Sell Me Your Book: The Making of a Killer Pitch
by Matthew Howard
The next time someone asks you what your book is about, you will have a confident, concise, and awesome answer that sparks their interest. You will have a Killer Pitch!
The method comes from the late Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book, Save the Cat. Snyder taught a powerful technique that applies to all fiction: Create a description of your story, compressed into one or two exciting sentences. Screenwriters call it a log line, and creating one will focus your ideas and energize them! If you ever feel lost in the fog about your story, developing a Killer Pitch will burn away that fog to reveal the story’s core – its beating heart and most essential elements.
Let’s look briefly at the seven elements of a killer pitch, and then analyze real-world examples.
SEVEN ELEMENTS OF A KILLER PITCH
- A Hero with a Compelling Goal and Primal Motivation. Choose heroes who create the most conflict in the situation and who have the longest emotional road to travel. The hero’s motivation must be primal: survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, or fear of death. The hero has a compelling goal we can identify with as human beings.
- Adjectives. Include an adjective to describe the hero, and an adjective to describe the villain.
- Irony and Dramatic Situation. A dramatic situation is like an itch you have to scratch. Make it emotionally involving.
- Compelling Mental Picture. The picture must bloom in your mind when you hear it. A pitch implies an entire story, including its time frame.
- A Sense of Audience. Set the tone and single out the target audience. You can do this by classifying (action, horror, romance) or describing (post-apocalyptic zombie war). Or do it with word choice. Use terms only your audience knows, slang they prefer, or words specific to a culture, industry, or occupation.
- A Sense of Cost and Location. In the film industry, a sense of cost sets expectations about production expenses. Do events take place in mostly one room (like the first Saw movie), or do you have an international epic with a “cast of thousands” (like a James Bond film)?
- Killer Title. A great title says what it is in a clever way.
Snyder’s book offers an analysis of the pitch for the film 4 Christmases: “In 4 Christmases, a newly married couple must spend Christmas Day at each of their four divorced parents’ homes.” The pitch contains all the elements we’ve identified.
Heroes with Adjective: newly married couple
Villains with Adjective: divorced parents
Irony and Dramatic Situation: newly married couple contrasts with divorced parents
Compelling Mental Picture and Time Frame: must spend Christmas Day at four homes
Target Audience: married couples and their parents
Sense of Cost and Location: parents’ homes on Christmas
Killer Title: 4 Christmases
I feel this one lacks the “primal” element of the heroes’ goal, and “must spend the day” sounds less compelling to me than “must survive the day” or “struggle to keep their marriage together.” Still, the pitch makes up for this shortcoming by carrying a strong sense of irony.
What can we learn from this? It can be tough to get all the elements into one sentence, but even a less-than perfect pitch can be successful.
Next up: two pitches for short stories I’m currently working on. See if you can identify all the elements, and judge for yourself how well I did.
1st PITCH: “In First Day Flying, a young woman discovers she can fly like a superhero, but can she and her best friend learn how to use her new power in time to rescue the wounded from a city-wide disaster?”
Heroes with Adjective: young woman, best friend
Heroes’ Primal Goal: rescuing wounded people
Villains with Adjective: city-wide disaster
Irony and Dramatic Situation: lack of time to learn to use the power before disaster strikes
Compelling Mental Picture and Time Frame: “fly like a superhero” and “city-wide disaster” create mental pictures; “first day” suggests a brief time frame
Target Audience: “superhero” identifies an audience for superheroes and comic books; “young” characters suggest teen and young adult audience
Sense of Cost and Location: urban environment and large-scale disaster give a sense of location and production requirements to film the story
Killer Title: First Day Flying
2nd PITCH: “In Never See the Night, an interplanetary biologist fights to save the life of an alien octopus from its heavily armed teammates who have decided it must die before nightfall for killing one of them.”
Hero with Adjective: interplanetary biologist
Hero’s Primal Goal: saving alien’s life
Villains with Adjective: heavily armed teammates
Irony and Dramatic Situation: physical and ideological conflict over whether the animal should die
Compelling Mental Picture and Time Frame: “alien octopus” and “heavily armed teammates” create mental pictures; “must die before nightfall” gives a single-day time frame
Target Audience: “interplanetary” and “alien” identify science-fiction audience; violent conflict identifies action/adventure audience
Sense of Cost and Location: weapons and alien on another planet give a sense of location and production requirements to film the story
Killer Title: Never See the Night
How did I do? You might notice the pitch for First Day Flying lacks a traditional villain, as the disaster feels like an impersonal challenge. Both First Day Flying and Never See the Night promise dramatic situations, but they lack a strong sense of irony. Does this make them total failures? I don’t think so.
Even if you fall a little short of perfection on some elements of your Killer Pitch, you can still lead the pack with it. If you consider how difficult it is for most writers to tell you what their book is about in only one or two exciting sentences, then you will realize that your pitch doesn’t have to be perfect to be amazingly effective at grabbing potential readers’ attention.
Keep working on it. Like all writing skills, Killer Pitches improve with practice.
Matthew Howard is a self-publishing author who supports award-winning authors and business professionals in writing, editing, designing, and self-publishing their work for global distribution in paperback and ebook formats.