If you’re in the process of writing a query letter, you’ve likely struggled with the pitch section. Nestled between the introduction and your biography, it’s easily the most difficult part of a query to master. Not only do you have to condense your novel into a few paragraphs, but it has to be compelling enough to intrigue the agent or editor into reading your sample pages.
After analyzing hundreds of online query letters to assist with my own process, I’ve learned one key thing: your pitch should include four key elements. This sounds a bit formulaic, and there are always exceptions to the rule, but once I understood this concept, my query letter not only improved, but I started receiving requests for my full manuscript.
Let’s go deeper and talk about the four parts. If you want to play along, grab a copy of your manuscript and a highlighter. Here we go!
1. The hook: The beginning of your novel, and most often the first chapter, includes the inciting incident—the big thing that pushes your protagonist out of the status quo and into a situation that requires action. If you’re stuck on developing a good hook sentence, look no further than your protagonist and the inciting incident. Jot it down in simple terms, or highlight the lines in your manuscript where this occurs. For illustration purposes, I’m going to make something up, such as “Bob finds a body in the woods behind his house.” This line says what happens, but it’s pretty boring. Next, I’ll jazz it up by adding details to make us care about Bob. For example, “Sixteen-year-old Bob thinks the worst part of his day is waking up late for school, until his short cut through the woods turns into a gruesome crime scene—with a dead body he knows.” Now we know Bob’s age, that he’s late for school, and he’s found a murder victim that isn’t a stranger to him. As far as hooks go, it’s not bad, but it’s not great either. This is where you’ll continue to workshop your hook sentence until it sizzles. I suggest looking at book jackets within the genre of your own manuscript. When a description grabs you, ask yourself why. One caveat to remember—stick to reading jackets of debut novels only, as the copy is often taken directly from the author’s query letter.
2. The conflict: The lines that follow your hook reveal why the inciting incident causes conflict in your protagonist’s life. In other words, why is it a bad thing? These are the complications you’ve developed in your opening chapters. Take a moment to identify and highlight them in your manuscript. Using the example above, perhaps Bob has a brother that’s just been released from jail, and he becomes the prime suspect, and to make matters worse, Bob doesn’t have an alibi because he’s been secretly following the police chief’s daughter every day after school, trying to find an opportunity to talk to her since he’s too shy to approach her outside of his harmless stalking. Now we have reasons to support why the inciting incident is a bad thing. As you develop the conflict part of your pitch, ask yourself what complications exacerbate your character’s situation.
3. The Reaction: After you’ve defined the conflict, you must present what your protagonist does as a reaction to that conflict. How does he or she try to make the situation better (which usually makes it worse)? Use your highlighter to pick out reaction moments. Back to Bob again. Perhaps he lies to the police about where he’s been, which leads them to look closer at his brother. But he also succeeds in talking to the police chief’s daughter, and a romance begins.
4. The decision: Last, but perhaps most important part of your pitch, is the decision your character has to make. This is where you outline the stakes—what might be gained, but what might be lost. This is the ultimate teaser, because it states the main question that your novel has to answer. Imagine it like a roller coaster—you’ve just reached the top of the first hill, and you’re teetering on the edge, about to go over. That’s what the stakes should do in your query—keep the agent on that edge, ready to freefall. In your own manuscript, collect all the information you’ve highlighted and put yourself in the shoes of your protagonist. What is their choice? In Bob’s situation, we currently know he’s found a body and his brother is the accused murderer. Also, he didn’t commit the crime, but he doesn’t have an alibi he can reveal, and he’s also courting the daughter of the very person he’s lying to. So, his decision might be this: tell the truth and lose the girl, or keep lying and allow his brother to take the fall. In both scenarios, something is at stake, which makes for an intriguing pitch.
There you have it! While it’s difficult to condense your manuscript, I hope breaking the pitch section into four key parts will simplify this challenging aspect of your query letter. When in doubt, ask a friend who hasn’t read your manuscript to look over your pitch. Does it make them want to know more? Can they identify the protagonist, the conflict, and what’s at stake? If the answers are yes, then you’re on your way to a great query letter.
Do you have a query letter resource you swear by? Share it in the comments!