The other day I got an email from a writer who had an appointment to pitch her movie idea to a producer and she was in a panic. She asked what tips I could offer. The biggest one:
When I was in a position to hear pitches the most common problem was that the person telling the story knew it so well that he or she went into far too much detail.
Since I'd never heard the story before I couldn't tell which of the many details related to the core story and which were parts of the subplot or just digressions.
THEY SNORE, YOU LOSE!
When you confuse people hearing your pitch you've lost them and it's very hard to get them back.
Of course how detailed you get will depend partly on whether you're giving the "elevator pitch," the two or three-minute version, or the complete story. But even for the latter it's a good idea to stick to the spine of the story.
If your story moves back and forth in time, often it's better to indicate that but tell the story in a more linear way.
For instance, you might say, "As Maria's relationship with Andre disintegrates, we see episodes from her childhood that reveal the abuse she sufferend at the hands of her father. When she is five (describe what happened), and on her tenth birthday (describe what happened). Finally, on the day she graduated from junior high school, she found the courage to resist and (describe what happened)."
Even though those episodes may be spread out in your screenplay or novel, grouping them in the pitch can make the story easier to follow.
THE KEY POINTS TO REVEAL
You might be surprised to hear how often people pitching a story leave out one or more of these essential bits:
What is the genre?
Who is the protagonist?
What's happening at the start of the story? This may or may not be the first thing that happens chronologically in your character's life. For example, you may want to bookend the story with someone remembering a major incident that had led them to a dramatic moment in the present.
What are the key problems the protagonist encounters and how does he or she respond?
Who or what represents the obstacles--sometimes the obstacles are internal but especially if you are writing a screenplay you have to find something external to represent them.
How does the conflict escalate and what is the highest point of conflict?
How does it turn out?
Ideally the story itself will reveal the underlying theme but sometimes it doesn't hurt to allude to it as well. The danger is that themes can sound quite banal when stated straightforwardly, as in "crime does not pay," or "once lost, trust is hard to regain."
However, you might say something like, "(Title) is a thriller about two brothers and the price of lost trust," and then go into your story.
A QUERY LETTER IS A PITCH, TOO
These essentials also work in a query letter. However, that format is closer to the elevator pitch and you would not go into as much detail about the escalating conflicts and you may just set up the final conflict but not reveal how it turns out.
As I know from experience, writing a synopsis that covers the key points and also sounds interesting rather than like a list of plot points is challenging, especially if you've already written the whole novel or script. In fact, it may be the hardest thing you write!
(For a supportive guide from idea right through to publication, get a copy of my book,Your Writing Coach, published by Nicholas Brealey and available from your favorite bookseller.)