A Marketing Handbook for Writers: Part Fifteen - Putting Together a Pitch
After the blurb comes the pitch.
The ‘pitch’ is a fuller synopsis of your story. You’ll need this to talk to agents or publishers. You’ll need it to talk to yourself when you lose track of what you’re doing.
The pitch isn’t aimed at readers, particularly.
To put together a good pitch you need to understand at least some of the elements of the craft of writing. There are plenty of guides out there about how to write a pitch, and several of them use the terminology common in writing forums and groups - terms like protagonist, antagonist, quest, prize, goal and guardians - and these may be helpful to you.
However, almost all the advice out there can be hard to grasp or apply. You may read a definition for a ‘protagonist’ or a ‘guardian’ and it seems to make some kind of sense - but when you come to apply it to your story, something doesn’t quite fit. You can end up getting very confused and dispirited, feeling that there’s a whole world of nomenclature out there which you never knew about and against which your story will be judged. There are very few guides which strive to simplify all this or explain the fundamentals underlying it all.
I’d like to think that my book, How Stories Really Work, is one of the better ones. In it, I take the terms used in such things as the Hero’s Journey and that kind of thing and explain how all of that is based on simple devices, archetypes and genres common to all storytelling.
Be that as it may, in the absence the understanding brought about by such books and guides, let’s try to describe how to put a pitch together in the simplest possible way.
A pitch is basically a synopsis of your story. It should be less than 500 words in length - that’s less than one page of A4, single spaced. It should be written in third-person, present tense, irrespective of how the novel is written.
Start by describing the setting – when and where the story is set - and then introduce the protagonist, the character with whom the reader is meant to most identify, the ‘hero’ or ‘heroine’ of the story.
This character should have a problem. Most guides suggest that this problem is caused by the antagonist. It might be simpler to say that the protagonist is missing something - concentrated incompleteness/ a vacuum - and the reason that they are missing whatever it is has something to do with the antagonist.
You’ll come across the idea of the ‘quest’ in many guides about storytelling. This is simply the sequence of actions which the protagonist must go through, or attempt to go through, in order to get whatever it is that he or she is missing. In many stories, this translates as a geographic journey; in some stories it’s a psychological journey. ‘Journey’ as a term may not be helpful to you at all. It is whatever the protagonist has to do to get the missing thing or quality and to achieve completion or resolution of incompleteness, if you prefer. In some stories, the characters never leave a room throughout the narrative to get to this point (e.g. J. B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls) and so the metaphor of ‘journey’ hardly applies except psychologically.
Some guides suggest that you should introduce the antagonist early on. Experience tells us that antagonists, and the ‘final conflict’ which is supposed to ensue when the protagonist meets the antagonist, are normally best left until later. Why? Because readers - including the agent or publisher reading your pitch - won’t care very much about the final conflict until they have made more of an emotional commitment to the protagonist. This is achieved using very precise mechanisms earlier in the tale, as we will see.
You will also probably come across the term ‘guardians’ to describe the series of companions, good and bad, whom the protagonist encounters on his or her ‘quest’. This term and the ones associated with it can also be misleading. In fact, in most stories there are archetypal figures fulfilling definite roles within the tale as part of a whole. You’ll see examples shortly.
Your pitch needs to then describe the complications that occur on the way to the resolution of the incompleteness, and then finally show how the protagonist achieves completeness. This won’t usually be put in those terms in other advice, but this is what they mean.
Here’s a sample pitch for J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings which follows the above pattern. My bracketed notes show where each aspect of the pitch has been placed:
Long, long ago in the world of Middle-earth (setting), young Frodo Baggins (protagonist) inherits a ring from his Uncle Bilbo which grants invisibility to its wearer. But Frodo discovers from the wizard Gandalf that the ring is none other than the One Ring, a devastatingly powerful artefact sought after by dark forces. Frodo must give up everything that he cherishes and set out to destroy this thing before it is found by enemies. (concentrated incompleteness)
Battling against the Ring’s evil power, and lost in a world where anything could happen and where the folk he encounters could be foes in disguise, Frodo must make a series of dangerous choices. Accompanied by his servant Sam, and meeting various companions on his journey, Frodo finds that not all are to be trusted. (These sentences describe the aspects of the story designed to increase the reader’s emotional commitment. Much more on this is in my book, How Stories Really Work.)
When he is separated from allies and left to travel with Sam alone, Frodo finds himself guided by an earlier wearer of the Ring, Gollum - but Gollum’s mind has been twisted by the evil thing, and his guidance becomes betrayal (complication).
Finally, Frodo’s steps lead him to the very edge of the Cracks of Doom and a final confrontation with the Enemy (antagonist revealed). Only the intervention of miraculous chance saves him from death and brings about the downfall of the Lord of the Rings (resolution).
Of course, it’s fairly easy to outline this with a straightforward fantasy story like The Lord of the Rings. So here’s a less obvious example - Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:
In early 19th century England (setting), young Elizabeth Bennett (protagonist) is faced with the prospect of having to marry purely for money in order to save her family from ruin. (concentrated incompleteness)
Confronted with unwanted suitors and Darcy, a repellent and arrogant stranger, Lizzie must decide whether her feelings for the soldier Wickham are sound and should lead to something more permanent. But Wickham is not to be trusted. (These sentences describe the aspects of the story designed to increase the reader’s emotional commitment.)
When Lizzie’s sister elopes with the devious Wickham, Lizzie finds herself forced to rely upon the prejudiced Darcy - only to discover that he is not what he had seemed to be either (complication).
Finally, the realisation and declaration of affinity between Lizzie and Darcy leads to a final confrontation with the overbearing and pompous Lady Catherine Du Bergh (antagonist revealed). By standing up to the weight of social reproof, Lizzie determines the true value of love (resolution).
Here are some other things to remember, which may help you compose a powerful pitch synopsis for your story:
• the antagonist is not necessarily another person. It can be a force or prejudice or set of arbitrary conditions. It is usually, however, represented in some way by an actual figure.
• remove as many adverbs and adjectives from your synopsis as you can – think minimalism.
• don’t go into too much detail about your other characters, just the main ones. Leave out unnecessary details and descriptions. This includes any sub-plots: just leave them out.
• remember, this isn’t a blurb: you are not trying to press the vacuum power button. You are trying to give a concise overview of your story’s key points to someone who might be interested in publishing it and who needs to know if it ‘works’ as a story.
Try this with a story of your own. Putting together a synopsis has the occasional side-effect of making you see weaknesses in the story itself. Adjust the narrative and re-write the pitch.
Soon you’ll be on your way to writing success.