Two Sundays ago I wrote about making preparations for agent pitch sessions. Today, the focus is more specific – all the way down to the first line of your pitch. Carefully crafting your first line not only sets you up for a great session, but it can help you determine the strength of your entire novel. So, even if you’re not ready to talk with an agent, developing the first line can help ensure your book is focused on the essentials. It’s a lot to ask of one line, but it works.

I’m pulling my information from the book, Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, by Blake Snyder. As the title says, it is geared toward screenwriters, but Marcus Sakey (The Amateurs), mentioned the book at a writing conference as being an excellent way to help any writer develop their project – be it screenplay, novel or even short story. It is a simple read, and boils everything down to the basics. I won’t discuss his Save the Cat theory here, although it makes perfect sense; instead, I’ll stick to information from his chapter on loglines. You’ll have to read the book for the cat info.

Here is the premise: a logline is your book summed up in one line. Same as the one-line pitch. Screenwriters pitch their projects using the logline. That one line is then used from production to marketing. It is often used on the posters in movie theatres, and on TV advertisements. It is the line that not only explains what the movie is about, but entices the movie goer to watch it. Your book needs exactly the same thing. Whether you are pitching to an agent at a workshop, or sending a query letter, you have to be able to sum up your book — and sell it. Once your project is sold, it is the line you’ll use again and again when people ask what your book is about. It will be used for publicity, for your website, author questionnaires, etc.

Save the Cat doesn’t just convince you of the need for a logline, it also explains in detail how to write one. Following are a few of Snyder’s requirements for a good logline to get you started:

1. Irony – Snyder claims the single most important requirement is irony. It is the hook that gets people interested in your book. Irony is the unexpected contradiction between an action and the context in which it occurs. Following are 2 loglines that exemplify irony:

  • From the movie Die Hard: “A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists.”
  • From the movie Pretty Woman: “A business man falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend.”

2. Mental Picture – your one-liner needs to offer a mental picture of your book. The agent should be able to imagine the book in her head. The best logline Snyder sited was from the movie Blind Date:

  • “She’s the perfect woman – until she has a drink.”

In nine words I can imagine the entire movie in my head. Main characters, action sequences, everything. Offer a one line pitch like that in your query letter, and your chances of being asked to send your manuscript increase exponentially!

Sidenote: I mentioned Marcus Sakey’s workshop session above, so I’ll add this sidenote concerning query letters. In his workshop, Sakey stated that if you aren’t getting requests for your manuscript, keep in mind that it has nothing to do with your novel. Writing a query letter requires specific skills. If you aren’t getting response from at least half of the agents you are querying, then you need to rewrite and perfect your approach. It obviously isn’t working.

3. “What is It” – Snyder also says you have to answer the question – “What is it?” – in your logline. Or, more appropriately for writers, What’s your book about? He claims that if you can’t answer that question in one line, if you can’t figure out who and what your story is about, then your big idea might need some refining.

Snyder also states the importance of a killer title. “Like the irony in a good logline, a great title must have irony and tell the tale.” His best example of a killer title with irony and telling details – “Legally Blonde.”