What’s Your Novel About?

By Marilyn Henderson

You have finished your novel and are attending a writers’ conference hoping to get an agent or editor to read your manuscript. You work your way through the crowd with your gaze focused at name-tag level. Suddenly you spot a gold-bordered tag reserved for editors. Heart pounding, you approach and introduce yourself and say you have just finished your novel.

The editor smiles and replies, “What’s your novel about?”

Suddenly the moment of truth is at hand. This woman knows why you’re here. The conference brochure described the reception as the place where writers could meet editors and agents. This is when you make your pitch.

Now’s your chance to convince this editor to ask you to send her your manuscript. So how do you answer her question?

Just as she had her question ready, you need to have your answer prepared. If you’re a savvy writer, you began working on your plot statement as soon as you signed up for the conference.

What’s a plot statement?

A plot statement is the hook you need to make your storyline sound like a winner so the editor asks to read the manuscript. In screen play writing this is called a pitch.

Just as she got right to the point in talking with you, she expects you to get right to the point by telling her what your novel is about. She doesn’t want a long rambling dissertation about the characters, background or details of who does what in the plot. She wants you to capture her interest by making the book sound too exciting to pass up.

Any book she recommends the publisher buy must be one she can convince others in the publishing house will sell. Publishers are in business to make money, and she hopes to find a winner among the writers at this conference.

Like a query letter, your plot statement or pitch is a selling tool. It’s time to forget all those great enthusiastic descriptions of your story you envision on the cover of your published novel.

Cover copy is written to entice the reader to buy the book. It tells exciting details of the story to entice the reader to want to read more. A plot statement is written to excite the editor enough to think the story will sell. Pitching is how you sell your novel.

The editor at that conference wants to know if the book will sell and make money for the publishing company.

How do you tell what the story is about without telling the story?

Don’t think about the story, think about the original idea that developed into your plot. What about that idea made you decide it could become a novel? What excited you enough to spend months working on it?

The initial spark usually stirs your curiosity or an emotional reaction. You may want to know who, what, when, where or how such a thing might happen. You may wonder what would happen if one of the people involved took a different turn or made a different decision. The idea may have infuriated you, driven you to tears or scared you enough to check the locks on your doors and windows. In other words, it stirred an emotional reaction. Now your pitch must do that to the editor.

The How-to’s of Plot Statements and Pitching

A pitch is a statement that conveys the main storyline in a way that impacts the editor emotionally so she wants to read the manuscript. You write it after your novel is finished because you don’t know everything that happens until then. You need to look at the story as a whole in order to recognize the most important and emotionally charged highlights of the storyline.

Six Do’s and Don’ts for Writing a Plot Statement and Pitching

  • Write it in only one sentence
  • Write in the present tense
  • Write in the active voice
  • Don’t give details of the plot
  • Don’t use characters’ names
  • Choose words that evoke an emotional response

The rules are easy, but don’t make the mistake of thinking you can toss off the plot statement for your novel in a few minutes. I have challenged numerous writers to do a plot statement, and none have succeeded quickly. The plot statement is a key part of pitching. Most writers need a considerable amount of time and help. One writer sent an excellent one, along with the admission it had taken him three weeks and fifteen tries.

Once you do one well, it’s easier to repeat your success

One picture is worth a thousand words. The old adage holds true for plot statements. Paint a word picture that makes your listener form his own mental images that cause him to feel angry or sad or nervous.

Examples of this appear every day in our daily newspapers. Can you read an account of a nursing home fire in which four patients died without feeling sad or angry at the people or circumstances that led to the fire? Can you read a story about a child being abducted without heart-felt gratitude that your little boy is safe and sound asleep in his bed?

Our emotional responses to other people’s troubles develop out of our fears and concerns for our own and our family’s safety and well being.

This is true for editors just as it is for you and me. Editors react to the emotional appeal of a pitch; the plot statement is a key part.

How Emotion in a Plot Statement Works

Let’s look at a plot statement that worked and why it did. The example is a plot statement for a woman-in-jeopardy suspense novel:

“A recently widowed young mother brings her sick three-year-old home from nursery school during a devastating Southern California storm and discovers they are not alone in the house.’

I had chosen woman-in-jeopardy as the subgenre for the novel because it is one of the biggest sellers in the mystery and suspense field. Most readers and editors of these books are women. For those reasons, I aimed my plot statement at emotions women can relate to and understand.

A recently widowed young mother is a sympathetic, vulnerable heroine. Even if the editor hasn’t experienced those problems personally, she can’t help but feel sadness at this woman’s plight.

Then I add a sick child, something every parent and non-parent can relate to and worry about.

With the main character hitting these two emotional buttons, I add a setting that hits another one: “a devastating Southern California storm.” Newspapers and television have brought the horror of flooded homes and collapsing hillsides in California into living rooms across the nation. We shudder at the thought of the unpredictable destruction and losses or give earnest thanks that we don’t live in an area where they occur.

And finally I hint at the menace to come: she discovers they are not alone in the house. An unknown person invading her home plays on the fears of every woman.

Every story element included in the plot statement is an emotional trigger. Together, they create a dark mood of danger and suspense. And more important, they make the editor curious about how the story will evolve and work out.

I admit I didn’t come up with the plot statement on the first try. I didn’t count how many bad starts I had or how many refinements I made once I had a passable draft, but it took me several days to reach this one. The early ones suffered from my trying to tell too much, especially about the intruder. Eventually I realized that the less I told about him, the more sinister he became, and the more “fear” he roused.

The descriptive words in the statement also were chosen for the effect they helped produce. A “recently widowed young mother” has a “sick” child. The storm is “devastating.” These add to the dark mood that enhances a suspense novel.

This statement tells the basic storyline without any details of the action or characters. At the same time, it pushes three emotional buttons for the editor:

  • Compassion (widowed mother and sick child)
  • Worry (the storm)
  • Terror (the intruder in house)

The editor knows these emotional triggers sell books, so she may be willing to read the manuscript to see if the story delivers on its promise. The plot statement did what it was supposed to do.

If you have finished your novel, start working on your plot statement now so you’ll be ready when that editor or agent you meet says, “What’s your novel about?”

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