The purpose of a query is to entice a literary agent or editor to read (more of) your manuscript.
Some literary agents will only read the manuscript pages if the query entices them enough, other agents will read both the query and pages for each submission they receive, and yet others will read the pages before they query. But in order to receive a partial or full request, it’s essential for agents to finish reading your submission thinking, “I need more.” And there’s an easy way you can do that within your query: specific conflict.
When I worked as a literary agent and read through the query box or perused the feed of Twitter pitch contests, writers would often over-simplify their stories or plot. This over-simplifying not only doesn’t provide an overview of the story in the plot summary (also called the story blurb), but it doesn’t leave a reader eager for more.
Let’s Start With a Few Examples of Vague Conflict:
1.) Michael is faced with a dark secret that turns his world upside down. If he doesn’t learn how to control his new powers so he can fight off the impending evil, the darkness will devour the world and everything he loves.
2.) Mia has always wanted a normal life. When she finds herself on a mission to learn about her family’s history, she learns of their dark secrets, which, if revealed, could change the course of history.
3.) Trae’s father committed a crime that tore an empire apart. Or that’s what everyone has been told. He must befriend murderers and thieves and outsmart politicians to prove his family’s innocence and prevent civil war.
In These Examples:
- We don’t know who the protagonist is (vocation, motivation, etc.) or what s/he wants.
- The plot appears to be moving the protagonist (rather than his/her desires or actions impacting the plot).
- We know nothing of the individual circumstances leading up to the inciting incident, who the antagonist is, or what the force is the protagonist is facing.
- Without any specific examples of what the protagonist is facing, the stakes’ impact is lessened. For example, in #2, what are the family’s dark secrets, specifically? Why would those secrets change the course of history? What would happen if those secrets were revealed? Why weren’t they revealed already?
- In general, the following phrases are all vague conflicts (and should be swapped out for specific conflicts): “dark secret,” “turning her world upside down,” “dark past,” “darkness will devour the world,” etc.
- If an event happened that has sparked the inciting incident, such a father’s crime in example #3, the reader needs to have a general idea of what that event was.
Let’s Rewrite These Three Examples to Include Specific Conflict:
1.) In Short Hills, most sixteen-year-old boys get cars for their birthday. Michael received unfortunate news: he was from a long line of witches. The best part? As a male descendant, he didn’t get powers, not cool ones anyway. But he did inherit the family’s enemies—including, but not limited to, the town mayor, chief of police, and wealthiest families in the community, all of whom were set on exacting revenge on his family. And for crimes his ancestors supposedly committed. Michael must learn how to control and interpret the strange visions he’s been getting since his sixteenth birthday before the town can awaken a sleeping demon that is said to steal witches’ powers—by stealing their memories.
2.) While unearthing what some historians theorize to be the ancient city of Atlantis, Mia discovers strange artifacts with her family’s crest. Upon touching the artifacts, she begins blacking out and waking up days later without memory of what happened. Desperate for answers, she travels to libraries in Southern Europe and North Africa, where she learns the true location of Atlantis—and how her family was the reason it was sunk beneath the sea.
3.) Ten years ago, Trae’s father stole the king’s scepter. In most kingdoms, you’d think the king would waggle his jeweled finger at his smiths and demand they make a new one. Not in Galoecia, where people are sentenced to death for stepping on a royal’s shadow. When Trae discovers his father’s secret journal, it seems he never stole the scepter after all. If his deceased father’s writing can be believed, he was framed for stealing the scepter and executed as a disrupter of the peace. To get to the bottom of the mystery, Trae must befriend murderers and thieves—the last people to see his father alive. But if he doesn’t find the evidence he needs and soon, civil war will break out on the streets, with Trae right in the middle of it.
Granted, all of these examples are too long for Twitter pitch contests (and probably too short for plot summaries, which are often three paragraphs long), but hopefully, you get the idea.
Pitches and plot summaries both need to have story-specific conflict and stakes. If the conflict is vague enough that it can be applied to stories other than yours, take a look at the writing and see how you can tweak it to convey the uniqueness of your story. By conveying the uniqueness of your story in a query (as well as having a polished manuscript), you may just land yourself a few partial and full requests from industry professionals.