Pitch Writing: Stakes vs. Intrigue

The two main functions of a fanTAStic pitch are to intrigue the reader and communicate the stakes of the story. Ideally, you want to do both, but when character or word space is short, it can be tempting to go for the "Intrigue Pitch" instead of the much vaunted "Stakes Pitch."

When participating in pitch contests, we see agents, editors, and awesome authors chanting, "Stakes, stakes, stakes, STAKES," all the time. This make witnessing an author with ZERO stakes in their pitch get tons of attention REALLY freaking annoying.

But it happens. Heck, I've BEEN that author (sorry about that). Thing is, intrigue pitches CAN do the job. They can do it brilliantly. But the majority of the time, stakes-based pitches work best. In our last round of PitchSlam, there were literally only TWO pitches without stakes that actually had enough zing to grab my attention. Granted, they did it beautifully. But there were only two out of all the entries.

That's not a lot.

Please don't assume YOU are the exception to the "More Stakes, Please!" guideline. I'm not saying you're not; I'm just saying you shouldn't assume. Come up with more than one pitch. Try them out on people who've never read your story, and ask which one grabbed them the hardest. You don't have to make this call on your own. 

And if you need help coming up with a stakes-based pitch, try applying the following formula to your story:

MC wants [Goal] more than anything, but [Obstacle] stands in their way. If MC can't [Decisive Action] then [DOOM] will happen.

As an example, let's apply this formula to the Wizard of Oz:

"Dorothy wants to go back to Kansas more than anything, but the Wicked Witch stands in her way. If she can't steal the witch's broomstick, then she'll be trapped in the land of Oz forever."

Now, we all know The Wizard of Oz is a much more complicated story than this. We've left out the wizard and his promise to get Dorothy home. We've let out her companions and the fact that stealing the broomstick does NOT turn out to be key to getting her home.

But here's the thing, and it's super good news, I promise...You don't have to tell the WHOLE story in the pitch. You just have to SELL the story; and that's a different thing altogether.

So we've boiled it down to the basics. Someone who's never heard the story of the Wizard of Oz before can read that pitch and get a sense of the story. Poor Dorothy wants to go home but can't, there's something she HAS to do to get home (or so she thinks), but there's an obstacle in her way. If she doesn't overcome that obstacle, something TERRIBLE will happen.

That's a heck of a lot to get across in 35 words, eh?

Give it a try. Strip your story down to this basic formula and see what you end up with. Could be just the starting point you're looking for!

Or who knows, maybe it's worth the risk to try out that intrigue pitch tumbling around in the back of your mind. Just be very, very sure that it does more for you than a stakes-based pitch can. And also be sure that it doesn't give the wrong impression of your story. Here's a humorous intrigue pitch of the Wizard of Oz to demonstrate my point:

I won't be critiquing pitches prior to the feedback round of the contest, but I will be posting more tips and tricks for both pitches and first pages. But if you've got two pitches you can't decide between, feel free to post both in the comment section and I'll give you a quick "Number One!" or "Number Two!" answer (that's extra funny considering my husband is an optometrist). 

Also, feel free to join our Pitch Slam Writers FB Group, where you can trade critiques with your fellow entrants.

Happy Pitching!


  1. When journalist Kynelle Harris reveals the secret to peace, an angry friend can't kill the story, so...

    When journalist Kynelle Harris reveals a huge scoop--the secret to peace--a jealous underachieving friend can't kill the story, so...

    1. I'm not seeing stakes in either of these pitches. "so . . ." tells me nothing. Use all 35 of your words and bring more specific details in. :)

  2. Here are my two:

    Sixteen-year-old Kate Stillwell must use her newfound magic abilities to prevent an ancient sword from freeing its creator from his prison in the center of the earth.

    Sixteen-year-old Kate wants to protect humanity’s magic—creativity—but if she can’t find and destroy an ancient sword before it frees its creator from his prison in the center of the earth, then creativity will fall.

    The second one is 36 words, but I'm working on paring it down. Thanks for doing this!

    1. The second pitch is DEFINITELY more gripping. :)

    2. Thank you for the feedback!

  3. A year later for the 2016 contest. Am I getting the hang of this?

    Jerry Barkley cares about computer viruses, not Ebola viruses ravaging western Africa again. But now, after uncovering a clandestine Iranian cyberattack, he must overcome a hostile law enforcement bureaucracy to stop a horrific biological attack.