In an age where time is precious and emails are plenty, grabbing a literary agent’s attention right away is the key to a successful query letter.
There are many ways a query letter can stand out; however, it’s important to remember that the point of a query is to make an agent want to read more of your manuscript.
Many writers often focus on their personal bio and writing credentials, their passion for writing, or why they chose to write this manuscript rather than the story itself. While those are all important elements (and help us get to know you as the author better), be careful that the bulk of your book industry-specific cover letter is geared toward the reason you’re querying: to find representation for your work.
While there are many different ways to write a query letter, here is one of my favorite breakdowns:
- Dear [name of agent]
- First paragraph: Plot summary
- Second paragraph: Plot summary
- Third paragraph: Plot summary
- Fourth paragraph: Metadata* and reason(s) why you’re querying this agent**
- Final paragraph: Bio and writing credentials (specifically, why you’re the best person to write this story)
*Metadata is the word count, genre, and age group of your manuscript.
**The reasons why you’re querying an agent could be as simple as they’re accepting the genre and age group that you’re writing in.
Keep in mind that some agencies request query letters follow a certain format. But for those that don’t, I find that many writers with successful queries often utilize this format.
Now, if you’re looking at that breakdown, you’ll notice that the majority of the query is the plot summary (three paragraphs). I know—crazy, right? But what do I mean by ‘plot summary’? This little snippet is called many different things: the story summary, story blurb, plot summary—among others. In short, it’s the part of the query where you reveal who your protagonist is, what his/her desires are, the world, the antagonist, and the stakes for both the character and the world.
Note: The plot summary and synopsis are two entirely different things. A plot summary is a one to three paragraph summary of your book that’s part of your query letter. On the other hand, a synopsis is a one to two page document (separate from the query) that summarizes the entire story (characters, plot, ending—all of it). The plot summary does not reveal the ending and it often reads like a book jacket.
The Key Elements of a Plot Summary
Consider the following elements when you’re crafting the plot summary in your query:
Set the tone: This is where having a standout voice is key. Your opening line not only introduces your story to the literary agent, but it introduces you as a writer: your writing style and storytelling abilities.
One of my favorite opening lines that set the tone for the rest of the book was by none other than the queen, J.K. Rowling: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
I mean, doesn’t that line just scream personality?
Similarly, you want your opening line to convey some of your unique capabilities as a writer while introducing us to the voice of your character (which brings me to my next point).
Introduce your protagonist: Not only do you need to identify the person who will spearhead your story, but you specifically want to reveal his/her desires. A character’s desires reveal his/her motivations and those motivations are (typically) what in turn move the plot.
Introduce the key conflicts: This is where those antagonists come to play. Who (or what) is up against your protagonist? What is preventing him/her from getting what he/she (initially) desires? Do his/her desires change or get more complicated as larger conflicts impact or prevent your protagonist getting what he/she wants?
Introduce the stakes for the character and the world at large: Once the foundation for who your protagonist is and what drives him/her has been put into play, introduce what will happen if the character isn’t able to achieve his/her goal as well as how the world could be impacted by this outcome. Often, there are layering motivations and conflicts that impact both the character and the world, thereby thickening the plot.
Show the character taking action (or planning to take action) while leading up to the climactic moment: We now know what the stakes are—what happens if the character achieves his/her goal? What happens if he/she fails? Next, show the character’s potential paths—what actions he/she could take to attempt to achieve his/her ultimate goal and what stands in the way. Leave it on a cliffhanger (don’t reveal the ending), which (if done right) will leave us begging to read more.
A couple of things to note about action:
- Be specific: None of that “dark past,” “hidden desires,” “make things right,” or other unspecified plot points—give us the juicy details.
- Focus on the main conflict: Although there’s probably dozens of plot twists in your story, focus on the conflict that moves the plot. For the most part, you want to save your awesome subplots for the synopsis.
A few other plot summary tips:
- Start with a hook—this could either be an intriguing opening line or a traditional literary hook.
- Limit the number of characters introduced in the plot summary. If possible, focus on the protagonist, antagonist, and only a few other key players that are central to the plot (such as a love interest).
- Don’t reveal your ending. Again, the point of the plot summary in a query is to make the agent want to read more.
- Avoid talking about theme. If you feel strongly that you want to talk about theme in your query, incorporate it somewhere near the metadata.
- Whenever possible, utilize shorter sentences and direct, simpler vocabulary words. The plot summary isn’t the place to show off your sparkly vocabulary. Rather, it is the place to be concise (and gripping).
- Avoid asking rhetorical questions, if at all possible. This is (unfortunately) an overused tactic by writers.
Remember: A query is a one-page document where you’re marketing your book.