25 Words or Less

[Once upon a time, one of us 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. When this agent agreed to help out, he came up with a plan that would be both 1) easy on him, and 2) beneficial to writers: he decided to limit the entries to pitches of 25 words or less.

We 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.]

So how do you write these things, anyway? There's no perfect formula, but one way to start is with who the story is about, what challenges the protagonist faces, and some standout detail that makes it feel unique. For example, when pitching erstwhile client Cole Gibsen's book KATANA, the 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, the notion of a kick-ass teen who may or may not use swords. 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!"

Or, to choose an example many of you will be familiar with, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. 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 attempt:

  • 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 we're down to 43 words, 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.