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.