Wednesday, July 18, 2018

In a nutshell

Is it a part of an author’s responsibility to develop a good “elevator pitch”? If so, why; if not, why not? Any advice for those trying to develop a good/better one?

by Dietrich Kalteis

It didn’t occur to me when I typed ‘the end’ to my first novel that somebody was bound to ask what the book was about, and that I needed to do more than blink and ramble.

The first time I went to Bouchercon was months before the release of that first novel, and I met an author I admired and I was asked what my book was about. That’s when I learned the importance of having a pitch worked out after I fumbled for the right words, and ended up sounding like I didn’t know what my own story was about. Suffice to say, that author couldn’t have been impressed with my pitch.

And I guess I could have copped the attitude that if I wanted to tell my story in a couple of short lines, why did I bother writing the other 300 pages. Instead, I learned that whether I’m talking to a friend or a filmmaker, and if I want to sell them on my story, I need to be confident and persuasive, leaving them wanting more. So, I need to be concise, express my ideas effectively, but do it with as few words as possible. 

It’s called the elevator pitch to give an idea of how much time you’ve got. You get on, press the button, and go. By the time the doors reopen, you’ve got the storyline across and hopefully you’ve impressed your listener. That or you may as well press the ‘door close’ button and keep talking until security arrives on the scene.

It may seem a simple thing to effectively express a novel in a few lines, but boiling down a story to a few right words can be anything but simple. The pitch needs to be short, to the point, convey the protagonist and the conflict, and it needs a hook — a ‘so what?’ — a reason why they should care.

Another thing I’ve learned is not to talk too fast, don’t cram five  minutes worth of words into sixty seconds of time, like one of those commercials with the medical disclaimer at the end.

To me, loglines, taglines and short synopses follow along the same lines as the elevator pitch, boiled down to just a single line or two. Writing them is challenging and follow the same rule: keep it short and to the point, and with a hook. 

Here’s the one liner for my next novel Poughkeepsie Shuffle, coming out in September: Just released from prison, Jeff Nichols is looking for easy money, not letting lessons from past mistakes stand in the way of a good score.

And a few from some favorite novels and films that really grabbed me.

“A 1940’s New York mafia family struggles to protect their empire from rival families as the leadership switches from the father to his youngest son.” — The Godfather, Mario Puzo (1969) 

”Her life was in their hands. Now her toe is in the mail.” — The Big Lebowski, Coen Brothers (1998)

"A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere.” — Fargo, Coen Brothers (1996)

"Protecting the Earth from the scum of the universe!”— Men in Black, adapted from the Men in Black comic books (1997)

"A man went looking for America. And couldn't find it anywhere.” — Easy Rider, Peter Fonda (1969)

“On every street in every city in this country, there's a nobody who dreams of being a somebody.” — Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader (1976)

“A young F.B.I. cadet must receive the help of an incarcerated and manipulative cannibal killer to help catch another serial killer, a madman who skins his victims.” — The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris (1988)

7 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Coming up with a pitch is an art in itself. You'd think it would be easier, but it's hard to distill a book down to a couple of lines. Some great examples here, Dieter.

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Terry said...

While I was reading your post, I was thinking of a few budding writers whom I have asked the question, "What's your book about?" And after a while I'm numb, listening to...well, it sounds like the whole book. I haven't had the courage to say, "You need to develop a few lines to tell people what the book is about." Should I? Would that be presumptuous, or kind?

Dietrich Kalteis said...

I think you'd be doing them a favor, Terry. "What's it about?" is a question every writer will get asked sooner or later.

RJ Harlick said...

Some great examples of pitches, including yours, Dietrich. Good post

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thanks, Robin.

Susan C Shea said...

I like those film lines - really the essence. your anecdote about being asked to describe your first book at a con made me laugh because I did the same thing! Problem is, I still do it....