremely clear to a follow on segment that logically and hypnotically engages in world building that seems: "this could be possible."
I have your formula suggestions and breakdown of your plot sequence as the practical intro to that longer ebook.

Its a tough task but I accept it is essential. Maybe you could cover suspension of disbelief and first three chapters in the future. Thx N.

Steppe said...

My three "candidates" left standing.

1.) Quantum physicist Pierce Daniels must survive butchery carnage and mass slaughter to prevent the top secret experiment that leads to The Armageddon of 2012.

2.) Thirteen miles of defenses known as The Bell Devil’s Hellfire Walk separates America’s annihilation from Physicist Pierce Daniels 7337th death.

3.)The atomized obliteration of the United States of America in 2012 can only be stopped by the person who originally ignited the conflagration that engulfed all of mankind; Quantum Physicist and Nobel Laureate Dr. Pierce Daniels.

Stephen Prosapio said...

Awesome! I've never seen this spelled out so clearly and logically. Definitely a keeper. Thanks NB!

Linnea said...

Great post Nathan. I think a one sentence pitch helps the writer focus on the through plot to see if it has enough meat. I love loglines anyway so I always try and describe my WIP in a single sentence.

Maya said...

Thanks! Very useful.

Jared said...

Long time reader, first time poster. This is not related to the current blog post, but as someone who clearly enjoy filmed drama and children's literature, I felt I would be amiss if I didn't wise you to a guy making "Golden Books" style pages out of classic (R-rated) movie scenes: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/brainiac/2010/05/golden_books_th.html
for a gallery of them, check out:
http://kotaku.com/5540330/these-golden-books-are-not-for-children/gallery/
(He already has a book deal)

Sheila Mary Taylor said...

This is such good advice, not only for being able to tell a top class agent you have the luck to meet in the lift at a writing conference why it's imperative that he should read your book, but also to guide you when you're doing those last few vital edits before submitting the manuscript. It would keep you focused and might even make you realise you aren't quite on the right track. Thank you so much.

Jared said...

Since I am already posting irrelevent links, I think you might also enjoy the next link on Brainiac (a wonderful little blog that the Boston Globe puts out): Adult authors who write children's books... and how to get them.

Again, http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/brainiac/2010/05/graham_greene_w.html and http://wetoowerechildren.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

I'm not fond of deep-fried cornbread-wrapped weiners on a stick, but then I'm not partial to traditional carnival foods. I've preferred beer and then booze. Even those delights are denied me now. The one constant from childhood that remains my favorite, savoring the flavors of interpersonal and group interaction dynamics. People as inciters, flavors, obstacles, quests.

K. M. Walton said...

What a logical recipe to follow. I spent last night crafting my one sentence pitch according to your template, and I still wrestled. A lot.

But it is in the wrestle...the very struggle, that provides the opportunity to think, and think deeply.

Thank you for that.

Anonymous said...

This morning I reviewed my pitch based on your recipe and found that it seems to follow suit. This is one of your best posts ever. Also the previous "one paragraph, two paragraph pitch" post rocks.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this! Maybe I'm just thick-skulled but, I would love a few more examples from well-known adult or YA fiction novels. I think the whittling down is the trickiest part.

Lalena Grantham said...

As usual your post is very helpful. The examples are a great guide we can build on. Now we simply have to make our stories sound dynamic, intriguing and heart felt in one sentence. Thank you for showing it can be done.

Nancy said...

I read a book on script writing that mandated starting with your logline before you even begin writing the story. When you know what your story is about, it's much easier to decide between potential subplots and character choices.

Andrea Wenger said...

Thanks, Nathan. I thought I had my one-sentence pitch down until I read this. But I'd stated the quest too generically. Once I made the quest specific to my novel-in-progress, I realized something I hadn't before: the protagonist's quest in her personal life is mirrored in her professional life. Thanks for the inspiration!

Sully said...

This is awesome. Very helpful.

Patty Blount said...

After I refined my one-sentence pitch following this blog post, I attended a cousin's communion, where someone asked me about my current project.

Perfect opportunity to perfect the pitch, right?

So, I launched right in. It must have been a hit... two tables of guests kept asking me, "And then what happens?"

Thanks, Nathan!

Sheila Deeth said...

Wow! That's just what I needed. So glad Judith sent me here.

del lobo said...

The one sentence pitch could keep me focused on my story. Thanks for the insight.

AchingHope said...

Dude! This is exciting. I thought I was doing these one-liners wrong.

Thank you so much for the info. :)

Dawn M. Hamsher said...

Nathan, I love formulas! You've given easy to follow directions and a great example, especially adding the corn dogs...what fun!

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