The first sentences of your query must introduce the protagonist and what’s wrong. (The “what’s wrong” may not be the overall conflict, but needs to create tension.)
Consider these pitches for Gail Carriger’s SOULLESS:
Alexia Tarabotti, an avowed spinster, has no soul. That might be appalling, but Alexia doesn’t give a fig about anyone’s opinion. Twirling her parasol, she traipses through London’s high society rooting out mysteries to solve. Neither laboratory nor ball is safe from her keen observation and meddling.
That’s a good introduction to Alexia, but there’s no conflict. There are foundations: she doesn’t care what people think, solves crimes, meddles in others’ affairs. But none build into actual tension. I’m left asking, “What is it about?”
Vampires and werewolves are welcome London high society because they follow a strict code for their eating habits. But feral vampires arrive without rules or manners, breaking the delicate balance. One appears in the middle of a ball and attacks a young woman. Surrounded by chaos, she must unravel the mystery before she or anyone else dies.
There’s a conflict, but it falls to the macro pitch problem. It’s not personal: there’s no character to relate to, nobody to pull me in.
I see both types of pitches often. You want to combine the two, such as in the actual first line of Gail’s query:
Alexia Tarabotti was born without a soul. This affliction could be considered a good thing, for in England those with too much soul can be turned into vampires, werewolves, or ghosts. Unfortunately, when unregistered vampires start to mysteriously appear in London, everyone thinks she’s to blame…
We get the protagonist’s background: she has no soul and can’t be turned, an anomaly others scorn. Then we get conflict: people are disappearing and everyone blames her.
Notice even in the first sentence we get a character and initial conflict. “Born without a soul” tells us about Alexia, but we also assume this could be problematic. We’re right (though not in the way we expect).
I know pitches are hard. There are so many things to get right, and many ways to do it wrong.
When writing books, you break down the plot into detailed scenes. With pitches, we ask you to go the other direction. Forget all the details you figured out and just give a silhouette.
Author Holly Bodger, logline queen from the MSFV blog, has a formula to make it easier.
“When [MAIN CHARACTER] [INCITING INCIDENT], she [CONFLICT]. She must [GOAL] before/or else [CONSEQUENCES].”
When a feral vampire assaults spinster Alexia Tarabotti, London high society blames her lack of a soul. She must uncover who is behind the attack before the Queen’s investigator, handsome werewolf Lord Maccon, pins the debacle on her.
Your turn: write a practice pitch in the comments for a favorite book or movie.
Photo by Firelknot.