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
Instead of being asked for a verb, a color, an animal, etc., you are going to use four things about your book to fill in the blanks of the MadLib sentence:
Your Four Things
- The hypothetical situation: _______________________________________________
This is the situation at the beginning of your story that will change the life of your main character forever..
Ex. “After aliens invade…” or “when she inherits forty-nine horses”
- Your main character’s name: _____________________________________________
Ex. “Dagmar Day”
- Your main character is trying to… (The Issue): _____________________________________________
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. Your protagonist is trying to…(learn to trust, get justice, forget the past, etc.). What is their dilemma? Try not to get into the weeds here with a lot of plot detail. Distill your character’s dilemma or issue into a basic concept of one or two words. Hint: In many books, what the character is trying to do involves a moral decision or their emotional well-being, not just a physical problem.
Ex. “Survive” or “save the planet” or “reclaim their honor”
- Assumption the main character makes to deal with their problem: __________________________________________________
What does the main character believe they must do to resolve the issue? What does the main character believe (deep in their heart and against all odds, etc), which is shown to be true (or completely false) at the end of the story?
Ex. “Kill the King of Venus”
Now Fill in the Blanks
Here’s the MadLib type fill-in-the-blank sentence for your pitch. Hint: Keep it in present tense for use in book blurbs, teasers, etc.
After __________1____________, the only way ___________2__________ can ___________3____________ is to ________________4_________________.
Here’s the One-Sentence Pitch
After aliens invade, the only way Dagmar Day can survive is to kill the King of Venus.
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. Dagmar Day ASSUMES she has to kill the King of Venus in order to survive. This is the premise of your book. Will Dagmar find her assumption to be true at the end of the book? Or false?
If you are writing a sci-fi novel, the assumption is probably true. If you are writing a romance, the assumption is probably false, and Dagmar ends up falling in love with the king.
Having Trouble with Your Premise?
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. When Dagmar is told, “The only way we can survive is if you sacrifice yourself to the king of the aliens,” our heroine will retort, “No way. I’m not going to sacrifice myself. I’m going to kill that sucker!” Making it more life-and-death will raise the stakes for your character, which is what you want.
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 and hold to that 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.
Your character should have an arc in regard to the premise:
- I believe — Maybe I’m wrong. This is too hard, too dangerous, etc. –No, I was right.
- I believe –Could I be wrong? My heart or gut is telling me something different –Yes, I was wrong.
Every Type of Literature 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 and what the villain believes they had to do in order to fix something.
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. And of course, your protagonist’s belief/assumption will be in complete opposition to that of the antagonist.
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 (what’s at the heart of your story)—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.
Ms Simpson has won numerous awards for her fiction, including Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award, Career Achievement Award, and has been a finalist in the RITA awards and for Best Indie Paranormal of the Year. To listen to more writing tips, tune into her podcast Fabulous Writing Tips.
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