You’re at a convention, doing what everyone at such an event does sooner or later: waiting on the elevator. While engaging in small talk with the lady next to you, you find out she’s a senior editor at your favorite publishing house. You decide to pitch your book to her. Problem is, you’ve only got a few moments while you both step into the elevator — and she’s probably heard pitches about books just like yours. Can you describe your novel in thirty seconds and still make it interesting?

This hypothetical situation is exactly why we call this short pitch an elevator pitch. It’s a short (usually no more than two sentences) pitch designed to pique your audience’s interest. You’ve got her attention right now. The idea is to keep it a little while longer.

This is impossible! you say. I can’t sum up my epic saga without making it sound like something generic!

The idea isn’t to tell your story per se. It’s to take a moment to describe what your story is about or what it’s like or what you think is super cool about it. What makes it interesting? What’s the “cool factor” that made you want to write it?

If you’re used to one-on-one retail (especially in real estate or door-to-door sales), you know exactly what this is like; and if you’ve ever experienced a door-to-door salesman, you know how negatively predisposed someone can be to a pitch, period.

There’s a literal example of the elevator pitch in the opening scene of Iron Man 3, when Aldritch Killian pitches his company Advanced Idea Mechanics to Tony Stark during an elevator ride. I would suggest not using it as an example for your own pitches, though — despite the fact that it mostly fails because Stark is drunk and, well, an ass. (So he was being himself, in other words.)

Here are some sample pitches I wrote up for already-famous stories:

  • “After his father dies and his uncle takes the throne, the prince of Denmark becomes convinced his father was murdered by his own brother. It’s a tragic tale of obsession, seduction, madness, and self-destructive revenge.” (Hamlet, William Shakespeare.)
  • “A story about honor, glory, revenge, and loyalty, set during one of the first great wars of human history. It has battles, death, and interfering gods, and examines the nature of what war was like for the ancient world.” (The Illiad, Homer.)
  •  “A young lady struggles against the expectations of society and her own prejudices in a romantic tale set against the backdrop of Regency England.” (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen.)
  • “The hero is recruited by a group of dwarves who want to free their ancestral mountain kingdom from a dragon. Just one problem: Bilbo is a man used to the comforts of wealth, and the last thing he ever wanted is an adventure.” (The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien.)

Notice that these leave out important elements. My Hamlet pitch makes no mention of his father’s ghost, and my pitch for The Hobbit doesn’t even mention that Bilbo is a hobbit. (And I know there are some Tolkien purists in the audience who are even objecting to me using “man,” to which I say “hush.”) The point is to leave out anything that would need additional explanations. Remember, if I’m pitching Tolkien to someone who never heard of a hobbit, I’d need at least another sixty seconds to explain it. When you’re giving an elevator pitch, every second counts. Elaborate after you’ve hooked them.

You might also notice that each pitch is directed at a different audience (and of course assumes that said audience has never heard of these books). The Hamlet pitch isn’t going to appeal to anyone who wants light and fluffy comedies, and The Illiad would appeal mainly to those interested in ancient history and mythology.

It’s a good idea to practice your elevator pitch even if you aren’t planning to pitch something anytime soon. For one thing, it’ll help you narrow down the best parts of your story; articulating the cool factor, even just to yourself, is a great way to focus your writing — particularly when you hit a snag in the plot.

For another, the more you practice short pitches like this, the easier it will be to come up with something on the spot. You never know who you might run into while waiting at the elevator!