Writing advice blog: the basic concept

Susie Helme

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

The most important aspect of a novel is the Basic Concept, your novel’s Unique Selling Point. It’s a marketing tool; this is where you sell your novel. You gotta have a good idea. If the idea isn’t good enough, you could either waste years of your life writing something that never sees the light of day, or spend thousands of pounds publishing something that is never going to be read.

If your Basic Concept is good enough, you’ll be able to capture someone’s imagination in just one or two sentences. This is what’s called the Elevator Pitch. You happen to be in an elevator with Mr or Ms Big Publisher (fictional—please don’t really pester publishers like this) and they say, ‘OK, tell me about your novel.’ If you’re still blabbering by the time you hit the 4th floor, you’ve lost them.

20-50 words is about the right length. Think about it: how much time does it take a bookshop or an Amazon Books browser to select a book? Probably about 30 seconds. That’s how long you’ve got to sell them on your Basic Concept. You’ve got to have already attracted them to your Basic Concept before they even look at your backcover Blurb.

So, this is not your Plot, not your backcover Blurb, not your Synopsis. It’s the one compelling Big Idea selling point, and it has to be new and intriguing.

What’s intriguing about it could be:

  • the setting (Harry Potter—it’s a boarding school for wizards); (Milkman—urban Northern Ireland during the Troubles—though I think what’s unique about Milkman is the writing style—it’s hard to portray that in an elevator pitch), (Dancing on Thorns—

the competitive world of classical ballet);

  • a plot twist (Gone Girl—she’s faked her diary entries to frame him), (The Fifth Element—the psychiatrist is a dead person);
  • an aspect of the character (Fault in our Stars—they have cancer), (Brokeback Mountain—they’re cowboys), Twilight— (her boyfriend is a vampire);
  • a situation (The Life of Pi—he’s in a boat with a tiger), (Handmaid’s Tale—she’s a slave broodmare in a dystopian society);
  • a theme (And Again—four terminally ill patients are given new bodies, examining the question of mortality and self), Me Before You (voluntary euthanasia);
  • a point of view (The Heart—the story of a fatal car accident through the point of view of the beating heart);
  • an approach (Pamela by Samuel Richardson—a servant girl’s story of sexual abuse is told through letters to her parents).
  • Or a concept (Fifty Shades of Grey (a woman is redeemed by sado-masochistic sex).[1]

The best Elevator Pitches include a hint to the primary Conflict in your story, hinting at both the Problem and the Solution, and be able to Hook the reader with a strong ‘why’. Why does the professor want to unlock secrets in works of art? Why is the servant girl writing to her parents? Is there an obstacle to the cowboys’ love affair? It should also indicate your Genre and Target Market and the Context—the world your novel is set in.

It could hint to the tone in the novel. For example:

Milkman
In the claustrophobic world of the Northern Ireland Troubles, where small issues become the subject of evil gossip and yet murders are commonplace, middle-sister is targeted for amorous attention by a paramilitary bigwig.

Elements to include (as long as you can still fit it into 50 words) are: genre, comps (novels to compare your book to), theme, cool factor, conflict, stakes, twist, ticking clock,[2] a resolution or a cliff-hanger. You should also mention your prior work, if any. It will really stick in your publisher’s mind if you include a scene detail or memorable image.[3]

Here’s the basic method: First, 1. identify your Protagonist and what’s unique about them; then, 2. identify the most important thing(s) about your story. Then, where’s the twist? What’s the conflict? 3. Identify how those two things are connected.[4]

Examples of good Elevator Pitches:

  • The Da Vinci Code
    A professor of symbology unlocks codes buried in ancient works of art as he hunts for the Holy Grail.
  • The Martian
    Astronaut, stranded on Mars, has to figure out how to survive.[5]
  • The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto
    A mystical tale of a guitar genius’s journey through 20th-century music.[6]
  • The Emerald Tablet
    In this midgrade science fiction novel, a telepathic boy discovers that he is not really human but a whole different species and that he must save a sunken continent hidden under the ocean.[7]

You are not trying to describe what your novel is about, but rather to hit Mr/Ms Big Publisher with its impact on the reader. Bad elevator pitches introduce all the characters, convey too much information or too little, try to be funny or witty, use jargon, or vague or clichéd language, talk too much about me, me, me.

Don’t preach to the choir. Don’t include how many novels in your genre were sold in 2012 or how popular teen vampire novels are these days—they know that better than you do. Also, this may rather be a negative selling point. If you pitch a teen vampire novel, Mr/Ms Big is likely to say, ‘I don’t want yet another Twilight.’

Here are some examples of bad Elevator Pitches:

  • Killers (film)
    An elite assassin learns that someone from his past has put out a contract for his now-tranquil life. (Where is the conflict? The comedy in this film revolves around the ‘never longed for excitement’ wife now having to dive into the ’way too much excitement’ life of her assassin husband. This is missing from the pitch.
  • Case 39 (film)
    To save 10-year-old Lilith from abusive parents, a social worker brings the girl into her own home – only to learn Lilith isn’t what she seems
    . (‘Isn’t what she seems is a cliché, too vague.
  • The Big Lebowski (film)
    Slacker Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski gets involved in a gargantuan mess of events when he’s mistaken for another man named Lebowski
    . (This pitch doesn’t at all convey the hilarious comedy of this film.[8]

Here is my Elevator Pitch for my 3rd novel, Dreaming of Jerusalem. What do you think?

A swashbuckling young swordswoman goes on crusade to avenge her father’s murder in the early Ottoman Empire, where Islam promises to change the world.

Here are some useful resources:

  1. https://jerichowriters.com/the-elevator-pitch/
  2. https://www.nownovel.com/blog/how-to-create-a-novel-elevator-pitch/.
  3. https://insights.bookbub.com/steps-to-writing-a-killer-elevator-pitch-for-your-book/
  4. https://www.standoutbooks.com/elevator-pitch/
  5. http://graemeshimmin.com/creating-an-irresistible-elevator-pitch/
  6. https://rachellegardner.com/tag/elevator-pitches/
  7. https://electricliterature.com/this-handy-chart-automatically-generates-a-pitch-for-your-new-novel/[9]

[1]Much of this is from the first lesson in Rebecca Horsfall’s course, ‘Develop Your Novel’.

[2] Talena Winters, https://www.talenawinters.com/writing-tips/2019/9/9/your-story-in-a-single-sentence-part-2-the-elevator-pitch

[3] https://www.annemini.com/category/pitching-to-an-agent/pitch-examples/

[4] Janice Hardy http://blog.janicehardy.com/2011/10/heres-pitchits-hit-crafting-your-novels.html

[5] Jericho Writers https://jerichowriters.com/how-to-write-an-elevator-pitch-for-your-novel/

[6] NYT bestseller list for January 3rd, 2016

[7] Madeline Smoot http://www.madelinesmoot.com/the-art-of-pitching-your-book-to-a-childrens-book-editor-in-just-one-sentence/

[8] Janice Hardy http://blog.janicehardy.com/2011/10/heres-pitchits-hit-crafting-your-novels.html

[9] Amanda J Evans https://www.writing.ie/resources/how-to-write-an-elevator-pitch-for-your-novel-really-useful-links-by-amanda-j-evans/

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