Why Your Query Letter Should Focus On Plot Not Theme

This is my number one gripe with queries: pitches that focus on theme and not plot.

It seems writers like to cover everything in a query letter, including how to make us feel.

Here’s why focusing on theme when you pitch is a bad idea:

1. You’re wasting valuable space that should be spent on facts not proposed emotions. Ultimately, the writer doesn’t truly know how the reader will feel after reading their work. So when someone tells me how I’m going to feel, firstly I don’t believe them, and secondly writers that do this waste valuable space that should be spent on facts like plot, not possible emotional threads that may or may not be there. 

2. Theme can be vague and makes you sound unsure of what you’re book is about. “The bond between a mother and daughter” is a concept not a story. It’s a theme, not a plot. It’s vague, not specific. I could go on about the benefits of using specific, directive language in a query, but I think you get the idea.

3. Themes aren’t what sells projects to editors or sales staff, so it doesn’t sell it to us either. What sells books is a high concept, or unique story that is well-told, well-paced, with lively characters we care about. At no point does the theme actually participate in the selling of the book. Don’t get me wrong, themes aren’t bad, but they have no place in the query letter.

Take a look at your submission: are you highlighting theme when you should be selling the hook or plot?

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

12 thoughts on “Why Your Query Letter Should Focus On Plot Not Theme

  1. Thanks for another spot-on blog, Carly. Perfect timing as I fine-tune my query. (The song “Feelings” by Morris Albert is now an ear worm. Woo-o-o…)

    Like

  2. This actually makes me feel so much better… Inching my way towards working on the query letter (now I have a solid-ish draft which I’m revising I can start thinking about it) and it really will be so much easier to talk about the plot than the themes… it’s the plot and characters, after all, that set the story apart (I hope!)

    Liked by 1 person

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