Authors write novels using thousands of words to tell the story, but the daunting task they face after the writing is condensing those 50000 words into a paragraph about the book. All the publishers require one so they can quickly know about the story and the author's voice. There is no avoiding the writing of a pitch synopsis if you want to interest a publisher, editor, or agent.
In 2011 I attended the FREE MuseItUp Online Writers Conference and was delighted (and thankful) to discover this class on writing a synopsis. Author/Presenter Joanne Brothwell graciously allowed me to share this handout from that class.
Please read on for helpful advice on writing a synopsis.
Thank you, Joanne!
Perfecting the Pitch Synopsis Toolkit
© by Joanne Brothwell, 2011
author of Stealing Breath
A pitch synopsis is like an audition or a job interview; it gives a potential agent/editor a taste of what they will get from your novel. Whether it’s a query letter, an in-person pitch, or an informal chat with your next-door neighbour, the pitch synopsis has the potential to sell your story. It’s your opportunity to show why your novel is special, unique and to give them a hint of the perfectly distilled, profitable elements from your story. Give an agent/editor a reason to want read more!
The Pitch Synopsis
“Grab them by the throat in the beginning, lift them off their feet in the middle, and leave your fingerprints on their necks at the end.”
The pitch is a quick, highly-distilled synopsis of the unique and profitable elements of your book.
-Katherine Sands, Sarah Freyman Agency
Show them How Your Story is Unique, Fresh and Authentic
What is it about your writing that is different from every other writer in the slush pile? Figure out what it is about your work that’s more quirky, mesmerizing, charming, edgy or provocative than everyone else, and then make sure you highlight those qualities in your pitch.
Agents and publishers want to be impressed. They’re looking for something that will stand out, something distinctive, fresh – something that piques their interest – the hook.
A pitch synopsis should read like the back “blurb” of a novel. It should set the mood, and be an enticing hint at the story to come, a hint that highlights an exciting incident or crisis that causes a series of obstacles for the character to overcome.
So, what Makes an Effective Hook?
Let’s break it down:
Right off the bat, agents/editors wants to know who the main protagonist is. Most pitches start with answering that very question, often in the very first sentence.
Where does your story take place? This is vitally important to agents, as they need to know if it is small town
, an alien planet or Victorian
England. Sometimes the setting alone will create obstacles for the character to
overcome, and that information should be available immediately. USA
What does the character want? What do they want to accomplish? Is it to find ever-lasting love, to achieve independence, or to kick an addiction? Decide what your character wants and make sure it is clear in your pitch.
-Hayley E. Lavik, http://hayleyelavik.com/index.html
For what purpose does the character want to achieve their goal? What is the driving force, pushing them forward, against the odds? Why does Harry fight Voldemort? To win the girl? To fight for freedom from oppression?
What is stopping them from achieving their goal? Is there a monster trying to kill them? An ex-boyfriend who won’t let them go? Is the protagonist in the middle of a harsh desert, with no water supply and no way out? Show the barriers the character faces.
-Kat Aubrey, http://carnivalerian.blogspot.com/
What is the problem the main character faces, both internal and external? As people, we love to hear about the problems other people face. Just look at the sheer volume of reality shows there are, and it’s obvious we love conflict!
Make sure you clearly show what is at risk should the character fail. Is there a possibility of danger, loss, failure? The loss of a lover? Loss of self-sufficiency? Death? World domination?
Make sure you ratchet up the tension. At the beginning, the blurb should hint at the conflict. But by the end, the tension should have mounted to the point where the threat is imminent.
Formula for Success
Former literary agent and successful blogger/writer Nathan Bransford, has talked about how query letters can be reduced to a fairly generic formula. For the full query letter formula, check it out on his blog:http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2008/03/query-letter-mad-lib.html
What I’m interested in for this workshop, however, is the pitch portion of the query:
[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist's quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist's goal].
Nathan Bransford also recommends three separate pitches depending on the situation they will be used: the one-sentence, one-paragraph, and two paragraph pitches.
Watch your adverbs and adjectives. Purple prose is a definite no-no in any writing. Use action verbs and words that pack the most punch. Check spelling, punctuation and grammar.
Find something that resonates
First, do your homework on the agents you choose to pitch to. Don’t pitch to agents who don’t represent your genre, otherwise you are wasting valuable time and energy. Do pitch to those agents who have an interest in your genre, but make sure you thoroughly creep them online beforehand. Check personal blogs, twitter, wordpress and websites for information.
Borrowing Tricks from Media Relations and Business
Check out Blurbs or Plot Synopsis from your favourite book or movie. What appealed to you about them? Consider what works for movie/television pitches:
Think controversial. Think outrageous. What will cause people to talk about a show at work the next day? For features, romantic comedies are always in demand. Think about how ideas can be adapted. For example, CBS Features just greenlighted a version of Beauty and the Beast set in high school.Put on your thinking caps.
TV and film media love sound bites. The reason for this is because of basic human psychology. As Mark Twain put it: “a minimum of sound to a maximum of sense.”
These key words are charged with standing out more in the memory, becoming the “opening notes” that most succinctly represent the “symphony” of the overall book.
Put careful though into crafting impactful sentences that will resonate for far longer than the time it took to say (or read) them.
Cognitively, we only retain a portion of what we see or hear. Sound bites maximize the punch that the intended message delivers to its recipient. This is where you use all of those killer words that immediately bring up something thrilling or provocative to the imagination: terrible secret, gruesome murder; or my personal favourite, Beware.
Turn of Phrase
Be the person who thinks up a deadly turn of phrase, the kind of phrase that is clever, witty and fresh. Coming up with fantastic turns of phrase will highlight your skill as a writer, and cement that fact in the mind of your listener/reader.
To come up with a great new turn of phrase, you may want to turn to
-metaphors (a figure of speech that attributers a characteristic of one object to another),
-inversion (inverting the subject and predicate of a sentence),
-parallelism (the use for rhythmic effect, of similar constructions in adjacent syntactic units, often giving an equivalent, complementary or antithetic sense) and
-chlasmus (the repetition of words, in successive clauses, in reverse grammatical order). Rather than get into each of these tools, you may want to check out this full article:
The Rule of Three
The Rule of Three is a principle in writing (I have no idea who founded it, by the way), that suggests anything presented in groups of three tends to be more effective and have more impact on the intended audience.
Amplify Words by Drawing Contrasts
Borrowing a technique from speechwriting, sometimes the best way to highlight or magnify a concept is by providing contrast.More is not always more. Remember the KISS rule: Keep it Simple Sweetie. If we cram too much information into a pitch, we effectively weaken the impact.
Watch transitions. Be careful how you segue way from one idea to another, from one sentence to the next, and from one paragraph to the other.
The First and Last Words is The Most Important. Most people remember the first and final words of a lecture, particularly if it is describing a new concept. These are moments of elevated awareness to hone in on.
The Psychology of Words
We writers are already familiar with the emotional impact of words on our readers. Emotion is the heart and soul of pitching. We want our words to stimulate the audience, compelling them from disinterest to excitement
Sex Sells. Sexy words don’t have to be explicit, like naked; they can be more subtle in the hint of sensuality they suggest, like supple, nape or dewy.
Punchy verbs. Consider the power behind a carefully chosen strong verb. Choose verbs that croon, intoxicate and schmoose.
Power words can be extremely persuasive, so choose them wisely! For a great book on emotional words, check out Words that Sell, by Richard Byan.
Play Up What You can do for Them
Know your audience before you pitch. Are they potential readers who are interested in becoming informed, amused or distracted? Are they agents, hoping to build their careers and become more financially secure? Or are they publishers, with the goal of profiting from your book?
Ultimately, we must be able to peer into our audience’s mind and show them what our book will do for them.
The In-Person Pitch
There may be a time in your writing career where you will have to pitch live to another person. This may be at a conference, a writer’s group, a convention or other writing festival. While this is undoubtedly one of the most difficult things to actually do without swallowing your own tongue, it is possible.
Use a Dramatic Pause.
Be Ready for Criticism
Remember, They're Just People, Too
Watch Your Negative Self-Talk
Mistakes to avoid
Poor Writing. Grammar, punctuation, spelling.
Misaddressing your audience.
Perfecting the Pitch Synopsis Checklist
© by Joanne Brothwell, 2011
author of Stealing Breath
- You’ve introduced the Hook: character, setting, goal, motivation, obstacles, conflict, the stakes.
- You’ve considered sound bites, turns of phrase, the rule of three, and drawing contrasts
- You’ve made your first and last words the most powerful.
- You have checked for errors in punctuation, spelling and grammar.
- You have the proper spelling (or pronunciation) of the target person’s name, and the correct address.
- Your pitch is geared to the proper audience.
- Words are chosen for maximum impact.
- Your pitch is clear, potent and succinct.
- The unique, fresh and highly distilled selling points are persuasively highlighted throughout the pitch.
- Superfluous words have been eliminated. Brevity is paramount.
- If spoken aloud, you have rehearsed and are familiar with what will be said.
- You have styled your one-sentence, one-paragraph and two-paragraph pitches similarly to maintain consistency.
- Your pitch appeals to the audience’s needs or desires and clearly shows what your novel can do for them.
- Every word seduces enough to keep the reader/listener interested.
- You conquer fears but remain humble and courteous.