It feels impossible, doesn’t it? We spend months—or more likely years—creating a work of fiction, living and breathing our characters, immersed in their worlds, mentally enacting their conflicts over and over again until we can barely see what we’ve created. We whittle and refine and reconstruct, tearing down and reassembling to build, finally, a STORY.
And when we’ve finished—or sometimes before we even know what IT, the story, really and truly is—we’re asked to consolidate the whole thing into a couple of pithy paragraphs, meant to communicate the totality of the work in no more than a couple hundred words.
Like I said: impossible.
So, it often feels like enough if we just manage to communicate the basic mechanics of the story: its genre; where it’s set; who it’s about; and from what source the conflict originates. Oh, and word count. Don’t forget word count!
But what of the story’s real beating heart, the emotional chord that vibrates through each and every scene? What about the tenor of the times during which the novel unfolds? The protagonist’s emotional as well as practical arc? Capturing those elements can boost your query from mechanically adept to undeniably compelling.
Consider the difference between this:
In a future America, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen fights for her life against other teens, pitted against one another in a battle to the death.
In a future America, where “district” citizens are being brutally punished for a massive uprising, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen saves her younger sister’s life by volunteering to take her place in a battle against other teens where only one will survive.
While both descriptions do the necessary work, the second packs much more punch. It gives a stronger sense of the FEELING of the story, the setting and its sense of turmoil, the sacrifice Katniss makes, which establishes her loyalty and heroism in just a few words.
Obviously, the second is longer, but it’s certainly still abbreviated enough to include in a query, with plenty of room for further development. In the case of HUNGER GAMES, there’s rich emotional territory to be mined in the fact that Katniss begins her battle caring only for her own survival and soon begins to care about—possibly even love—others.
Another example I’ve used in the past comes from the novel JAWS. Here’s a straightforward version:
Police chief Martin Brody must catch and kill a monster shark responsible for terrorizing and killing citizens of his seaside community of Amity Island, New York.
And here’s that same pitch with a few emotional elements in place:
Police chief Martin Brody must conquer his fear of the ocean and join forces with an arrogant oceanographer he suspects of having an affair with his wife in order to catch and kill a monster shark responsible for terrorizing and killing citizens of Amity Island, New York.
In this case, the emphasis is less on the setting and more on the machinations of the protagonist’s psychology. It’s bad enough to fight a shark but much more difficult to do so when suffering a fear of the water or being thrust into a situation with the person with whom your wife’s been unfaithful.
The good news is that in a query, you have room to develop all of it: a bit of the emotional texture of the world; a bit of the main character’s emotional struggles, which play out during the pursuit of his or her chief objective. You can talk about the ways other characters not only impede that pursuit but bolster or grind away at your character’s psyche. And you can talk about what’s at stake for your characters, what they stand to lose not only on a practical scale but on an emotional one as well.
Play with adding an emotional dimension to your query letter—not one to replace the practical one but to ENHANCE it. Doing so will help you feel as though you’re giving the reader—those industry gatekeepers and other folks—a TRUE sense of your story instead of one that feels flat and inadequate as so many queries do.
Give it a try, and you’ll find that the impossible becomes something truly great.