We’ve had the pleasure of targeting (or, to be more realistic, eliminating) the largest swathe of readers with BISAC. We’ve also re-visited how cover and promotional copy will hook specific readers once your category has narrowed them significantly. Today, though, I want to talk about how to hook someone’s interest. And this person doesn’t necessarily have to be even a potential reader.
Press a Button
What we’re talking about is the so-called Elevator Pitch. This is the explanation of your book/screenplay/game/TV show/movie/webseries that you can drop on somebody between the lobby and the tenth floor. You have two or three sentences in ten or fifteen seconds to take this person from mild (dis)interest to slavering excitement. This, friends, is no mean feat.
The way I see it, there are two main ways.
- The Weaponizing of Weaponized Plot
- The Hollywood High Concept
So let’s chat about them, shall we?
The Weaponizing of Weaponized Plot
In discussing creating promotional copy, I talked about weaponizing the plot. You boil the plot of your novel down to the bare minimum of the most interesting and attention-grabbing facts and character bits, then throw them at your potential reader in the cleverest way possible. It’s like shooting readers with mind-bullets polished to gleaming.
But with the Elevator Pitch, you have to do that even more. For your promotional copy, you boiled it down to 100-300 most exciting words. For this you need to get it down to about twenty. Lemme give you some examples.
- Downtrodden boy discovers he’s a wizard.
- Wizard private detective solves occult crimes in Chicago.
- Crazy old billionaire clones dinosaurs for theme park.
- Giant robots from outer space disguised as vehicles fight a secret war on Earth.
- Misanthropic but brilliant doctor cures weird and rare diseases while being a jerk to everyone.
So I might have misled you a bit when I said to boil the promotional copy down to the bare minimum. In comparison to this, back cover copy is War & Peace. This is the absolute bare minimum. If I took even one word out of some of those, the sentence wouldn’t even make sense.
But in each case, I’m hitting the most marketable bits of each story. Yeah, that’s right, marketable. The Elevator Pitch is handy for selling your story to a random conversant at a cocktail party, which can be pretty important since you never know how vocal a proponent anyone might be. But it’s also a useful tool for selling a television or movie producer once you’ve slipped past his security and, oh I don’t know, dove into an elevator with him for a short jaunt to upper floors.
It’s also really fun to just add “and hijinks ensue” at the end.
The Hollywood High Concept
The Dresden Files have been described as “Philip Marlowe meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Quantum Leap is “time travel meets Kung-Fu (the TV series).” Splash is “a fish out of water story with a mermaid.” The comic book Irredeemable is “Superman goes bad.” Iron Sky is “Nazis on the Moon.” Inception is a “heist movie in dreams.” Die Hard is such an amazing high concept in and of itself that it’s become shorthand in other high concepts. Snakes on a Plane is nothing but high concept.
The Hollywood High Concept is basically when you use other properties combined or mashed together to explain what your story is about. Superman is a paragon of good, he would never go bad…but what if he did?! Sure, we’ve all seen clever guys stealing things from jerks past unbeatable security procedures, but we’ve never seen it done in a man’s subconscious! You get the idea.
I used to hate this kind of thing. It seemed reductive to the point of making every story absurd or derivative. But my distaste was entirely due to me missing the point. It is absurdly reductive by design. The whole point of Hollywood High Concept is to explain the most basic of all gists from your story by using other stories.
The above description of the Dresden Files gives me heartburn. I like all three of those properties and it doesn’t do justice to any of them. At the same time, I get exactly what they mean even if none of the details match up. And I got it in seven words and five seconds. That’s a pretty powerful pitch, which is what the High Concept is always meant to be.
Elevate the Discourse
So what’s the point? Well, there are a few. In this world of webseries and Netflix or Amazon studios, you no longer have to be hobnobbing on the left coast in order to have a shot at getting your story translated to another medium. Even if you aren’t that interested in pursuing that, having the Elevator Pitch in your back pocket couldn’t hurt in case you run into somebody who likes the sound of it and wants to write you a fat check to see it turned into a move or show.
If nothing else, it will allow you to talk about your work with a suave detachment. For instance, when people ask me about my book TEEN Agents in the Plundered Parent Protocol, it’s sometimes appropriate to give them the sorta-feminist dad rant that led me to write it. but far more often, I sound less like a lunatic if I just say “It’s Saved By the Bell meets James Bond.” And not sounding crazy is also a pretty powerful pitch.