Pitch Tip: Make Your Stakes Personal

Photo credit: Stephen Burch on Flickr
So I’ve been working on Twitter pitch critiques all week, and I’m not sure how many I’ve read, exactly, but it’s been a lot. And while I’ve spoken quite a bit about the essentials of a good pitch and making stakes clear before, there’s one related aspect that I sort of glossed over. I’m fixing that now, because to be honest? It’s pretty essential.

I’m talking about making your stakes personal. To your protagonist, that is.

Many times, I’ve seen pitches with stakes that are mentioned, but it’s unclear why it matters. For example, take this (completely made up) pitch:

When a serial killer abducts Michael, it’s up to Johnny to save him before Michael becomes Victim 13. 

I frequently see pitches about the protagonist needing to save someone from certain doom, but like the fake pitch, it’s not always clear why it matters to the protagonist. In this case, what is Michael’s relationship to Johnny? Is he Johnny’s brother? Best friend? Boyfriend? Husband? Is he just another random person, but it’s up to Johnny because Johnny is the detective tracking down the serial killer? There are loads of possibilities here, but without the specifics, pitches like these fall flat regardless of how big the stakes may seem on the surface.

Repeat after me: we must know why the conflict matters to your protagonist. 

Another pitch type I see revolves around characters having to save the world. On paper, this sounds like it’d be a really solid set-up for high stakes, but the truth is, personal stakes have a much greater impact than macro-stakes. Saving the world is great, but saving a loved one, or a child, or sibling, is so much more powerful.

The thing to remember is if we don’t know why the conflict matters to your protagonist, then the stakes (that is, what your protagonist has to lose) fall flat. So next time you’re working on a pitch, I encourage you to take a good, hard look at your set-up and make sure it’s absolutely clear why the conflict is so important to your protagonist.

After all, if your MC doesn’t care, why should your readers?

What do you think—are personal stakes important in a pitch? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
Working on a query or pitch for your WIP? Writer @Ava_Jae says to make sure it's clear your stakes matter to your MC. (Click to tweet
"We must know why the conflict matters to your protagonist." —@Ava_Jae on pitching your novel. (Click to tweet)


Heather said...

This is definitely something important to keep in mind—I guess it goes back to that idea that if your character doesn't care, then your readers don't either. And, if you're pitching, you're trying to get people to care before they even read! This is something I need to keep in mind.

Ava Jae said...

Absolutely, yes. You also make a great point about trying to get people to care before they read, which is absolutely part of the challenge of pitching. It's tough!

Jenny Mingus said...

I like the idea of having both micro and macro stakes. Like in the Hunger Games trilogy where Katniss is initially only concerned about saving her sister and protecting her family from further suffering and not so much into this "Let's overthrow the tyrannical government" shtick, only to eventually become a revolutionary determined to make a better world for everyone.
I am also all about the selfish guy who gets involved in a "saving the world" plot more for his own personal gain than anyone else's, only to rise to the occasion and become a true hero. Heck, my first crush was on Han Solo after all and he's kind of a textbook example of the "Selfish Guy rises to the Occasion and becomes a true hero" trope.

Ava Jae said...

Yes! I totally agree. And with Katniss, I think even after she becomes a revolutionary, a lot of her main motivation still stems to the personal—making a better world for and protecting the people she loves.

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