Wordsmith Wednesdays: Elevator Pitches

Writers are in the business of turning words into stories. And for novelists–whose jobs require that we produce lots and lots of words–being forced to restrict our words can be terrifying.

Nothing says word restriction like the elevator pitch.

So what exactly is an elevator pitch? A basic definition is: a one-sentence description of a product I want to sell. The goal is to say the words in the 30 seconds it takes to travel one floor in an elevator. 25 words or less. Fast and succinct!

The pitch is a business tool used in all industries to sell a product to a specific target market. Salespeople use elevator pitches to entice potential consumers about their products or services. Job seekers are trying to sell themselves; their elevator pitch must intrigue potential employers into offering an interview.

For authors, the product we want to sell is our stories. But what market are we targeting with our elevator pitch?elevator panel

I think there are two answers: readers (so they’ll buy our books) and publishing professionals (so they’ll buy or blurb our manuscripts.) In this post, we’ll discuss the type of elevator pitch that targets publishing professionals.

Key elements of the pitch

Publishing professionals will expect your pitch to include:

  • Character(s)
  • Inciting incident or conflict
  • Stakes or obstacle
  • Action toward a goal

That’s a lot of information to cram into 25 words or less!

Let’s look at an example from one of my books, a YA magical realism/time travel.

  • Characters: 21st century mountain biker boy and 18th century indentured servant girl 
  • Inciting incident: after meeting in the woods, they discover they live in different centuries
  • Stakes: he researches her on the Internet and learns she’ll meet a brutal end
  • Action toward a goal: change history to save her?

Before I could finish speaking these 41 words, the publishing professional would have already stepped off the elevator!

Pitch Template

I’m going to borrow from an excellent post by Nathan Bransford. His formula recommends something like this:

When [INCITING INCIDENT] happens to [CHARACTER(s)], they/he/she must [battle OBSTACLE] to [achieve GOAL.]

 If I apply the template to my example (harshly trimming all unnecessary words), I get:

When a mountain biker meets an indentured servant from 1796, he must choose whether to change history to save her life.

That’s 21 words!

Now it’s your turn. Try this technique with one of your stories. In the comments, leave the Key Elements of your story–or fill in the Pitch Template. And we’ll all “pitch” in to help you get the draft of your summary sentence under the magic 25-word limit.


42 responses to “Wordsmith Wednesdays: Elevator Pitches”

  1. Lydia Stevens says:

    I wrote mine two ways, one I’ve had stuck in my head for my pitch on Saturday at a conference and one with the formula. I’m open to suggestions!

    Atlantis is sentient and coming for her wild-child, New York, unless city-keeper Manny, can prevent a punishment like Atlantis’s other children, Pompeii and Petra.

    When a natural disaster strikes New York, Manny the city-keeper, must convince Atlantis not to destroy her favorite wild-child, New York like Pompeii and Petra.

    • Lydia Stevens says:

      I think where I am struggling with this the most is because Atlantis is typically a lost city, a setting, and New York is a setting, but in this story they are both characters as well since Atlantis is the “mother” of all major metropolises.

      Help! Lol

    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      Here are 3 rules of thumb to consider with the pitch. 1) Avoid proper nouns. 2) make every word fight to be in the pitch. They must earn their way. The goal is to get the agent or editor to say “Ooohhh, tell me more.” Any word that doesn’t increase that likelihood needs to be pruned. 3) Try to limit the pitch to 2 or 3 characters.

      Now, on to your pitch…

      With your example, I think that

    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      Sorry, Lydia, please skip down to two comments below for more… that pesky Enter key.

  2. Diane Mayer says:

    When a young widow falls for a man with a damaged soul, will he heal her heart, or shatter it?

    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      Hi Diane, you have 5 words we could use to cram in more. Woo hoo!

      I think that you could try to give more of a sense for the subgenre. My example hints that it’s a time travel. Lydia’s example hints at fantasy. What is yours? Contemporary? Historical? If we can add a word or two to give a feel for the setting, that would be great.

      When a newly-widowed billionairess falls for an Uber-driver with a damaged soul…

      Those two added nouns anchor the pitch in a contemporary setting–and also hints at a classism trope. Can you think of two nouns to capture your two characters?

    • Great start, Diane! Beth’s advice, as always, is spot on. I can’t wait to read your revised pitch!

  3. Elizabeth Langston says:

    With your example, I think that you have some exceptions to the rules 🙂 But here is another stab at your pitch that tries to make it clear the cities are characters:

    When disaster strikes her favorite wild-child, mother Atlantis considers punishing New York like sibling Pompeii–until the city-keeper intervenes, determined to protect his own.

    • Lydia Stevens says:

      I like it, but I am going to have to change two things. Manny is short for Manhattan so he is a she but that’s easy enough. The big change is, Atlantis is the one who will cause the natural disaster and has done in the past like with Pompeii. Because she is a force so old and powerful, she views cities as an entire entity(her children). She has little regard for a single person within the city because most major metropolises have an extensive past and present with many people coming and going. Atlantis doesn’t view the disasters as anything except a punishment for her “children.” Whereas a human like Manny would see it as a catastrophic event.

      I’m going to have to think about the verbiage to capture the intentions of Atlantis and Manny.

      Thank you for your help though! This is an awesome start!

    • I LOVE this, Beth!!! Makes much more sense. Lydia, in your first example, I was a tad lost. When I go back and read it after knowing what I know now, it makes more sense, but that won’t help with a cold pitch, where the person you are pitching to knows nothing of your story.

      Your second is better, but I think Beth’s is a little more on the right path. It’s much more explanatory.

      How about combining them with something like:

      When mother Atlantis considers punishing her favorite wild child, New York, like she did its sibling Pompeii, the city-keeper intervenes, determined to protect her own.

      This stuff is hard, Lydia, even for seasoned pros, and you have a great start! Good luck at the conference this weekend!

      • Lydia Stevens says:

        I LOVE THAT!!! Thank you! Lol. I have been tearing my hair out trying to get this down! I’m so excited now and thank you!

  4. Rhianna says:

    “When Wendy escapes from Peter Pan’s nefarious child smuggling ring, she must return to Neverland to save her brothers and lay waste to the evil that lurks there.”

    Thank you for the help <3

    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      Is the evil targeting her brothers specifically–or is it a more generalized evil that she’ll go after once her brothers are safe?

      • Rhianna says:

        Hopefully this helps a bit more, I am struggling because there is a time gap/jump. Wendy had to leave her brothers there when she escaped as a child, now she is old enough to rescue them, and others.

        “Neverland is an island of horrors with Peter Pan as an enemy of your worst nightmares. A corrupt child-thief, he’s been my number two target for the past 17 years. Number one? You’ll know her as Beauty…and her Beasts. But forget what you’ve read; it’s utter rubbish. The underground child slave market is alive and well thanks to the evil that lurks in Neverland. I should know; I’m Wendy Moira Angela Darling. I barely escaped Neverland last time I was there, leaving behind my brothers and childhood crush. Now, I’m all grown up and my years of playing nice with fairytales are long over. I’m not looking to save the world, but I’ll die before I let Neverland get away with what they’ve been doing and I’ll take down everything and anyone that stands in my way of saving those I love.”

    • What is the inciting incident that kicks the second part into action? Does something specific let Wendy know “it’s time”?

      I think you should lead with the word Neverland–because that’s recognizable, but the pitch should immediately clue us in that this isn’t your daddy’s Neverland.

      Something like…
      With Neverland on the dark side, Peter trafficking children, and Beauty being a beast, Wendy [does some action] to rescue the prisoners she loves.

    • Oh gosh! Is Peter really evil??? This sounds awesome, Rhianna!!! And I LOVE Beth’s tweaks. (Beth, I think you’ve found your calling. Wow.)

  5. Rachel Alexander Grilliot says:

    A small town journalist finds herself at the center of the search for a serial killer, again, but can she trust the local detective?

    • Nice job, Rachel! Do you have a longer blurb we could look at?

      • Rachel Alexander Grilliot says:

        “Rory moved to the middle of nowhere Colorado to get away from the psychopath who tried to kill her. She expected her life to be quiet, writing about grain futures and stolen tractors for the local newspaper. But when dead girls start showing up with eyes eerily similar to her own, Rory finds herself at the center of the hunt for a serial killer, again. She wants to trust the local detective, but how much of herself can she reveal with bring her past back to haunt her?”

        Also, can I just say Darynda, that you have me kind of fan-girling. I love the Charley Davidson series!

    • I’m with Darynda. A blurb might help–because I’m already invested in the journalist’s relationship with the detective. I want to know more!

      I don’t think you have to spill any spoilers about the detective–but I would like to know if she worries that he might be the killer or in on it somehow? Or sabotaging her?

    • here is something to consider:

      A journalist hides in Colorado from a psychopath, but when dead bodies begin stacking up, can she trust a detective with the secrets haunting her?

  6. Lisa Abraham says:

    I have two pitches (one for the elevator ride up and one for the way down LOL):

    Betsy’s life was routine until she may have witnessed a murder, starts getting threats, and an old, unrequited flame returns to town – but are they all connected?

    Johanna was happy being single until she meets Prince Charming at a masquerade and must decide if – and how- to find him or let him go.

    • In an elevator pitch, it’s often better to use a character’s occupation than their name. [Rhianna’s and Lydia’s pitches are the exception to the rules, since those names are recognizable, and the pitch gets some “freebie” information by using them]

      Can you tell me the careers for Betsy and Johanna?

      Try using a noun phrase with a fun/unexpected adjective followed by their job.
      morose wedding-planner
      shy professor
      giant miniaturist

    • ROFL! Lisa, you are too funny! I agree with Beth, and it’s something I’d never thought of. I love learning stuff!

      • Lisa, I did these yesterday (very quickly) but I’m not sure they are an improvement. LOL. If you want more input, let us know!

        Okay, without knowing more, here is a possibility for your first one. It gives Betsy and action. (I’m just guessing on a lot of this.)

        When Betsy witnesses a murder that puts her own life in danger and spurs the return of her high-school crush, she must find out if they are connected.

        Johanna is single and safe. Then she meets Prince Charming at a masquerade. Should she risk heartbreak to find him or protect her heart and let him go?

  7. Lenee Anderson says:

    When the regimental colonel confesses to a murder he didn’t commit, a debt ridden and grieving cavalry major must expose the unsavory side of London’s high society in order to discover the real killer and his own purpose.

    I have no idea what I’m doing.

    • Elizabeth Langston says:

      is this romantic suspense? or a pure thriller?

      I’m getting a clear idea of the historical aspect. Well done! And the conflict is WOW!

      What I’m wondering, though, is whether the colonel and the major have a romantic relationship or a bromance.

      • Lenee Anderson says:

        Oh, god no. They dislike each other. It’s a historical mystery with a romance sub plot. The theme is def brotherhood though.
        Any suggestions? I’ll happily listen.

        • Elizabeth Langston says:

          More things I’d like to know:

          The Major feels like the main character. Is that true? If not, who is?

          why is the major motivated to help the colonel if they dislike each other? Is there another connection between them? Is the love interest involved in this connection?

          What stakes does the major have for solving the murder? How will it benefit him personally?

          • Lenee Anderson says:

            Sorry I didn’t reply right away. Work.
            Yes, Major David Royce is the main character.
            He is motivated because it’s the colonel of his regiment. The honor of the regiment must be considered. They dislike each other but there is an element of respect. They are also both officers so another added layer of respect.

            The murdered man is the regimental farrier. Colonel Farquhar had confessed to killing the farrier. Farquhar ordered David to look into some horses missing from the regiment and David eventually discovers the murder and the missing horses are connected.

            David has lived his entire life in the shadow of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. He has been a cavalry officer for nearly half his life. The Cavalry is his life. Now it’s 1816, Napoleon is on St. Helena and David is in London stuck on guard duty. He’s penniless, a hard drinker, in debt, and has a tense relationship with his older brother, Lord de Royce. He’s mourning the death of his identical twin brother at Waterloo and the woman he is involved with is married to an MP.
            In short, like many soldiers in peacetime, David is bored, disillusioned, restless and unhappy. David needs action. David needs a purpose.

            Does any of that help?

    • When his superior officer falsely confesses to murder, a cavalryman rouses from his dissolute despair to find a killer and restore honor to the regiment.

      • Lenee M. Anderson says:

        OH! I see! Much better!
        It’s much more…Vague? Generalized?
        I have a great deal of trouble with… vagueries or broad generalizations. Details I have in plenty! 😉
        I’ve really learned something here! Thanks!


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