Writers use one-sentence pitches for just about everything: query letters, hooks, book summaries, back blurbs and for pitching ideas to editors and agents. We can also use the pitch to guide us as we write our novels. Creating your pitch statement before you start writing a book can become your secret weapon.
But writing the one-sentence pitch is the most difficult task a writer faces. How do we coalesce the soul of our book into a few words? There is so much going on in our novel. So much to say. How do we refine our thoughts and drill down to the nitty-gritty of our story?
Well, I have a formula. Yes, a formula. It’s like Mad Libs. You fill in the blanks with words of your choosing and then refine the statement until you are satisfied with the outcome.
Use the Mad Libs Approach
Here’s the basic statement we will start out with:
When (hypothetical situation), then the only way (main character) can (issue) is to (assumption).
The next step in building a one-sentence pitch is to replace the italicized words above with your own.
1. Choose a phrase for the hypothetical situation in your book.
Hypothetical situation: the world is blanketed by a nuclear winter
2. What is your main character’s name?
Name: London vampires
3. What is the issue you are writing about?
All great books are created by writers who have something to say. Books aren’t just about plot and characters and action scenes. Books are about people facing a tough issue and making a tough moral decision about the issue.
Examples of issues are:
- forbidden love
In The Londo Chronicles, the overarching issue is survival. The creatures who fight to survive are humans and vampires. But in a low sunlight world, what race would flourish? Vampires. And what do the vampires have to do to survive, without resorting to living off unpalatable rodents? They have to make sure human blood is available. So survival is my issue.
4. What is the assumption the main character makes about the issue?
Assumption: must raise humans like cattle.
Here’s Our One-Sentence Pitch
Now, let’s take all the terms we defined in Steps 1-4 and plug them into our Mad Libs pitch statement.
When the world is blanketed by a nuclear winter, the only way London Vampires can survive is to raise humans like cattle.
This is our one-sentence pitch. But here’s the best part. Inside this pitch, we have created a premise. Our main character has made an assumption about survival. The London vampires ASSUME they have to treat humans like cattle in order to survive. This is my premise. Is this assumption true? Or false? At the end of the series, I will prove that humans and vampires aren’t that much different from each other, and neither race should be treated like animals.
If you are having trouble coming up with your premise or assumption, be sure to add “the only way to” to your issue. That will automatically set up two sides to the assumption. A strong character in a novel will always challenge an “only” statement. It’s human nature to do so.
A character’s assumption about the issue is your premise. That’s what you will set out to prove or disprove. Is your character right to make the assumption or hold a certain belief? Or will they find out they’re wrong and change their minds at the end of the book? The entire book will be about the journey the character takes to find out if they are right or wrong about their assumption.
Every type of literary fiction has a premise
Even a mystery novel will be fired by a premise. The assumption usually belongs to the villain in this type of story. Think of how a mystery usually ends, with the bad guy explaining why they did something or the cops figuring out why the crime was committed. Criminals aren’t hung up on the “how” they did something. It’s always the “why.” It’s always about the premise:
- When his daughter is murdered, the only way Roger McBride can get real justice is to track down the guy and kill him.
- When Leslie Lee is discovered having an affair, the only way she can save her reputation is to silence the blackmailer.
Do you see how the Mad Libs technique is employed in the two pitches above?
Detectives always want to find out what really happened. What was the motive? What was the belief or assumption that caused a human being to commit a crime? Think of stories that are based on mere psychopathic actions or cult rituals. These types of stories aren’t nearly half as satisfying as ones that involve a “why” or a “belief in something” or an “assumption.”
Use your one-sentence pitch as a guide
When you use the hypothetical situation/issue/assumption method to build your pitch statement, you will automatically build in a premise. You will then know what you are going to prove or disprove at the end of your book.
Building the premise first will guide you as you write. Your characters will hold personal beliefs about this premise and will take action in regard to it. And at the end, some of your main characters will change their minds about what they believe as you prove or disprove the premise through your protagonist.
Pitch statements and premise are tough things to tackle. I know. I’m like every other writer. I want to write plot. I want to dive into those action scenes, those love scenes, and those scenes where the heroine meets the hero for the first time. But good stories are crafted around premise.
Good stories drive toward proving the premise. If you keep your premise as your guiding star—if you know what your one-sentence pitch is—you will write a much better book. You will satisfy readers on a visceral level. And that means your book will stay with a reader long after they read the last line.