As always, I begin my post about query letters by pointing you directly at a better, more awesome, and more reputable source than myself: the almighty Query Shark (and what she says about effective queries).
I’ve been working on doing a How To Write a Query Letter type post for a while. Before you can write the query, you have to know what goes in it. It’s like cooking. You need to decide on the ingredients before you start cooking, or else you end up with a mutant half-breed cake-steak-soup.
So. I decided to distill it down to its basic form. The most basic form looks like this (a la Query Shark):
- Who is your Main Character (MC)?
- What does your character want?
- What’s stopping them from getting what they want?
- What must they sacrifice to get what they want?
This is a lovely and superb tool. If this helps you, then that’s AWESOME! It helped me. But as with most advice, I tweaked it a bit after a couple trials and errors didn’t seem to capture the whole conflict.
The goal in a query letter is simplicity. Introduce the character/world, give us the premise and stakes, and the terrible decision the MC faces. It takes a lot of trial and error.
Because what if you’re not quite sure how to articulate what your character wants? What if you’re more of a visual learner? Do you find it easier to follow a flow chart?
Adapted from the above sharkly process, is the following visual flow chart:
Don’t freak out! It’s a lot of blue, but it’s not that complicated. You just fill it out from top to bottom. Whiteboards are good for this, but I’ve also included a text format below that you can copy/paste (also in blue).
Essentially, Sharkly Step 2 (what does your character want) is broken out into the choice they face and what makes that choice difficult. Then, Step 3 (What’s stopping your character from getting what they want) is captured in “Obstacle that complicates MC’s choice.” Then Step 4 is broken out into the complicated choice/consequences.
The reason I broke it out like this is because the initial conflict of the story generally persists throughout the entire book. It just gets properly tangled up and escalated, which is great! And I wanted a way to show that shifting conflict in the query letter without giving anything huge away.
A couple notes:
- The inciting incident is generally plot-based (like an extraplanetary attack or a letter in the mail or a meteor crash).
- The initial conflict is generally a character conflict.
- The obstacle can be either plot or character conflict, but I typically find that it is plot-based.
- The final complicated conflict is almost always character AND plot conflict.
- When going through the flow chart, try to only use one character. You can go through the same process with ANOTHER character if you have multiple POV, but each character should be able to stand on their own.
Let’s pretend I numbered my handy flow chart:
- Who is the MC?
- What does MC want?
- What’s stopping MC from getting it?
- What choice does MC face?
- Choice A
- Choice B
- Of Choice A
- Of Choice B
- Obstacle to choice
- Complicated Choices:
- Complicated Choice A
- Complicated Choice B
- Final Consequences:
- Of Choice A
- Of Choice B
Let’s do a quick example, eh?* (mild Star Wars: Force Awakens spoilers ahead)
[BLUE SPOILERS ZONE]:
- Rey wants to survive her hostile desert planet until she can reunite with her family.
- A droid is in need of her help and her home planet is attacked by enemy forces.
- (Choice A) Does she leave the planet to aid those who need her help, or (Choice B) does she stay home to wait for her family?
- If she leaves, she will be risking life and limb for strangers, leaving behind her only chance at finding the family that abandoned her. If she stays home, she will be ignoring her natural instinct to help those in need and consigning herself to a difficult scavenging life. (This is where we really develop sympathy for the MC. There has to be a reason we are invested in their struggles.)
- She discovers that she has the potential to fill a greater role in a war that stretches across the stars. She has the Force. (Being more specific here runs the risk of spoilers. But if you hedge it well enough, it’ll be tantalizing instead of spoiler-y.)
- (Choice A) She can quit the rebellion and return home to wait for the family that may never come, or (Choice B) she can embrace the dangerous adventure ahead and do her best to move on and convince others to join the fight.
- If Rey can’t embrace the power within her and her role in the deadly war, millions of people over several planets will die. If she does embrace her role, she will be directly in the path of the darkest enemy she has ever faced. (It’s always best to try to frame the final decision in a way that makes it unclear which decision they will choose. I always frown at dust jackets that say “will the hero do heroic things or be a coward?” because the answer is often obvious.)
*huge disclaimer: this is by no means a comprehensive analysis of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In fact, I’d say that Finn has an equally vital role in the story. If you want a practice run, try going through the flowchart for Star Wars: The Force Awakens as if Finn were the main character.**
**If you do this, totally post it in the comments section!
[/END OF SPOILERS ZONE]
After this, it’s a task of reformatting these things into the body of a query letter so that it flows and builds tension. The goal is to get an agent to say, “Man, I have to know what happens next!” Now, I know I’m not a Star Wars expert, and I left out any number of proper nouns that would have elevated my Pro Status. But this is just a rough outline (and a first draft of a rough outline at that), so take it with some salt. Not that much salt. Just a pinch. Just enough to sweeten things up.
Next Post: Compiling a Query Letter — In which I go over how to put the above elements into a query letter and smooth it over. And I’ll probably be using the above starry example.