Simplify, Simplify…Whoa, Too Much

by J.D. Rhoades

Our Louise wrote a great post yesterday about pitching your work to agents. One fine  nugget in that pile of golden advice was this: “boil it down to a conversational but tight 25-words-or-less.”

You see a lot of advice telling you that you need to be able to describe your story in one sentence. This is known as “The Elevator Pitch”, so named because it can be sprung on an unsuspecting  agent during that glorious moment when you have them trapped in a small confined space from which they can’t possibly escape.

It’s possible, however, to boil your Elevator Pitch down too far, to the point where you miss the point of the book entirely. A couple of examples (which I remember but cannot for the life of me tell you where I read them first):

  • The Bible: God creates the world, then destroys it.
  • Moby Dick: a one-legged man goes fishing.

Some of my own:

  • The Odyssey: Soldier with terrible navigational skills probably should have asked directions.
  • The Grapes of Wrath: Poor people are nice, but they get shit on a lot. 
  • Macbeth: Ugly women screw with a nobleman’s head for no discernible reason.
  • The Great Gatsby: Rich people are interesting but crazy, and sometimes they shoot each other.
  • Just about any Pat Conroy Novel: Dysfunctional Southern boy takes 700-plus pages to finally get around to telling you the Horrible Thing That Happened.
  • Most of the later Spenser Novels: Tough but sensitive ex-boxer with annoying girlfriend cooks and solves mysteries with the aid of a black guy who scares the hell out of people.
  • Rocky: Dumb guy with speech impediment gets the crap beaten out of him and still thinks he won the fight.

Some others from around the Internet:

  • Remembrance of Things Past: Frenchman eats a cookie and remembers a lot of stuff.
  • Batman: Wealthy man assaults the mentally ill.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: deranged industrialist tortures and mutiliates young children.
  • Waiting for Godot: Nothing happens. Twice.
  • The Lord of the Rings: Little man gets a ring, then tries to throw it into a volcano.
  • Dune: Rich kid and his mom get tossed into the  desert and become worm-riding jihadis.

So just for fun, take your own work or someone else’s and craft an entirely unfair one sentence summary. Here, I’ll start:

The Jack Keller novels by Yours Truly: Bounty hunter with severe mental health issues keeps blundering into bad situations.

Your turn…

31 thoughts on “Simplify, Simplify…Whoa, Too Much

  1. Jim Winter

    Let’s look at the ones I’ve read most recently:

    Starship Troopers: Young man joins army, kills bugs dead.
    Stranger in a Strange Land: Man from Mars drinks water, has a lot of sex.
    For Whom the Bell Tolls: Pinko commie American bangs Spanish hottie, blows up bridge.
    Neuromancer: 21st century crackhead steals your credit card number and punks an AI.
    2/3 of the Jack Taylor novels: Seriously screwed-up-in-the-head Irishman stares at booze a lot while people around him die. (It’s an oversimplification, Ken. You know I love ya.)
    The Wire: Police trip over stupid city leaders while drugs are sold in Baltimore. Ya feel me?
    Star Trek: Federation officers explore strange, new worlds, fight lumpy heads, have really boring sex.
    The Matrix: Keanu Reeves takes the blue pill and falls into a pale, fraked up version of The Neuromancer.
    Battelstar Galactica (Old): A rag tag fugitive fleet of humans survive destruction with disco fashions, bad dialog, and smiling into lame freeze frames.
    Battlestar Galactica (New): Cylons evolve into humans, are led by what turns out to be an even bigger snivelly whiny brat than either Darth Vader or Voldemort, and have sex with their suriviving human creators.
    Harry Potter: Tormented suburban kid finds out he’s the Chosen One, beats snot out of all-powerful snivelly, whiiny brat named Tom.

    Sorry I don’t have much. I’m at work at the moment.

    Reply
  2. Sara J. Henry

    OK, Jon, I’m laughing even before I get a chance to read the posting. "Jon Coinch" has an interesting ring to it – vaguely foreign, somewhat reminiscent of a conch shell.

    While in Manila for a month to edit a book on Asian economics (of which I knew little, but quickly learned a lot) co-workers were surprised to find I was Caucasian – my middle name had been included in announcements of my arrival, and had somehow been transposed from plain Jane to the more exotic "Jaen."

    Reply
  3. Dana King

    These are funny, but show why I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of the elevator pitch. To me, a book that can be adequately summed up in 25 words or less may well lack depth. Maybe it’s just me.

    Reply
  4. Karen in Ohio

    Jane Eyre: Insecure, homely woman falls for grumpy married guy who already sent one woman over the edge.

    Rebecca: Insecure, homely woman falls for grumpy married guy who already sent one woman over the edge.

    There’s a pattern here somewhere.

    Reply
  5. James Scott Bell

    The purpose of an "elevator pitch" is just simple advertising wisdom. Sell the sizzle, not the steak. Do that and they may request the whole steak.

    I advocate not only the EP, but the "on the way to the elevator" pitch, much like you parody here. The reason is sometimes you have a passing conversation and that’s all the time you’ve got. But most of all it helps YOU focus your story. In fact, if you can’t sum up your premise in one line that excites you, you’re not ready to write the novel. Or pitch it.

    Reply
  6. Louise Ure

    My own work: Woman with guilty conscience finds something else to worry about.

    And Dan Brown’s oeuvres: Scientist and historian face danger from secret society. Bad dialogue ensues.

    Reply
  7. pari noskin taichert

    JD,
    This is just the sort of post that brightens a harried day. Thank you.

    Pride and Prejudice: Girl meets boy. Girl hates boy. Girl loves boy. (actually that would cover many romances)

    The Princess Diaries: Ugly Duckling redux.

    Duma Key: To hell and back.

    Reply
  8. Sara J. Henry

    [SPOILER ALERT, for those who haven’t read REBECCA] Karen, yeah, widowed because he killed her! OK, maybe she orchestrated it, but still… At least Mr. Rochester had the good grace to just stash his crazy wife away in the attic or wherever it was. Not sure the women were homely, perhaps plain, and both very young and friendless.

    Reply
  9. toni mcgee causey

    My own work: Woman has to save her brother from kidnappers. Along the way, things blow up. Frequently. It is not her fault.

    Sense & Sensibility: A lot of people talk and worry over being proper. They eventually get over it.

    Most southern literary fiction: people worry a lot over being improper. They never get over it.

    Jaws: a shark with an attitude problem.

    Indiana Jones: an expert at finding things can’t find stuff unless the girl is in trouble. And generally tied up.

    Dirty Harry: a cop, with an attitude problem, who probably was never cuddled as a child.

    Memento: Um, I forget.

    Reply
  10. Jake Nantz

    Dusty,
    I loved your version of Godot. Funny as hell. Here are a few of mine:

    Pride & Prejudice – Girls hates boy. Girl marries boy.

    Kelly’s Heroes – Lunatic in Tank helps Americans rob Hitler.

    Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead – Pair of idiots confuse everyone, then die.

    War of the Worlds – Aliens land, kill people, get sick, and die.

    Castaway – Tom Hanks argues with a volleyball. The volleyball usually wins.

    Reply
  11. Dana King

    James,
    I still think the prevalence of elevator pitches is part of the problem. These have been fun to read, but what’s a 25 words or less description that does justice to THE GRAPES OF WRATH? NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN? It’s often the underlying things that can’t be contained in the short pitch that make the book.

    Reply
  12. JD Rhoades

    I think Jake must have been watching TCM at the same time I was this weekend. Damn, I love that movie.

    All this thinking is hurting my brain…. ; )

    Want me to massage it for you?

    Sara: if a book is more than 50 years old, I think we can drop the Spoiler Alerts.

    Dana: you make an interesting point. Are elevator pitches degrading literature?

    Reply
  13. Sara J. Henry

    Hey, JD, it’s possible someone hadn’t read it! I never saw PSYCHO or read THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (I know, I know), and damn, articles I read recently gave up sort of major plot points.

    Reply
  14. Jake Nantz

    Dusty,
    Nope, just had it shown to me as a kid, and I still thank my dad for the wisdom I gained from Oddball.

    "Why don’t you knock it off with them negative waves?! Why don’t you dig how beautiful it is out here? Why don’t you say something righteous and hopeful for a change?"

    "Crap."

    Reply
  15. JD Rhoades

    Pride & Prejudice: Girl hates boy. Girl sees boy’s gigantic estate. Girl marries boy.

    He’s got a huge….tract of land!

    my heroine is a mix of Jane Eyre and Travis McGee

    I would totally buy this.

    Reply
  16. kit

    this *hurts*! LOL

    BLACK LIGHT-Stephan Hunter–Viet Nam vet re-unites with long lost brother.

    THE PROGRAM-Greg Hurwitz — Disgraced US Marshall joins cult

    BLOOD MEMORY–Greg Iles — another dysfunctional family story – messed up granddaughter challenges patriarch who believes he’s "all that and a bag of potato chips".

    THE KILLING KIND -John Connolly – PI who *sees* dead people and his 2 gay buds fight spiders.

    Reply
  17. Dana King

    Dusty,
    I don;t know if elevator pitches are hurting literature, but they’re sure not elevating the conversation. It’s bad enough movies pretty much have to make the first cut based on a one- or two-sentence "high concept" pitch. Novels are supposed to be more detailed and subtle, yet those who have accepted the task of publishing them seem to want to trivialize their contents.

    Reply
  18. James Scott Bell

    Dana, good question. The answer is that these brief locutions of the premise need to be indicators of the firmness of same in the author’s mind. Of course you can’t "do justice" to the fullness of THE GRAPES OF WRATH in one line, but the EP is not designed for that. You can certainly give the fundamental basis of the story. My point is that if you don’t know that yourself, and can’t say it in a convincing way, I don’t see how you have a novel worth pitching. A literary novel is not going to set off the commercial bells that a "high concept" novel does, but it can still be compelling on its own. IMO.

    Reply

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