The best science-fiction novels boast panoramic world-building and complex ideas. But eventually, you must explain your grand design in a few sentences. This is what's called the "elevator pitch," and it's actually a helpful way of thinking about your novel.
Welcome to Free Advice for Struggling Writers (as if there's any other kind), a new semi-regular column here at io9. We've taken a few stabs doing a writing advice column for ages, but I always felt a bit presumptuous giving anybody else advice about how to write. But now that I'm in the middle of revising a fantasy novel, I'm having all sorts of thoughts about novel-writing that might actually be helpful. And which might, at least, start some interesting conversations.
So — a lot of people seem to regard the "elevator pitch" as a necessary evil. And I've certainly thought of it that way myself. OMG, my future society has 29 social classes, and there's a war between ninth-dimensional nano-roaches and sentient clouds that only live between galaxies! How can I possibly scrunch all that greatness down into two sentences?
But I'm going to try and explain, in about 800 words, why the elevator pitch is a really good thing to think about — and why it should be woven into the fabric of your novel as you're writing it.
People often think of the "elevator pitch" as being some kind of crass Hollywood thing: like "It's Rain Man – With Time Travel! It's 28 Days Later meets 9 1/2 Weeks!" But really, the "elevator pitch" just summarizes what your story is about. And if you can't explain what your story is about in a couple sentences, maybe that's actually a bad sign.
Here's how I've gotten to think about the elevator pitch lately: It's a contract with your readers.
Forget the agent you're going to pitch your book to, forget the editor, forget all the people between you and the reader. Eventually, if you're lucky, readers are going to be picking up your book based on some version of the same pitch. (You can't really control your back cover copy, but you'll do a lot of the marketing of your book anyway.)
And when you describe your book in a few pithy sentences, you're making a promise to your potential readers, about what they'll get if they invest time and money in your book. You warrant that you'll deliver a story about a guy who gets migraines that let him rewrite the past. Or a dragon who disguises herself as a racehorse so she can take part in the Kentucky Derby. If the reader buys your book based on that pitch, you'd better deliver on it.
And that means that your "dragon disguised as racehorse" book really has to be about the dragon disguised as the racehorse. Your reader is going to expect the dragon to be the main character, and there should be some compelling reason the dragon wants to be a race horse, and then we should see the dragon's quest for a horse disguise, and how the dragon learns to live among horses. The reader is going to be wondering if any of the horses, or jockeys or owners, see through the dragon's glamour (or plastic surgery?). The reader will be counting on there being some kind of arc where the dragon changes, and accomplishes something, in the course of becoming a thoroughbred. And most people who've consumed sporting narratives in the past will expect the book to end with a huge, crucial, suspenseful race, which the dragon/horse either wins, or loses in some poignant fashion. And you'd have at least a sneaking suspicion that some people will learn the dragon's true identity at the end.
But wait – in the course of writing this novel, you get fascinated by the culture of the jockeys. And you invent a marvelous backstory for the dragon's jockey, but also a whole subplot involving a different jockey, who's part gnome. And also – there's a bookie who's using magic to figure out the odds. And once you think about the backstory of your dragon main character, you invent a whole dragon culture, and a dragon civil war, and you decide that dragons are facing extinction because people are trafficking in dragon eggs. And so on. These subplots, and digressions, and possibly philosophical lines of inquiry, are marvelous and should absolutely be in your novel. It's part of the joy of speculative fiction that you can draw such a broad canvas – but as you're writing your novel, remember that your readers are expecting it to be about the dragon who becomes a racehorse.
Look at it this way – a decent writer can deliver the dragon/racehorse story in its barest outlines, carrying the reader from A to B to C like a dependable mount. A good writer can give you the dragon/racehorse story, but throw in tons of complexity and subplots and exploding ideas and supporting characters and world-building, until it's really the story of a whole world. But it takes a really brilliant writer to give you that whole tapestry of complexity, but still make the story about the dragon who becomes a racehorse.
And I'm by no means saying you have to follow your readers' expectations for how your dragon/racehorse story will go – in fact, part of trying to be the brilliant writer, instead of the decent writer or the good writer, is surprising the reader. But here's the key: You have to know what the reader's expectations are, and then make a conscious decision to subvert them. If you ignore the reader's expectations, and then your story just goes off the track (so to speak), you risk losing the reader. Say halfway through, your dragon/racehorse breaks a leg and gets shot in the head. If you haven't set up that development at all, the reader may just feel cheated, not surprised by your clever twist.
So the reader is expecting your dragon to face challenges learning to carry a small human around a racetrack, but eventually surmount them and build up to the big race at the end. There are a million ways you could have something different happen, but you still need to be following the story beats that lead to the Big Race, while laying the seeds of your surprising twist.
So how do you weave in all the backstory and subplots and thoughts about the humaneness of horse-racing, without having them overwhelm your "A" plot? That's a huge topic for another column (and possibly for the comments on this one, if you like) but in a nutshell: if you stick in that stuff artfully, it can help build suspense in your main plot. Just as your suspense reaches fever pitch – OMG! The dragon has a sprained ankle! – you cut away to one of your subplots, or go off into a digression about the fastest dragon who ever lived, and how that dragon failed to outpace the egg-traffickers. But also, have a certain amount of faith in your reader, that as long as you're hitting the story beats about your dragon protagonist and putting that stuff front and center, the reader will be able to recognize that as the main plot, even if there's 10 pages of other stuff sandwiched between scenes with your main dragon.
The bottom line is, stop thinking of the "elevator pitch" as a necessary evil that you're going to use to hoodwink some agent into thinking your book is Seabiscuit meets The Last Dragon, when it's really so grand and multilayered, you need a whole book just to describe it. The "elevator pitch" isn't just how you market your book – it can also be a way to think of what your book is really actually about.