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.
About the Author
You’re an indie author. Your critique group and beta readers have scrutinized your chapters and cover. You have made final changes and are ready to publish. Right? Wrong. Make an audiobook first. Here’s why.
1. The ear hears what the eye skips over.
In this day of digital media, we have grown accustomed to skimming for information. We scan paragraphs for salient points and move on. Our eyes are designed to do this. Most of us can read words whose letters are jumbled almost as easily as if the letters were in the correct order. Understanding at a glance is a skill.
But our skimming skill isn’t that great for editing. My eyes will gloss right over “the” next to “the,” especially if there’s a line break between them. But if I’m reading the manuscript out loud, I’m using my brain in a different way. When reading as a narrator, the brain knows it has to quit scanning, pay attention to what the mouth is saying and the ear is hearing and take the time to understand and pronounce every word.
2. Narration catches convoluted writing.
Sometimes, after numerous rewrites, we can overwork a paragraph until it reads like a James Joyce novel. Long, convoluted sentences can lose your reader and force them to backtrack, just to understand what you are trying to say. The horror.
You don’t realize how convoluted the writing is, because you’ve read it so many times you could probably recite it by heart. When you read your book out loud, however, your voiceover actor self will experience the same confusion a reader experiences. What’s the subject? Where does the emphasis belong?
Why would you want to make a reader work that hard?
When you read your book out loud, your ear will catch convoluted passages as you encounter them. You will stumble over convolutions your eye has skimmed over; granted, it is stellar prose—and who wouldn’t award you the Booker Prize for the turn of phrase that was just so perfect, so golden, you just have to keep it in because it reads so wonderfully, especially since there is a semi-colon, colon and an em dash or maybe even some parentheses—because, really, writing novels can show off a person’s genius (and phraseology) as no other medium.
K.I.S.S.* (Keep it simple, Steinbeck!)
3. Narration catches overuse of adverbs.
Most writers know the less adverbs they use, the better their text flows. Adverbs can really slow down a sentence. But those pesky adverbs crop up, no matter how vigilant we are. If you read your book out loud, you will catch a lot of extra adverbs, because they are often difficult to pronounce in a sentence. (At least for me.) Try saying this phrase three times:
“…feeling peculiarly safe with him…”
Even if your tongue didn’t just fall back into your throat, try recording what you just said. Listen to it. The clip will probably sound like you’re yodeling. Drop the adverb if the sentence doesn’t require it. It rarely does.
4. Audio playback finds plot holes.
A book takes a long time to create. Sometimes years. Over time, even the best of writers can forget details from Chapter 1 to Chapter 40. Years may have gone by since you mentioned the red spoon in Chapter 1. How did it become green in Chapter 40? If you read your book cover to cover, you might catch the spoon mistake. But again, your eye is trained to understand on the fly. And it’s moving fast. According to Wikipedia, the average adult reads text at 250 to 300 words per minute. Narration is done at 150 to 160 words per minute. So your mouth is going twice as slow as your eyes. And those eyes will gloss over so much. There’s something about the brain to eye connection that is totally different than the brain to ear connection. (At least for me.)
If I take that same book and listen to the audio track, I have a totally different experience. I’m not reading text, fingers poised to go to the next page. I am IN the book, IN the world. My ears engage my brain and keep it inside the story instead of streaking forward with the eyes. I am usually amazed at the details I find to fix in the text. Or things I’ve said too many times. Or things I’ve renamed.
In the old days, a good editor caught many such errors. But the last editor I had was too busy to care as much as she should. I was amazed at the errors that got through a traditional publisher. So now, I do line edits myself, using audio. But it’s worth it. Editing for the ear has made me a much better writer.
In fact, as I edit the audio, I keep my Word document open so I can alter my text as I go. Then both audiobook and manuscript are exactly the same.
5. You know how you want things said.
Have you ever watched a movie and thought the actor emphasized the wrong word? They completely missed the punch of the sentence. The timing. The irony. That can happen if a narrator doesn’t understand your meaning or your sense of humor. I’m not saying narrators can’t read books well. There are wonderful narrators out there. I’m saying that you are the person who knows how to best interpret your prose.
6. Readers want to read along or multitask.
I met an avid reader the other day who said they love to read but have trouble staying on task. They lose their concentration and their place in the book. But if they listen as they read along, they stay in the book. (Again, that ear/brain connection.) So if they buy a book, they ALWAYS buy the audiobook, too. That was a revelation to me. Audiobooks are time-consuming to make, but the profit on them is much larger than a book sale. If there are more people like Kelly out there wanting to buy both versions of your book, you should make the audiobook available to them. More sales!
Plus, more and more people are jogging, cleaning and driving while listening to books and podcasts. I predict the audio market will one day be as popular as the text market. Why not reap the benefits of this growing market and improve your writing at the same time?
Listen to an audio sample of Patricia Simpson’s latest book, Apothecary
About the author:
Patricia Simpson has won numerous awards, including Romantic Times Career Achievement Award, Best Futuristic, Paranormal, Fantasy of the Year and Reviewer’s Choice Awards. One of her recent novels, SPELLBOUND, was nominated Best Indie Paranormal of the Year.
Visit Patricia Simpson’s website at https://patriciasimpson.com.