25 Words or Less

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25 Words or Less

Who Knew Chewy was a South Paw?

Now THAT'S a pitch!

I recently judged a contest for the blog at QueryTracker.net, a great site for writers at the query stage looking for more information about potential agents (and where my client Cole Gibsen first learned about me). I agreed to help out and, seeking something that would be both 1) easy on me and 2) beneficial to writers, I decided to limit the entries to pitches of 25 words or less. To see the winners and more details about the contest, head HERE.

I can already hear many of you groaning. If boiling  down a story into two or three paragraphs for a query is like stubbing your toe, then fitting an entire novel into 25 words is like getting a 50 ton anvil dropped on your cat. You know, if you really like your cat. Despite the painful nature (sorry, Kitty!) of the contest for some, doing this sort of exercise is certainly worthwhile.

The 25-word pitch (sometimes the “elevator pitch,” sometimes the “mom pitch,” sometimes the “you only have 15 seconds before your audience loses interest pitch”) is a skill writers should have in their toolbox no matter what stage of their career in which they find themselves. Even juggernauts of literature still get asked, “Oh, so what’s your new project about?” And while we’re more likely to nod for 15 minutes as Ernest Hemingway explains the ins and outs of his latest nautical story, hearing “It’s about an old Cuban fisherman trying to catch a marlin. But, you know, it’s about life, maaaaan” is more useful. Confusing, since Hemingway is 1) dead and 2) not a hippy, but useful nonetheless.

As an agent, it’s super helpful to have these sorts of pitches ready. I never know when lunch or drinks with an editor will turn into an opportunity to talk about a project I represent. It’s not just with editors, either; I’ve had plenty of conversations where someone wants to know what the heck it is I do and what sort of books I’ve sold. To pull out a succinct, quick description makes things loads easier and lets us get back to our game of Jenga.

So how do you write these things, anyway? There’s no perfect formula, but I like to always start with who the story is about, what challenges the protagonist faces, and some standout detail that makes it feel unique. For example, when pitching my client Cole Gibsen’s book KATANA, my 25 word pitch was: “It’s KILL BILL meets BUFFY, about a teen girl who discovers she’s a reincarnated samurai, but would rather be breaking hearts than breaking bones.” Who is it about? A teen girl. What challenges does she face? She’s learned she might be a samurai warrior, for the love of Pete! What makes it feel unique? All of it, really, but most notably for me, the notion of a kick ass teen who may or may not use swords. Swords, people! This pitch doesn’t get into many of the elements that make this project so fun and awesome, but it’s enough to make people (hopefully) say, “Huh, that’s interesting!”

Let’s move to an example many of you will be familiar with. As I’ve said on here before, I’m a big Roald Dahl fan. As a third grader, I  declared to anyone who would listen (and some who wouldn’t) that CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY was the best book ever written. I’ve since revised this opinion, but if I was looking to tell a someone about the story, I may start with something like this:

  • Eccentric candy maker Willy Wonka offers five lucky children the exclusive chance to tour his amazing chocolate factory. All they have to do is find one of five Golden Tickets hidden within Wonka Chocolate Bars. When Charlie Bucket, a poor boy who loves chocolate more than anything in the world, wins a Golden Ticket, he’ll find that the factory is even more amazing than he could have possibly imagined, and that he, Charlie Bucket, may be the most special thing inside the entire factory.

So that’s 84 words. Not a bad start–this may work for a query– but it’s too long for the mailman to sit through. How can we go shorter? What can be eliminated? The first thing I’d ask is whether the story is about Willy Wonka or about Charlie. Although the title of the Gene Wilder film may say otherwise, the title of the book is CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, and though Willy Wonka is an iconic character, Charlie is still our hero here. So I’m tempted to make it more about him.

Here’s another, shorter try:

  • A young boy named Charlie Bucket, one of  five lucky recipients of a Golden Ticket, wins the chance to tour Willy Wonka’s amazing chocolate factory, and discovers that sometimes a good heart can be worth more than all the candy in the world.

Still not perfect, but it’s shorter. We’re down to 43 words and a somewhat cheesy line to end it, although Willy is still a part of it. What else can we prune? We don’t need Charlie’s last name, we don’t need the exact details about the Golden Ticket, but, for my money, there needs to be more of a hint of just how special this opportunity is. Here’s my final 25-word pitch:

  • Everyone wants the secrets of the reclusive Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but only one courageous boy will get them during a wild and hilarious adventure.

Perfect? Nope! But it’s 25 words and hopefully gets across enough of the story’s flavor to be compelling. We have the two main players, a hint of the conflict, and a sense of what sort of story we can expect to read.

Remember when trying these yourselves to include the most information in the least amount of words. Like a solid poem, each word has to count and be absolutely necessary. Use active verbs wherever possible, and be selective with adjectives. In my example, I included “reclusive” and “courageous” because I felt they were both important in illustrating the two characters in the least amount of words.

For fun, see if you can boil down one of your favorite books for children into a concise 25-word pitch and leave them in the comments.

  1. Chris,

    I think your one-liner is excellent. It takes a lot of thought to boil down a novel to something so succinct–how long did it take you to go from your 84 word summary to your 25 word pitch?

    Reply

  2. Great post and great use of an accessible example. My students and I practice elevator pitches for just the reasons you describe. It’s hard to boil a complex story down, but utterly necessary.

    Reply

  3. Interesting challenge. I wonder how many people will be end up bald trying to get it “just right”.
    Love the pic of Chewie, by the way.

    Reply

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Colleen Lindsay, Theresa Meyers, Chris Richman, Denise Railey, katebarsotti and others. katebarsotti said: RT @colleenlindsay: Writers, if you read no other post, read this! Agent @ChrisRichman on pitches of 25 words or less: http://bit.ly/bfX4ON […]

    Reply

  5. Query Tracker (dot net) absolutely rocks. It’s free, but I’ve gotten every dime’s worth out of my premium membership.

    Reply

  6. Let’s see…

    A winsome redhead learns that, not only does her overactive imagination win her friends and the home longs for, it also gets her into trouble!

    Or…

    Four kids must overcome treachery and evil to defeat the queen that rules Narnia–a fantasy world that exists beyond a magic wardrobe.

    Or…

    Two children return to Narnia, join an ocean voyage quest to find the seven missing lords, and discover islands with magic they never dreamed existed.

    Reply

  7. Really great post! The examples truly helped in understanding how to go about cutting items.

    Reply

  8. I am dead in the water.

    6 words.

    Signed,
    – Queen of Verbosity

    Reply

  9. loved Roald Dahl as a kid too…

    When orphaned James is sent to live with his unloving aunts, he escapes on an amazing journey aboard the center of a giant peach.

    Reply

  10. Fun! Thanks for the great post!

    In order for Wilbur to save his bacon, he and his spider sidekick must convince folks he’s “some pig.”

    When young, star-crossed lovers find their families in the way of their happiness, they fake a suicide which turns out to be a fatal mistake.

    Reply

  11. I was at a recent conference where we did an exercise to distill a story down to six words or less. For example, “Wooed girl. Got girl. Shit.”

    An example for another Hemingway novel: “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn.”

    Reply

  12. The BIble in 25 words:

    God makes man, doesn’t like man, kills man off, rescues man, damns man, scapegoats His own son, and Jesus Christ it ends with a hallucination.

    Reply

  13. Great post. I’m a runner up in that contest — thanks so much, Chris! — and it was hard getting my story down to 25 words. But it was something I had never done before, and even before I saw today’s results, I was pleased for the challenge.

    I’ve been working on my query letter and I always have such a hard time with them. But doing this exercise has really helped me shape up my query blurb. Getting to put words back in is so exciting! :)

    Thanks for the contest and the advice.

    Reply

  14. Here’s mine. I wished I entered the contest.

    If Jasmine can’t discover how her adoption unlocks her magical powers, she’ll be forced to help destroy Myrrdin or watch her best friend die.

    Reply

  15. OMG, this helped so much! Thank you for the post. I finally think I’ve got an interesting pitch which will definitely help my query. Now, if only there was something cool I could do with the ugly synopsis…

    Reply

  16. I LOVED that contest! Can we just change the querying rules in general to 25 words or less only? Would save me a lot of agonizing over query letters, fearing that the wrong sort of salutation will get me deleted, etc. Would be SO much easier for writers and agents, alike! :)

    Reply

  17. To save her sister, Kantiss enters a “fight to the death” reality show. Survival demands she kill other innocents, including a boy she cares for.

    Of course, these are much easier to do if you are working with a high concept to begin with.

    Reply

  18. An adventurous girl finds wolf trouble when she strays from the path on the way to Grannie’s house. Thankfully, a brave woodcutter saves the day.

    Reply

  19. I love Chewbaca!

    Also, from her blog, Cole Gibson and her book both sound awesome. How cool that you are her agent!

    Also, I went to a conference a couple weeks ago, and you HAVE to have a one liner pitch, otherwise the people in the lunch line will avoid you. Everyone’s first questions is always, “What do you write?” And you don’t want to bore them to tears!!

    Reply

  20. A hen diligently works while her three counterparts laze about and then are surprised when she does not share the fruit of her labor.

    “The Little Red Hen”

    Reply

  21. Thanks for explaining this so clearly and succinctly. Can I ask for one more example? It’s so hard to know what to cut, and I noticed that your KATANA blurb for PM/Flux was longer. Would you recommend sticking to the 25 word count or go with the longer length if the plot is more complex? Also, is there a difference between your pitch to editors and the pitch writers should make to you?

    Reply

  22. @Danette: As Sally points out later, it’s sometimes easier to do with another book, especially one you know very well. It’s really a matter of choosing the most important elements and sticking to them.
    @Michael Grant: You’re one funny bastard. You ever think of writing for children?
    @Adventures in Children’s Publishing: The truth is, you’ll never REALLY have to limit your pitch 25 words unless it’s for a contest. It’s just something good to shoot for. It’s really about tailoring specific pitches for specific times. The PM line for KATANA was longer because I wanted to get more across to hopefully interest film and foreign scouts who are checking the latest deals. The pitch I gave to editors depended on the situation…if it was on the phone, the pitch was longer and more in depth. If it was a quick thing at lunch, it may have been as simple as “A girl discovers she’s a reincarnated samurai.” The pitches I expect from writers in a query is generally closer to 500 words or so. Like I said, you need to be prepared with different pitches for different scenarios.

    Reply

  23. Chris,
    Awesome contest. Thanks for the opportunity, challenge and post-contest details. I keep hoping I’ll see the SCBWI Conference in Los Angeles on your August schedule. Any chance?

    Reply

  24. Zan Edgefield only has one assistant in her mission to exonerate a man charged with murder – the ghost of his supposed victim.

    This was fun! Thanks for the challenge!

    Reply

  25. I entered that query tracker contest with, what I now know, an uber-weak one sentence pitch. Your clear cut advice was so helpful. I spent some time wrestling with this last night…

    What do you think of the new and improved one:
    Theodora discovers she’s half alien, ending her normal life; now hunted by evil aliens, she must somehow get to planet Miravale using cool alien technology.

    Reply

  26. WWII POW tries to escape his harsh surroundings, ends up time-traveling to different locations along his life’s grid until he arrives at a distant planet.

    Reply

  27. […] on how to do this.  Chris Richman from Upstart Crow Literary talks about writing a pitch that is 25 words or less.  The pitch, he says, should cover “who the story is about, what challenges the protagonist […]

    Reply

  28. […] I can’t write your synopsis for you. My agent talks about how to write a 25 word synopsis here, and his basic formula is this: start with who the story is about, what challenges the protagonist […]

    Reply

  29. […] and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and wrote about it some time ago in my post on pitching projects in 25 words or less. KATANA is the very definition of a high concept, commercial project, and I think teen readers […]

    Reply

  30. […] @colleenlindsay – Writers, if you read no other blog post this month, read this! Agent @ChrisRichman on pitches of 25 words or less: http://bit.ly/bfX4ON […]

    Reply

  31. […] @colleenlindsay – Writers, if you read no other blog post this month, read this! Agent @ChrisRichman on pitches of 25 words or less: http://bit.ly/bfX4ON […]

    Reply

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