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Ooh, tell me more - the art of the elevator pitch

So. Elevator pitches.

That’s something we dealt with in one of my Festival workshops, and I wanted to pick it up again now. The issue is both finding the pitch that sparks interest in your book, then figuring out what to do once you have a pitch you love.

But let’s start with a sample elevator pitch. This one for example:

A) Boy with magical powers plays a key part in the battle of good against evil.

What do you think? Do you like it? Do you want to read that book?

And look: the pitch is sort of okaaaay, isn’t it? But OK in a way which means that the book is basically not saleable. It’s just too like every other kids fantasy book out there. There’s nothing to distinguish this book from everything else. If I were an agent, it’s not a book I’d much care to represent.

So what about this?

B) Orphan goes to a school for wizards.

Or this:

C) Orphan discovers he is the son of two very powerful wizards.  He goes to wizard school.

Or this:

D) Harry Potter is an orphan in the care of his uncle and aunt. Their care is very poor.
Potter lives in an understairs cupboard, while his cousin is spectacularly spoiled.
The non-magical (or ‘muggle’) uncle and aunt try to prevent
Harry learning about his parents – powerful wizards – but fail.
He discovers he has magical powers and is invited (via owl) to attend wizard school.

Pretty clearly, this is a series of books that could do rather well. Yet there’s a way in which elevator pitch A actually delivers the best description of the books. After all, the entire series arc is encapsulated in that description. The other three elevator pitches deal with nothing more than a few chapters of book 1. In effect, they deliver the inciting incident and the immediate consequences, but little or nothing of the actual substance of the book.

So why is that first pitch so weak? And why are the other three strong?

The simple answer is that elevator pitch B makes you want to know more. It has, instantly, that “Oooh, tell me more” quality which marks out any good elevator pitch.

And indeed, when I do tell you more – when we jump from version B to version C – you still want to know more. Version C introduces Harry Potter’s parentage. That’s good, because it provides a connection between the orphan element and the wizarding one, but it introduces questions of its own. You still just want to know more.

Version D might be a reasonable answer to that ‘tell me more’ question, except it isn’t really an elevator pitch any more. It’s too long. But you notice that even when you’re dealing with something as long and detailed as D, you still have an appetite for more. (How does an owl send an invitation? How does Harry discover his magical powers? Why are the uncle and aunt so mean? And so on.)

These expanding descriptions of the book keep you locked into a permanent desire to know more … and if I handed you the first chunk of HP and the Philosopher’s Stone, you’d still be burning to know how the book and the series develops. That ‘tell me more’ impulse keeps pushing you to know more until you’ve read every damn book in the series.

Which brings us back to why it’s so unbelievably helpful for writers to understand their own elevator pitches. Why you need to scrap pitches that feel as bland and generic as (A) and find ones that are as sharp and precise as (B) or (C).

The thing is, you don’t ever have to use your elevator pitch with an agent, or an editor, or anyone else. There’s never going to be a ten-word box that you have to fill in about your book. But you do have to understand the bit that makes readers go, “tell me more”, and then place that bit at the emotional / structural centre of your work.

So if JK Rowling had been working with (A) as her internal compass for the series, she might have minimised her hero’s orphanhood, she might not have found key roles for his vanished parents, and she might not have placed Hogwarts at the very heart of things. She might, in fact, have produced another bland, generic and unpublishable work of children’s fantasy.

But because, at least in her head, she was working with something like (B) or (C) as an elevator pitch, she placed those elements – orphan, wizarding parents, wizard school – at the very heart of the books. So yes, the series tells a story about the battle of good vs evil, but that story emerges from one founded on the exact elements that piqued the reader’s interest in the first place.

The same thing is true of absolutely any decent book and decent elevator pitch. So the pitch for my Fiona Griffiths series would probably be something like this:

A crime series about a detective in recovery from Cotards Syndrome,
a genuine psychiatric condition. With Cotards, a sufferer
 believes themselves to be dead.

That doesn’t tell you anything about the plots of the individual books, or the series arc, or anything else. In that sense, it’s ‘local’ not universal. But that element of localism is essentially always true of good elevator pitches. Compare the universal-but-bland Harry Potter pitch A, against the local-and-interesting pitches B or C.

And books are founded on the local. The universal can and should spring out of the local, but the local has to take precedence. So the whole architecture of Hogwarts / the Dursleys / muggle world vs wizarding world forms the foundations for the grand, universal story that lies on top. (And notice too, that whereas the Harry Potter pitch focused on the basic set up and the inciting incident, my own pitch ignores that completely and focuses only on character. The nugget at the heart of your pitch can come from anywhere.)

The local vs universal thing is at work with the Fiona Griffiths stuff too.

The whole complex series arc is built on Fiona herself. Her illness. Her recovery. Her strange sisterhood with the dead. My German publishers, in fact, have essentially the same cover for every book they’ve released. Each book has “FIONA” in huge text front and centre across the cover. The actual title looks secondary in comparison. That’s an almost literal picture of how the series is built. Hogwarts, and all that pertains to it, has a similar centrality in the Harry Potter books.

So find your foundation. Find the thing that makes readers want to know more. Then place that thing, that vibration of interest, at the very heart of what follows. Make sure that as you start to expand the reader’s circle of knowledge, the new elements you introduce keep the reader’s interest.

That, in a nutshell, is how you write and sell books.

So now over to you. What's your elevator pitch. And does it feel bland and universal? Or is there a local, specific quality which prompts that "tell me more?" response. Leave a comment and let's all have a Heated Debate.

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Comments (18)
  • So, how about this:

    "We call it HEX, Hemocytoblast Engineered Xenografting: One simple transfusion and ageing stops, period. You live forever, barring accidents, no problem.”


    "Just a simple blood transfusion and you'll live forever, no problem."

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    • Having trouble pitching a domestic noir set in Sao Paulo. This is what I have. It seems dry. Help appreciated . . .

      Bizarre accident and unfortunate death, challenge sense of entitlement of Sao Paulo socialite family.

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      • A twin adapts to the loss of her sister by reinventing herself as a thief.

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        • Nightstalker: 'A dark fantasy novel revolving around a pious vampire monk, who is both savior and destroyer of his home village.'

          Story questions: Why would a vampire be pious? How does a monk become a vampire? How is he both savior and destroyer of his home village?

          I definitely think this checks the marks of:

          - Vivid

          - Concise

          - Compelling

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          • A girl who thinks she's an animal, meets a girl who is.

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