Pitch Writing 101: What’s at Stake?

Pitches are hard.

I could just end the post there and you’d all feel super validated, right? And I am all about validation. That dry eyeball feeling you get from staring at the screen too long? Totally normal. The way your fingers curl in on themselves and you’re not sure if it’s because your body wants to end the torture session you call “Pitch Writing” or because they’ve taken on a life of their own and are thinking about clawing your eyeballs right out of your head?

Okay, maybe that’s just me.

But while I firmly believe any author who claims “pitch writing is FUN!” is a couple sentences short of a full paragraph, there are a few tips I think might prove helpful to you. Being a long-time co-host of the annual Pitch Slam contest doesn’t mean I’m an expert, of course, but what it does mean is that I’ve read a lot of pitches over the years.

Here are my thoughts based on those experiences. What makes a pitch work (or not) for me:

Stakes.

94.37% of the time, stakes are the ideal way to hook your reader. What’s on the line for your character? What do they want more than anything in the world? What will happen if they fail?

Start with the basic formula:

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And then refine from there.

Stakes are vital, but so is knowing who they’re happening to. For the love of words, use your character’sNAME. Please. Not all the characters, of course. We shouldn’t have to swim through character soup to get your plotline. But if your story is about a seventeen-year-old gymnast named Steve, make sure those details are in your pitch. Let us know who we should be rooting for.

BE SPECIFIC.

There’s a big difference between intrigue and mystery, but time and again I see people confuse the two. Avoid vagueness at all costs.

For Example:

Pitch #1: When she went to work she had no idea the danger she’d be walking into. Now, she must overcome a dangerous foe, or the worst day of her life might be her last.

 Pitch #2: Twenty-three-year-old bank teller Maria Santos yearns to get home to her infant son, but if she can’t get through to the bomb-wielding psycho robbing the bank, she and the forty-two other hostages are done for.

The first pitch is very mysterious, isn’t it? So mysterious, we don’t know the character’s name, occupation, life situation, who her “dangerous foe” is, why this is the “worst day of her life,” or why her life is in danger. Funny thing? Pitch #2 only uses two more words than pitch number one does, and yet communicates ten times as much information.

Mystery is not your friend. Don’t try to surprise the reader with the secret of what your book is about. That’s what the pitch is supposed to tell them!

USE YOUR WORDS.

As I’m always saying to my children: Use Your Words. Going under the expected word count can do as much damage as going over. Remember Steve the Gymnast who I mentioned earlier? How much more powerful does that character introduction become if I call him “Steve the reluctant gymnast” or “Steve the singing gymnast” or “Steve the blackmailing gymnast?” A single word can make a world of difference.

Strive for perfection (and know you’re still awesome even if you don’t achieve it). Read your pitch out loud. Write it out by hand. Have friends proofread for you. Share it with people who know nothing about your story. If your pitch has only had one pair of eyes on it, odds are it’s not ready yet.

Comp Titles.

Whoo boy, is this is a tricky subject. Some writers just love using comp titles in pitches. They can be remarkably effective in a query (I encourage all my editing clients to use them), because they demonstrate that you know your genre. My personal opinion though? Comps usually don’t belong in a pitch. You have a limited word count, and I think those words should be about your story, not someone else’s. That said, if they’re the perfect comparisons, they CAN work. I’ve seen them work. But only about 5% of the time.

Don’t assume you’re in the 5%. Get second, third, fourth, and fifth opinions.

Back to number 1 on my list. Stakes. All the coolest people are talking about them. They’re missing in pitches. They’re missing in queries. The question, “But what’s at stake?” gets lobbed around a lot, because stakes create empathy.

Knowing the main character has something to lose helps the reader invest themselves in the story on an emotional level. And when you shine the spotlight on “If Main Character doesn’t do BLANK, then DOOM will happen,” the suspense intensifies by a factor of 57% (-ish). Stakes are the match that lights the “What’s going to happen?!” fire.

So how do you figure out what the stakes of your story are?

Try framing it as a “What if?” What happens if your Main Character fails? What if they don’t save the world? What if they don’t let themselves fall in love? What if the bus driver never solves the mystery of why he wakes up with a new tattoo every morning?

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Picture a different ending for these popular stories. Picture Harry failing and Voldemort triumphing. Picture the havoc a functioning Death Star could wreak on the galaxy—the innumerable lives it could snuff out. Picture sweet little Wilbur dead and butchered. Picture him sizzling in a frying pan.

That feeling of unease you’re feeling (assuming you let me boss you around, your imagination is functional, and you have a heart) is what you’re shooting for in your stakes-based pitches, and in your query. Make the reader uncomfortable. Introduce them to your amazing, unique, memorable main character, show them what that character wants more than anything, then make them sick with worry over the potential consequences.

Not all stories have happy endings. Make your reader terrified that yours might be one of them.

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kimKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

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