Most advice on how to write a query letter is oriented toward novels with a conventional structure. As a result, I often get confused emails from authors who are wondering how in the heck they’re supposed to write a query letter when they have multiple protagonists and intersecting plot lines.
With so few words at your disposal, it’s crucial to make every bit of your query letter count. It’s also helpful to stick to one perspective because making the agent shift gears midway through the query can be jarring.
So with that in mind, there are two main approaches I’d recommend for handling multiple protagonists in a query letter. And if you need help or feedback on your query letter, please reach out to me!
1) Stick with one character
Even if you have multiple protagonists, try first to anchor to one character in the query letter and stick to their perspective. Summarize the plot from their POV in third person limited.
This tends to be most effective when there is a primary protagonist who is more important than the rest or when one of the characters is present for the major plot events and the story can be made to look cohesive from their perspective.
Don’t feel like you have to cram every protagonist into your query or feel like your query has to mirror the structure of your novel. All you’re trying to do is to help the agent understand your plot.
If you can accomplish that by focusing on one character: do that.
2) Zoom out to a “god’s eye” perspective
If there’s no cohesive way to stick to one character, the next best approach is to zoom out from above and try to tell the story from a single, unified perspective.
If there was a god sitting above this world or a historian who was chronicling this era, how would they summarize what was happening?
Again, don’t worry about trying to capture every single character, just make sure the agent understands the essence of the story.
One of the best examples of this is the jacket copy for A Game of Thrones. Ned Stark is the nominal protagonist in that novel, but there are many different perspectives throughout and a truly sprawling plot. So how did the publisher summarize all of it?
Winter is coming. Such is the stern motto of House Stark, the northernmost of the fiefdoms that owe allegiance to King Robert Baratheon in far-off King’s Landing. There Eddard Stark of Winterfell rules in Robert’s name. There his family dwells in peace and comfort: his proud wife, Catelyn; his sons Robb, Brandon, and Rickon; his daughters Sansa and Arya; and his bastard son, Jon Snow. Far to the north, behind the towering Wall, lie savage Wildings and worse—unnatural things relegated to myth during the centuries-long summer, but proving all too real and all too deadly in the turning of the season.
Yet a more immediate threat lurks to the south, where Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, has died under mysterious circumstances. Now Robert is riding north to Winterfell, bringing his queen, the lovely but cold Cersei, his son, the cruel, vainglorious Prince Joffrey, and the queen’s brothers Jaime and Tyrion of the powerful and wealthy House Lannister—the first a swordsman without equal, the second a dwarf whose stunted stature belies a brilliant mind. All are heading for Winterfell and a fateful encounter that will change the course of kingdoms.
Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, Prince Viserys, heir of the fallen House Targaryen, which once ruled all of Westeros, schemes to reclaim the throne with an army of barbarian Dothraki—whose loyalty he will purchase in the only coin left to him: his beautiful yet innocent sister, Daenerys.
The opening paragraph loosely sticks to Ned, but after that it zooms out and gives a broad summary that leaves out a ton. You get a sense of the overall plot and world, but this is by no means an exhaustive description.
Just make the plot cohesive and don’t feel like you have to include everything.
What not to do
What doesn’t tend to work is trying to cycle between all the different protagonists one by one or shifting midstream. Anything can be made to work, but usually this becomes difficult to follow and it makes it more difficult to understand the overall “spine” of the plot.
Prioritize making the plot cohesive and giving a sense of the flavor of your world over trying to hold up a mirror to a sprawling novel. The easiest way to do this is by sticking to one voice.
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Art: Adriaen van Stalbemt – The Finding of Moses