The Elevator Pitch: Your Story in a Single Sentence

One of my pet peeves in writing craft is how the authors of those how-to books throw out concepts and vocabulary left and right, but sometimes only assume the audience knows what the author is talking about.  So now that I have my own blog, I can’t very well go and do the same thing, now can I?  So, like the world building series, there will be several pieces like this one on fundamental elements of story structure and vocabulary.  Just to make sure we are all on the same page.

Okay?  Okay.

Let’s start at the beginning: The Elevator Pitch.

Elevator Doors small

Elevator Doors by Roy Luck

The elevator pitch is so named because there is a hypothetical situation that occurs in corporate media.  You are on your way to work on X floor in a skyscraper.  You get in the elevator and try to make yourself smile at the prospect of another day of misery, when he walks into the elevator with you.  You know who he is, that big producer over at Y company–the man with the power to make your dreams comes true.  And for the space of time between those doors closing and them opening again he’s got no place to run!

You have one shot.  So you make it count.  You introduce yourself, make nice and oh so casually mention the novel/script/whatever you’ve been working on.  He, feeling generous, says “Oh?  What’s it about?”

You don’t have time to explain the intricate details of your plot before those doors open (and his patience might wear out long before that), you have enough time for one, maybe two sentences.  Make them count.

“Now Kandagger” you may say, “I’m barely started on my novel!  How in the world do you expect me to explain it in two sentences to a total stranger when I barely know all the details myself?”

A valid question, to be sure.  But thankfully most of what he wants to know, you probably know already.  He wants to know: what’s the story about, who is the protagonist (or “hero”) who is the antagonist (or “villain”) and what sorts of things can he expect to see in a full version.  More, you want him to be excited about seeing the full version (so much so, he puts money down) so that should be in there as well.

So what do you say to him?  Well according to Jim Butcher, and by extension his mentor Debbie Chester, you say something like this:

“When [Something Happens], [Your protagonist] [takes forward action].  But WILL HE SUCCEED when [Antagonist] [Provides Opposition]?”

Let’s break these bits down in order, shall we?

“When [something happens]…”

This in common parlance is the “inciting incident”.  There once was normal in your world, something changed, and now there’s a mess to clean up…or an opportunity to exploit, or a potential lover to woo, or any number of things.  The point is that the story actually starts somewhere around this moment, everything before that is exposition.

More on that in another article.

“…[Your Protagonist]…”

This is who we’re going to be following around most of time.  Yes, some stories have multiple protagonists, but figure out which one is the principle…the lead.  Don’t just write a name down, but give a little description as well.  “wizard PI Harry Dresden,” “Moana, beloved of the ocean,” and “Link, bodyguard to the princess,” are all good examples of what I mean.  This refines your character to the person hearing it, and to you (which is more helpful than you’d think).

“…[Takes Forward Action].”

This one is a bit more nebulous than the first since it ties directly in to another chunk of the template.  The inciting incident has occurred, and your protagonist ought to take steps to either fix the wound, or capitalize on the opportunity.  This brings up the central focus of the story.  What will we be watching your hero do?  The “Promise of Premise” as one outline temple I read once described it.  Wizard PI Harry Dresden had better be tossing around spells as he tries to solve a mystery.  Moana, beloved of the ocean, had better not stay on that damned island.  And Link, bodyguard to the princess ought to be moving heaven and earth to get back to the princess in question.

More on that in another article also.


This in many ways is the most important chunk of the formula, even if it’s the part you have the least control over.  Stories where everyone gets everything they want immediately aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.  So your story should involve CONFLICT.  Lots of conflict.  So much conflict it almost hurts to keep piling it on, but you do so anyway because you know your audience loves it.  This is how you catch our producer’s interest, because if there is good conflict, there will also be good story.

“…when [Antagonist provides opposition]?”

Your bad guy ladies and gentleman, you need one.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be a person, but thwacking your protagonist around with a mountain isn’t nearly as fun as having some bastard in a black hat doing the thwacking…mostly because said bastard can also taunt your hero at the same time.  You need someone who benefits from the state of chaos your inciting incident created and who would like to keep benefiting if it weren’t for your meddling protagonist.

This chunk also gives some hints towards the climax of your story.  How your antagonist operates implies the steps your protagonist will need to take to overcome him/her/it.


Those are all things you need to know about your story, essential things really.  And spelling them out like that gives you your first bit of outline, that can then be fleshed out into full outline, and then into actual scenes until finally you have a fully written novel.

It’s a lot harder than it sounds, of course, but you will at least have a good starting point.

Until next time, keep writing.
















3 thoughts on “The Elevator Pitch: Your Story in a Single Sentence

  1. Pingback: Scene and Sequel: the Building Blocks of a Novel. Part 1. | Grinding Through Writers Block

  2. Pingback: The Three Core Story Questions | Grinding Through Writers Block

  3. Pingback: Prewriting Part 2: Main Concept | Grinding Through Writers Block

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