Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Pitch Practice: Character, Goal and Hook

Today I'm going to get a bit technical and talk about query pitches. This post is mainly targeting writers, but hopefully it'll offer a little insight into the process for others too.

So while I was in the hospital having a baby, I was featured on Amy Trueblood's Quite the Query. Head over there to see my pitch for The Never Silent, then hurry right back. I'll wait.

...

Back? Ok.

I'm really satisfied with this pitch. I signed with my agent, Marlene Stringer, for this book, so I absolutely consider it a success.

But what is it about this query that works?

I've been thinking about the answer to that question ever since a conversation I had with my critique partner about querying. The thing is, I'm one of those horrible people who actually enjoys writing a query pitch. I know, you hate me for that. But I think it's a fun exercise.

So I've spent some time analyzing my pitch-crafting method, and I've come up with something of a formula* that I frequently use. It has three parts: Character, Goal and Hook

Today I'm going to go through those three parts with a pitch for a story I'm making up out of the blue.**

Character:

Let's start with a girl. A teen, since I write YA. Let's call her Ellie. Right now we don't know anything about her, and we need to if we're going to get anyone interested in her. We need a reason for Ellie to be the main character, a reason why she is the only person who makes sense as the main character of our story. We don't just want a placeholder that any teen girl could stand in. So let's show how Ellie distinguishes herself from other girls.

Ellie sees memories when she walks into an empty room. They are silent, like 3D soap operas on mute. The more dramatic memories are brighter, the rest dim or faded to nothing.

Okay. That's a start. Ellie has a unique and interesting trait. I would want to know more about her. Now let's give Ellie a goal.

Goal:

Every character needs a goal. (Even secondary characters in your story should want something.) In fact, your main character should have a goal in every scene. As the ineffable Rosemary Clement-Moore once told my group at a writing workshop, even a simple goal like wanting to fetch a drink of water can add to a scene. Having a goal means that there are stakes. The future becomes uncertain. Will the character be thwarted, or will they succeed? What challenges will there be along the way? So let's find out Ellie's goal.

When Jen, the Queen Bee of Ellie's school, goes missing, Ellie is the only one who knows where to start looking. There's a new memory of Jen in the girls' locker room, and it's the brightest one Ellie has ever seen. Finding Jen becomes an obsession.

Alright, great! We have a goal. It pairs well with the character, and everyone loves a good mystery. Now for the Hook.

Hook:

So how is the hook different from the goal? Isn't the search for Jen enough of a hook? Why do we need more?

Well, yes, the goal should be enticing, but it's not necessarily a hook on its own. A good hook will add a new layer to the pitch that takes us from ho-hum plot summary to burning need to know what happens. It should work within the context of the Character and Goal but add a new dimension.

In my pitch for The Never Silent, the hook isn't that Henry is looking for a killer. Looking for the killer is his goal. The hook is that Henry, a con artist, now has to embark on the greatest con of his life in order to accomplish his goal. See how the hook plays in with both the Character and Goal there?

The hook should interact with the other elements. It's a twist on what we've already established. So let's add a twist to Ellie's pitch.

The more secrets Ellie uncovers about Jen, the more important the locker room memory becomes. But this memory is different from all the others.

This memory keeps changing.

And there we have it! A compelling twist that brings up a lot of good questions.

Now maybe there's more to add to the pitch. Perhaps there's somebody in the memory with Jen. Maybe it's somebody Ellie doesn't recognize. Or maybe Ellie does. Maybe it's her best friend.

That would be an interesting twist. But as it is, we have a great start here with our Character, Goal and Hook.


Exercise to try at home: Make up a Character-Goal-Hook pitch for a story you've never written, and post your pitch in the comments!


*There are a lot of ways to write a pitch. I am NOT trying to sell this one as the only definitive method. If you have a pitch that works for you and for your story, go with it.

**At present I have no intention of writing this story, but I reserve the right to do so in the future. If I ever come up with a plot...

8 comments:

  1. Wow. I don't think I've ever read your query for TNS before. That *is* a great query! I'm duly impressed.

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  2. Also, I'm totally going to try your formula out next time I have to query something! :-D

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  3. So this has to be my favorite post on your blog. I particularly like the fake query you've made up here. I want to read it! :) A similar, but slightly different post on this same subject recently appeared on Query Shark. She doesn't have your "hook" angle though. She puts it like this:

    3 A query letter MUST tell an agent what the book is about
    3a Who is the main character?
    3b What does he want?
    3c What is keeping him from getting what he wants?
    3d What must he sacrifice to get what she wants?

    In my opinion, your "hook" concept is worth a 3e in the list.

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  4. What I'd like to have now is a similar formula for writing the synopsis.

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    Replies
    1. There's one I found somewhere that I always follow:

      Write one paragraph on how the story starts.

      Write one paragraph on how the story ends.

      Write one paragraph in between describing the middle.

      Write a paragraph bridging the gap between beginning and middle and then another bridging middle and end.

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