Writing tip for Winter '14:
What’s your log line? Give me a synopsis. Tell me a bit about your story in your cover letter. All these are requests for pretty much the same thing—these people want to know more about your story. In short, a pitch or synopsis. But each of them is asking for a different length pitch, one that’s neither too long nor too short, but juuust right. In fact, there are four different lengths of pitch/synopsis you’ll be asked for when you’re trying to sell a novel, and each of them is designed to be sent to different people, to be used in different ways.
The Log Line Pitch: The shortest of the four pitches is the log line pitch. It’s also known as an elevator pitch, because if someone asks you “What’s your story about?” as the elevator door closes, you need to have given her a good answer before she gets off at the next floor. This pitch consists of one or two, not very complex sentences, that convey the primary conflict of your story—and nothing more. A classic example is the pitch for the movie Splash. Boy meets girl. Girl fish. For stories in which the conflict isn’t so obvious, you usually set up what I think of as a one-two punch, with the first beat telling about the protagonist, and the second describing the single most interesting aspect of his conflict. A woman goes to Kansas as a mail order bride—and discovers she was “ordered” by her future husband’s mother, because he’s been deaf from birth and can’t communicate. Or A teenage girl who goes to a top-secret school for super-spies falls in love with a normal boy. These examples are less colorful than the pitch for Splash, but see how clear the central conflict of the story is? And they sound interesting, don’t they? Please note that no part of the middle action of the story or the climax appears in these pitches. Who is the protagonist, and what’s his problem. Period. Keeping your log line pitch to those two beats is what makes it comprehensible, without further explanation, even to someone who’s about to step off an elevator.
For more information about how to craft a log-line pitch you can check out my writing tip Scoring in the Elevator: All I know about writing a good two sentence pitch—either free on my website, or you can buy it for 99 cents wherever ebooks are sold.
The log line pitch is one you’ll use a lot, because it’s what you say when someone asks you, “What’s your story about?” That’s another reason to keep it short and without too many flourishes, because it’s a spoken pitch. You need to be able say it easily, instead of sounding like it’s something you wrote down and worked hard to memorize. If it’s really compelling it might find its way into the first line of your query letter—but not often. If for no other reason than that you’re about to give a longer, more detailed pitch in your query letter that would make this shorter pitch redundant.
The Query Letter Pitch: I don’t know if this length has an official name—it might be called simply a pitch, a long pitch, or a very short synopsis. But whatever it’s called, it should be one or two, at most three paragraphs in length, and you probably want to keep it to two. This isn’t merely a “hook ‘em in” style pitch, but actually a very short description of your story. It will cover not only the basic conflict, but will also focus more on who the protagonist is, and his personal conflict and character arc. It will often include a major and interesting twist in the story, and it might even reveal how the major conflict is resolved. I discuss this in detail (including the importance of telling the story from the character’s point of view, instead of talking about it as the author) in my writing tip A Tale of Two Synopsises: More about writing a synopsis that works. You can find it on my website, or buy it, etc. etc.
But one of my favorite examples of a good query letter pitch is one that Anna-Maria Crum wrote for PowerForce Kids: Attack of the Dinomatrons.
Eleven-year-old Ari Wu thought she was one armhole away from a straightjacket when she discovered she could talk to birds—she could literally carry on a conversation with them. But then she met other PowerForce Kids with different powers through an internet chat room and found out her brain wasn't scrambled eggs after all. Now she's on a mission to save her birds from pigeon Armageddon from the school janitor. To do that she must first help Tony, another PFK who has the ability to spot fakes, save his mother's job, stop a thief, and protect the natural history museum from dinosaur robots run amuck.
The query letter pitch, as the name suggests, is the one you put in the email you send to agents and editors to convince them to take a look at your story—so it really needs to be snappy and compelling. Because it’s a written pitch, you can be clever and literary, and work with style as well as substance. And this pitch’s use won’t end with your email. If it’s a good pitch, an agent who takes you on might tweak it a bit and use it in her query to editors. An editor may tweak it a bit more, and use it at the marketing meeting. Parts of this pitch, if it’s strong enough, could even find their way into your jacket copy. So this is a pitch that counts.
The Short Synopsis: If your query has done its work, an agent or editor will ask to see some part of your manuscript, and they’ll often ask for “a short synopsis” or just “a synopsis” to accompany it. This can be tricky, because “a synopsis” can mean anything from one or two pages, to five pages or more—and the short and long synopsises are two different beasts. Most often when people ask for a synopsis they’re looking for the shorter length. Some even specify a “one page” synopsis—but, particularly in email format, they probably won’t care if your “one page” is actually one and a half or even two. I don’t recommend running over two pages, unless it’s absolutely necessary to tell the story. Because in the short synopsis they want a brief summation of your entire story. I used to struggle horribly, trying to boil complex, 200+ page plots down to less than two pages, until I took a workshop from Pam McCutcheon about how to write a one page synopsis that works—and her system does! The details of how to do this are in my writing tip Writing the Dreaded Synopsis, and further details about how to refine it—with examples of both the right and wrong way to do it—are in the latter half of A Tale of Two Synopsises.
This short synopsis is the one that will most likely accompany the partial manuscript you send to an agent or editor, to convince them that you can not only write, but produce a coherent exciting plot. It will include not only the five major plot points Pam McCutcheon taught me, but also the protagonist’s arc—and it also includes how the protagonist solves the main story problem in the climax. This isn’t a teaser, where you’re trying to lure someone into reading the rest of the book. In a synopsis you reveal the whole story, including all your wonderful surprises, without holding anything back. In fact, ending your synopsis at a critical point with some version of and if you want to find out how this ends, you’ll need to read the book is a red-flag auto-reject for most agents and editors.
The Long Synopsis: A synopsis that runs for five pages or more is a long synopsis. When you first start submitting novels, you probably won’t be asked to send this to agents or editors. If your short synopsis and partial manuscript interest them, they’ll ask for the rest of the manuscript and read the whole book. The only time you’ll send a long synopsis to an editor is after you’ve sold so many books they’re willing to buy a book you haven’t yet written, on the strength of a synopsis and a few chapters. When an editor asks you for a long synopsis, to sell an unwritten book, there’s no length limit—it’s as long as it needs to be to completely summarize your story. This is also the only synopsis where you can, and should, include sub-plots, major secondary characters and their arcs, and even the protagonist’s backstory and relevant details of the setting. You can find a very good explanation of how to write a long synopsis in Pam McCutcheon’s Writing the Fiction Synopsis: A Step-By-Step Approach.
But the primary use beginning and intermediate writers will have for a long synopsis is to enter your novel in writing contests. Some contests only ask for a short synopsis, but many will ask for longer synopsises—sometimes as much as eight pages—and contests are very particular about length. If they tell you they want to see a synopsis between four and seven pages, it had better be between four and seven pages, in the spacing and font they request. Some contests have gotten so fed up with people cheating on the length that they give you a word count range instead of page count—but whatever the limits are, if you don’t respect them most contests will disqualify you, no matter how good your synopsis is.Summarizing your story in four different lengths sounds like a lot of work—because it is. And none of them are easy to write, which is why I have to send you to my other tips and Pam’s excellent book for the how-to. But once you’ve completed these four pitch/synopsises you’ll be ready to sell your novel to practically anyone, under any circumstances you’re likely to encounter—and you now have a good idea of what length to use for which purpose.