Why it’s so difficult to pitch perfect

Think of your favorite movie. Perhaps it is hard for you to narrow down the list. But chances are when you try to think of the best film you’ve ever seen in your life, a few things happen. You remember how old you were when you first saw it. One or two characters enter your mind like dear, well-known friends. You recall how you felt when you watched a key scene and value where it fits within the rest of the story. And, finally, you can explain how seeing your favorite movie changed you.

Now think of your favorite movie trailer. Can you? I can’t. For me, it’s easier to remember the movie trailers that have let me down. Either because I was anticipating a movie so much that the trailer didn’t live up to the hype. Or worse, a trailer over promised, set the stage for a different movie or spoiled all the punchlines ahead of me seeing the actual film. The rest of the trailers I have seen are unremarkable in my memory. They got me to the theater but now I can’t separate what was in the trailer vs. the full-length feature.

Why do trailers fall flat of capturing the same long-term bond made by great movies? They contain some of the very same dialogue and scenes. They often include the most exciting or picturesque moments in the script. But they don’t stick with us. It’s difficult to simplify a deep and rich art form with multiple arcs, complex characters, and an engaging setting into a compelling sound byte. It’s the same reason that pitching a novel is such a painful and impossible exercise.

A novel, like a movie, creates an experience. Done right, and it broadens perspectives and changes lives. A pitch, like a trailer, merely brings people to the box office. If you’re ready to pitch, first trust that your novel will deliver all of the depth and breadth to your reader. Then set that knowledge off to the side and get to work creating something else all together: the perfect pitch.

1. Identify your hook. What’s going to grab agents’ and readers’ attention? You’ve got lots of interesting things going on in your plot. Your characters are all quirky and individual. List each of these factors in the simplest of terms. Avoid adding any shades of gray or nuance. Let those facets remain unexplained and sensational. Then choose a hook among the list that is significant to your plot and also unique enough that you could say it at a crowded cocktail party and turn heads. “Firemen must burn all books” or “Victor Frankenstein discovers a way to reanimate dead flesh.” Bonus points, if your hook connects to current events or the concerns of your ideal reader.

2. Chart a path to yes. As novelists we know how to take our readers on a multi-faceted journey. We anticipate their plot questions and juggle arcs and themes so they might ask themselves deep questions about the human experience. What results is a layered narrative open to some interpretation. Your pitch must be linear. You are leading the listener through a predictable emotional experience getting them to lean in closer and closer. Answer these four questions and you’ll force the listener to answer the one question that matters most “Do I want to read it?” with the affirmative.

  • What is unique about this story?
  • Why is it a story worth telling?
  • What’s appealing about this story?
  • Why read it/sell it now?

You’ve probably got more than one answer to all of these question. List out possible answers and highlight those that are the most compelling or will do the best job of connecting with the agent of your dreams.

3. Simplify, simplify, simplify. We’ve come to the hardest part. Taking that feature length film and picking the scenes to include in the trailer. Chose a character. Streamline their emotional journey. And finally, strategically limit the number of surprises along the way. Sales teams know that in order to sell something new, you must make it a bit familiar. And to sell something old, you must make it look new. Your pitch has to do the same thing. You’ve already begun with your unique hook. It’s new! Next assure the agent there are enough familiar elements to your story that make it appealing and familiar. This is where the simplification comes in. You want to suggest enough of a pattern and then sprinkle some surprises along the way.

Disclaimer: I do not have the perfect pitch for my novel. I often freeze as if in headlights when asked, “What’s it about?” I stammer out an unimportant detail that leads the conversation into an unhelpful direction. Or worse, I begin to backpedal over-explaining plot or character dynamic — adding confusion. For me, this failure comes back to the difference between telling the whole story vs. piquing some interest with a slick, compelling trailer.

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