Tell Me the STORY

One thing I’ve noticed lately in fiction pitches – verbal pitches or queries – is that some writers want to tell all about the theme or the emotional journey of the story, but they have a hard time conveying the actual story.

Every novel has a theme. There’s a character arc, in which a character grows and/or changes over the course of the story. There’s an emotional progression. But that is NOT the story. That is what is illustrated by the story.

What’s a story? It’s a plot. It’s scenes with action and dialogue. It’s people going places and doing things and talking to other people. It’s characters taking action to make something happen, to change their situation, to solve a problem, to avoid danger.

Over the weekend as I listened to writers’ pitches, I often heard something like (this is hypothetical):

A woman is distraught and angry about her teenage daughter’s drug use, but finally comes around to be able to forgive her and help her.

To this, I might ask, “Good, so what’s the story?”

Well, the mother has a hard time with this because of her own past drug use, and she vowed her own children would never use drugs, and she has to learn that we’re all human and that her daughter needs her help.

Me: “Okay, so how does all of this happen? What’s the story?”

Um, the mother finally forgives her daughter, and gets her into rehab.

Grrr. Can you see that this is not a novel? At this point, I’ve been given a premise and a resolution, but I still have no idea what happens between page 1 and page 400.

Sometimes, this is not about the pitch – it’s a problem with the book. Some of you are writing entire 100,000 word novels with no actual real-world story, but instead you’ve chronicled in devastating detail a character’s emotional journey.

Take note: the emotional journey is illustrated and reflected in the real-life action of the story. Again: people going places, doing things, interacting with other people, solving problems, and always working towards a goal.

In the words of my friend the Query Shark (agent Janet Reid), your pitch needs to show:

1. Who is the protagonist?
2. What choice does s/he face?
3. What are the consequences of the choice?

Just to be safe, take a step back from your query. Make sure your book has a protagonist with a choice to face (a conflict), obstacles to overcome, a desired outcome, and consequences (the stakes) if the goal is not reached.

And when it comes time to pitch your novel, talk about the actual real-world story, bringing in your protagonist’s emotional journey (or the theme of the book) at the end of your pitch.

Have you been pitching themes and emotional journeys instead of stories?

P.S. The phrase emotional journey could also be replaced with spiritual or psychological journey.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. scifialiens on October 14, 2009 at 9:55 PM

    >You can kill two birds with one stone if your pitch is well crafted. My pitch gives enough of the story so that people either want to hear more ("and then what happens?") which tends to preceed a sale, or they're not interested ("you have quite the imagination.")

  2. Rick Barry on September 25, 2009 at 3:58 PM

    >Terrific summary. On the other hand, while I was pitching I was actually afraid that I might be delving too delving too deeply into the story and not mentioning enough of the spiritual changes occurring in my protagonist. After all, it IS a Christian novel. But two people asked for samples chapters, so I guess I did something right… 😉

  3. MaryAnn Diorio, Ph.D., CLC on September 24, 2009 at 6:14 PM

    >I'm new to your blog, Rachelle, and was very happy to read your explanation about the difference between the protagonist's emotional journey (or internal story) and his or her external story (the actual, real-world story). I think you're right that often the problem with a pitch is not the pitch at all, but rather a problem with the story. Thanks very much for this post.:)

  4. Candee Fick on September 24, 2009 at 3:02 PM

    >Guilty as charged. Thanks for asking the tough questions and pushing us to examine the core of our stories.

    I find it hard to do this after the story is written because all of the layers are fresh in my mind. The next book I start WILL have the story crystal clear before I put a word on the page, and therefore save me headaches at the end when trying to pitch/query.

    Thanks again for your honesty and the willingness to help us as we grow in our craft.

  5. Katie V on September 24, 2009 at 2:57 PM

    >Awesome distinction, thanks!

  6. Jennifer L. Griffith on September 24, 2009 at 11:31 AM

    >Guilty…this has been the most difficult part for me. But it's also made me look deeper into my story, plot and character arch. Thanks! May God's wisdom and discernment shine through the block!

  7. Catherine Kariaxi on September 24, 2009 at 7:47 AM

    >In other words… the writers pitch the theme, and the problem is that they might come off pitching a book that sounds like a zillion other books that the agent has seen.

    Maybe the point is they have to take what they have and figure out what makes THEIR story different and find a way to emphasize that?

  8. Ez on September 23, 2009 at 10:20 PM

    >I totally get what you're saying about the emotional journey problem. I'm still confused though. Don't agents always say they want to see a hook? Where's the hook if you tell the beginning middle and end of your story in three sentences? I think maybe that's why writers subconsciously leave their pitches open ended. They don't realize they sound cliche, they want them to entice you to read their book, not give you the whole story so you can yawn and move on.
    So you're saying is the story is more important than the hook?

  9. Ginger Merante on September 23, 2009 at 5:53 PM

    >I have almost the opposite problem. I summarized the main points of the entire story in two paragraphs ( which was not easy) and realized that I might be giving to much information?

    I just don't know what the right thing to do is.

  10. CKHB on September 23, 2009 at 3:53 PM

    >I think this is tough for us because so many published books are pitched from a character perspective. The story of four reunited friends. The story of a man who triumphs against the odds.

    Take, for example, the book I'm reading right now, Justine Larbalestier's LIAR (which many people know about because of the kerfuffle over the book's cover image). What do we know about the book? The main character is black with short hair (hence the brouhaha when the cover originally showed a white girl with long hair). The main character is a compulsive liar. BUT WHAT HAPPENS? I bought the book without having any idea.

    The book's cover says that Micah is a compulsive liar whose dishonesty begins to catch up with her after her boyfriend's brutal death. THAT'S IT. And, to my mind this is not terribly different from saying that a book is about a former drug user who must learn forgiveness after her own daughter begins using drugs. In both cases, we're shown one character and one pivotal moment, and no other plot information.

    Maybe this is the difference between a teaser and a pitch? But I can definitely see why people think it IS a pitch to just talk about the characters.

  11. lara on September 23, 2009 at 3:17 PM

    >Very timely post for me. I'm struggling with a memoir that is reading more like a series of events (an emotional journey) but not an actual story. Thanks for the post – this helped me a lot today!

  12. Jack Roberts, Annabelle's scribe on September 23, 2009 at 1:07 PM

    >Good advice!
    Does every conflict involve making a choice? What if the story involves a outside antagonist causing problems or if the story involves the protagonist learning new things?

  13. tamika on September 23, 2009 at 1:06 PM

    >Thanks Rachelle for the timeless insight to a would be author's success.

    You are proving to be an invaluable help to so many people. I will be making a note to remember this in my writing. I consider myself character-driven rather than plot, but I want the story God gave to shine forth.

    Blessings to you…

  14. LynnRush on September 23, 2009 at 1:00 PM

    >Right on. I'd like to say I didn't pitch themes, but I'm sure it crept into my appointments a little but hopefully not completely.

    Great post. Hope you're recovering from your ACFW weekend. I think I've just about recovered. It's taken a couple days though. 🙂

    Have a great day, everyone.

  15. Jessica on September 23, 2009 at 12:21 PM

    >Hmmm, possibly have. Thanks so much for this post! It's definitely something I needed to read.

  16. Martha Ramirez on September 23, 2009 at 12:20 PM

    >I have nominated you for the Kreative Blogger Award:)

    Another great post.Always enjoy reading what u have to say.

  17. B. S. on September 23, 2009 at 12:12 PM

    >I think a lot of our problems with queries and pitches stem from at least 12 (for some, more) years of book reports. We were taught to pitch a book something like this:

    "I read this great book…. it made me feel…. I'm not going to ruin the book by telling you what happened… I think you should read it."

    People need to know it's ok to "ruin it" for the agent/publisher. These aren't book reports.

  18. Andrew on September 23, 2009 at 11:27 AM

    >So THAT'S why all my queries sank without trace…

    Seriously – a number of people read the book and loved it, and the queries went nowhere. Now I know.

    Thank you ever so much, Rachelle. I think you may just have made the difference between my being a writer, and being an also-ran.

  19. Judith Mercado on September 23, 2009 at 11:18 AM

    >I am reminded of something Stephen King said in his On Writing book:

    "… starting with the questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story."

  20. Heather Sunseri on September 23, 2009 at 11:01 AM

    >As always, perfectly stated, Rachelle. I'll be starring this for later. Thanks.

  21. Anonymous on September 23, 2009 at 10:53 AM

    >You'd like my book, if it were only written. Thank you for the post!

  22. Timothy Fish on September 23, 2009 at 10:38 AM

    >Could it be that this is because we spend so little time talking about everything but what happens in a story? We talk about things like First Person or Third Person, adjectives and adverbs, Protagonists and Antagonists, hooks and cliffhangers, punctuation and editing—you name it, we talk about it, but we don’t see that much talk about what actually happens in a novel. With so much emphasis on other things, it shouldn’t be surprising that people don’t talk much about what happens when they discuss their stories.

  23. Krista Phillips on September 23, 2009 at 10:15 AM

    >I think I started out doing this long ago… but realized the difference quickly. I think sometimes the problem is that people call their stories "Character-driven" and not "plot-driven" and explain their lack of story this way.

    But just because a book is more heavy on character than plot doesn't mean there can be NO plot. Same the other way around. I think mine is more "plot" driven but that doesn't mean I can ignore or not develop my characters.

  24. Beth on September 23, 2009 at 10:05 AM

    >Thank you for this reminder! It's easy to get caught up in "the journey" and forget about "the story"!

  25. Lynnda - Passionate for the Glory of God on September 23, 2009 at 9:55 AM

    >Good morning, Rachelle,

    I am often amazed how the words we write speak uniquely to each person who reads them. The comments to your post show the proverbial "lightbulb" going on over people's heads in so many different ways.

    I am no exception to that rule. I am working on a children's book with a story that, according to one professional, is a "solid start with a good voice." This person also told me the manuscript lacked that "something" that would cause the reader to care what happens to the main character. Your post brought to my attention that the "something" is a lack of the emotional quality you often get instead of the story line.

    Thank you!

    Be blessed,


  26. Kristen Torres-Toro on September 23, 2009 at 9:42 AM

    >Thank you so much Rachelle, for this clear direction. It's so easy to focus on the emotional journey and not the actual one. I'm going to remember this post in my future writing and pitching!

  27. Donna Gambale on September 23, 2009 at 9:35 AM

    >Awesome, awesome post. So relevant and gives concrete examples. The emotional journey – the "why should we care" – is definitely important because you don't just want a plot floating along by its lonesome (and as a writer, you should understand the bigger picture of what you're writing), but it's SO important to have a concrete plot!


  28. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman @jeannevb on September 23, 2009 at 9:29 AM

    >Very insightful post, Rachelle. Thanks! In screenwriting, we "speed pitch" constantly…. 5 minutes to sell your story… and that includes time for Q&A. If anyone is looking for pitching advice, the best book I've seen is Michael Hauge's, Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds or Less. As for the very legitimate issue of your book even having a true story and plot, I'd recommend authors and screenwriters alike read Dara Marks's Inside Story. Fantastic. Deals with how to wrap plot, character development, theme and emotional impact into a meaningful story.

  29. DebraLSchubert on September 23, 2009 at 9:25 AM

    >Great post, as usual. The beauty of the query and synopsis is that it forces you to get to the heart of your story and communicate it in a brief yet powerful/meaningful way. Many writers fear the query/synopsis, but why? It's your story. Embrace it!

    (BTW: Love the pic of you and Jody on her blog!!)

  30. Janet Reid on September 23, 2009 at 9:16 AM

    >The Shark is glad to be your friend!

  31. Rose McCauley on September 23, 2009 at 8:59 AM

    >Thanks for this insight, Rachelle. Glad to see you a couple times at conference even if we didn't get a chance to talk. It's hard to talk to everyone of 500 people, even for a fast-talker like me!

  32. Reggie on September 23, 2009 at 8:27 AM

    >This totally makes sense to me. Since there is very little new in the human experience, the only thing that can be new in the novel is what happened to illicit the experience.

  33. Lisa Katzenberger on September 23, 2009 at 8:25 AM

    >Rachelle, you are, of course, dead on with this one! Great explanation!

  34. Sharon A. Lavy on September 23, 2009 at 8:17 AM

    >Thank you.

  35. Jason on September 23, 2009 at 7:50 AM

    >One thing I've noticed in my writing is that when I'm being I'm vague in my query letter (more often synopsis) it's because the answers to these types of questions is not real clear in my own mind.

    That's why these are great questions. They help us to make sure that WE know what's going on in our own stories.


  36. Stina Rose on September 23, 2009 at 7:41 AM

    >Great post. I hadn't thought about it that way. I'm filing away this information for the next time that I pitch a book.

  37. Pam Halter on September 23, 2009 at 7:36 AM

    >Great timing for me, too, since I'm working on finishing up a proposal this week.

    Thanks, Rachelle!

  38. Lydia Sharp on September 23, 2009 at 7:22 AM

    >Thank you for this post. It's exactly what I needed to see right now.

  39. Rachel Starr Thomson on September 23, 2009 at 7:20 AM

    >Your description of 100,000 words of emotional journey in which nothing actually happens reminds me of the way I've heard other agents/writers define "literary fiction" as opposed to genre or commercial fiction. Yet, even there the inner journey needs to be encased in some kind of outer happening.

    I'm happily writing genre fiction, but I'm curious — how would you recommend pitching a story that is far more inwardly focused than outward?

  40. Sheryl Tuttle on September 23, 2009 at 7:12 AM

    >Great post. I'm afraid I've been guilty of writing the emotional journey. Recently, through the help of a writers group class, I've become aware of my plot weakness and have ideas on how to fix it. Your post reinforces this. Thanks!

  41. Richard Mabry on September 23, 2009 at 7:01 AM

    >How do you do it? I've been pitching (or answering the question "What's your story about?") for years now, but always feel as though I'm stumbling through it. As usual, you've given me great direction: Who, why, what if? Thanks.

  42. Doug Spurling on September 23, 2009 at 6:36 AM

    >So, are you saying; "Just the facts ma'am." Cry at the end if you must.

  43. Lisa Jordan on September 23, 2009 at 6:00 AM

    >Great advice! I learned this from one of your previous posts about pitches, so I hope I put more story and less theme into it when I told about my story.

    One thing I've noticed lately is I'm becoming freer about discussing my story with friends and family members who ask what my story is about.

  44. Kristi Faith on September 23, 2009 at 5:27 AM

    >Thank you for such an informative post, as always. I haven't even thought of a query or a pitch yet for my novel, as it isn't finished, so your pointers are always running in the back of my mind as I write. MOST HELPFUL!

  45. Robin Archibald on September 23, 2009 at 5:26 AM

    >Thanks for the reminder, Rachelle. I've been writing back cover copy for my WIP (nover) just to have on my blogger page (plus it forces me to shape the story). But the bcc doesn't contain enough story details, so I was revising it yesterday. But then I got caught up in writing more character development, realizing that if character drives plot, I still need to work in that area.

  46. Mariana on September 23, 2009 at 4:13 AM

    >Hey Ann, this is a good thing that you have the chance to reevaluate your query. I'm certain you'll get better responses now. Always move forward! 🙂

    Excellent post Rachelle. You always hit the key points. Amazing!

  47. Ann Victor on September 23, 2009 at 3:28 AM

    >Oh dear. I was so proud of the latest version of my synopsis/ query letter, but now I think I detailed the character growth instead of telling the story. Sigh. Back to the drawing board…

  48. Helena Halme on September 23, 2009 at 2:50 AM

    >Rachel, another great and valid point. Writing pitches is so difficult when you've been living the book and the story for years (in my case…). You can't see the wood for the trees.

    I'll try this simple approach next time!