In baseball, the entire game begins with a pitch. Based on the outcome of that pitch, you can usually begin to see the direction the game will take. Will the batter score a home run? Will he strike out? Will the first baseman catch the ball on a pop fly? After the pitch, anything can happen.
From what I’ve seen and read, 90% of writers develop their book using some variation of this order: inception, conflict/plot, characters/setting, back story, outline, dialogue, polish, summary/synopsis, query letter, pitch. Whether or not some of these steps are shuffled, in writing (unlike baseball), the pitch almost always comes last. (Especially the one-sentence pitch–or “elevator” pitch, and the 140 character or less–minus the title, of course–Twitter pitch.)
With my first completed novel, I did the same. Because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. And like 90% of other writers, I found myself struggling with the thought of condensing my enormous, complicated work of literary genius–and I say this with tongue planted firmly in cheek–into a single sentence of 20(ish) words or less. Or even–gasp!–a tweet of 140 characters or less. To me, as a former journalist, it was like taking the inverted pyramid structure to its most painful point. After all, how could a person POSSIBLY fit anything but the most crucial information of the simplest story into 140 characters or less, while still having room for a title and a hashtag?
But then I started practicing. I started taking the plots of some of my favorite books and condensing them into a single sentence, just to see if I could.
I started with the 4 W’s of journalism (and one H, depending on what school you went to) and wrote out the story like so:
The 4W and Sometimes H Approach: Who? What? When? Where? (How?)*
*You’ll notice that I left out the Why. That was intentional. WHY, you might ask? Because for our current purposes, the Why is superfluous. The Why is what we call back story, and that has NO place in a pitch. Also, in the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do, or die.”
Who: Jane Eyre
What: an Eponymous Orphan
How: after being cast out by unloving relatives and spending her childhood in an orphanage, Jane becomes a governess and tragically falls in love with her brooding employer.
Then, I combined the story’s most crucial information into a single sentence, like so:
“After being cast out by unloving relatives and spending her childhood in an orphanage in 1840s England, the eponymous Jane Eyre becomes a governess and tragically falls in love with her brooding employer.” (33 words)
Not the most sexy sentence, but it gets it all in there, right? But then, to make it EVEN shorter, I would try to combine/condense as many words as possible and get rid of any information that wasn’t strictly NEED to know. Like so:
Jane Eyre, in 20 Words or Less
“The eponymous Jane Eyre spends her childhood in an orphanage, becomes a governess, and tragically falls for her brooding employer.” (20 words)
Granted, there’s some important stuff missing, but GUESS WHAT? This beautiful 2o word sentence is also (drumroll, please) only 132 characters, with spaces. And quotes.
Now, let’s TWITTER-ize it! (If you take out the quotes, that’s 130 characters. Remove the ‘the’ at the beginning of the sentence for another 3+ characters, and for a BONUS, you can capitalize the MC’s name since Jane Eyre is ALSO the title of the book! So now, let’s see… *Mutters* Subtract that, carry the one….) And voila!
**I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I DID just condense a 180,000 word novel into less than 140 characters, and yes, I DO put my pants on just like everybody else. One leg at a time. No pictures, please.
Now–all fake modesty and self-mocking aside–imagine for a second… What if you STARTED framing your story around this short, yet action-packed 140 character sentence? Unless you’re a baseball player, this method might seem completely backwards. After all, how can you pitch something that hasn’t been created yet? Right?
But if you REALLY think about it, it’s not that crazy.
Because every story begins with a single idea. A spark, if you will. That “what if” sentence that makes you go, “yeah, this could be a story.” But then, as you begin the monumental task of creating characters, fleshing out back stories and plotting out a coherent and engaging series of events…that spark can so often get lost between the cracks. Sooner or later (probably when you find yourself in the position of summarizing your 90,000+ manuscript back down into that “easy to catch” format) you’ll realize that the story you set out to tell–and eventually pitch–isn’t actually pitchable. And you’re stuck in the metaphorical dugout, because you didn’t think about how you were going to sell your work and start the game.
What if you tried it backwards? What if you wrote the story like you had a certain agent in mind, or a certain publisher? What if you pretended like you already had an editor ready to buy, and readers waiting to scream your name from the stands? Would it terrify you, or would it keep your eye on the metaphorical ball?