One thing I’ve noticed lately in fiction pitches – verbal pitches or queries – is that some writers want to tell all about the theme or the emotional journey of the story, but they have a hard time conveying the actual story.
Every novel has a theme. There’s a character arc, in which a character grows and/or changes over the course of the story. There’s an emotional progression. But that is NOT the story. That is what is illustrated by the story.
What’s a story? It’s a plot. It’s scenes with action and dialogue. It’s people going places and doing things and talking to other people. It’s characters taking action to make something happen, to change their situation, to solve a problem, to avoid danger.
Over the weekend as I listened to writers’ pitches, I often heard something like (this is hypothetical):
A woman is distraught and angry about her teenage daughter’s drug use, but finally comes around to be able to forgive her and help her.
To this, I might ask, “Good, so what’s the story?”
Well, the mother has a hard time with this because of her own past drug use, and she vowed her own children would never use drugs, and she has to learn that we’re all human and that her daughter needs her help.
Me: “Okay, so how does all of this happen? What’s the story?”
Um, the mother finally forgives her daughter, and gets her into rehab.
Grrr. Can you see that this is not a novel? At this point, I’ve been given a premise and a resolution, but I still have no idea what happens between page 1 and page 400.
Sometimes, this is not about the pitch – it’s a problem with the book. Some of you are writing entire 100,000 word novels with no actual real-world story, but instead you’ve chronicled in devastating detail a character’s emotional journey.
Take note: the emotional journey is illustrated and reflected in the real-life action of the story. Again: people going places, doing things, interacting with other people, solving problems, and always working towards a goal.
In the words of my friend the Query Shark (agent Janet Reid), your pitch needs to show:
1. Who is the protagonist?
2. What choice does s/he face?
3. What are the consequences of the choice?
Just to be safe, take a step back from your query. Make sure your book has a protagonist with a choice to face (a conflict), obstacles to overcome, a desired outcome, and consequences (the stakes) if the goal is not reached.
And when it comes time to pitch your novel, talk about the actual real-world story, bringing in your protagonist’s emotional journey (or the theme of the book) at the end of your pitch.
Have you been pitching themes and emotional journeys instead of stories?
P.S. The phrase emotional journey could also be replaced with spiritual or psychological journey.