Querying 101: Plot Arc & Stakes

My recent #QueryTip on Plot Arc & Stakes in a query letter got a lot of attention, so I thought I’d expound on it in a blog post. The tweet: “There’s a fine line between hooking me with a “tease” & leaving out the plot arc. Plot arc and stakes (high stakes please) are key #querytip.” (NOTE: If you are in a rush, please scroll down to view the PLOT ARC & STAKES diagram I created, which will hopefully offer some direction on just what those things are. Sometimes when you know the parts of something, it’s easier to break it down.)

Here’s the thing about query letters: Writers wait weeks for a response that takes an agent just a few minutes to formulate. After said agent trudges through the endless queue of queries, yours rises like cream on fresh milk to the top. You know you’ve got a few minutes of their time, so you try to do something flashy. You tease them about your story. Your tease is sooo Twitter pitch perfect, so you figure it’s all you need to get that next look.


The agent there is effectively making a business decision when they read your unsolicited query. That takes time, and time is money. No one likes to waste money, right? And no one likes to lose an AMAZING author because they queried incorrectly.

But an agent cannot evaluate your novel without a clear sense of the plot arc (it proves you know what you’re doing as a writer) and its stakes (the “why” does this story even matter moment) reflected in the query. THIS DOES NOT MEAN GIVE AWAY THE ENDING. That’s for the synopsis. It does mean: show the agent enough plot to prove there’s a valid story there, and then give them a reason to care. The: “If this happens, then this (horrible / wonderful) thing happens” and that’s why we should care moment.

So, when querying: Keep it short but thorough. Don’t make their eyes glaze over. Mmm. Okay? With a doctoral thesis….

Agents needs to know (and yes, all the following are actually important):

  1. TITLE
  2. Genre (Scifi, Paranormal, Romance, etc.)
  3. Age Group (Children’s, Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult, Adult)
  4. Word Count (use your WORD program to count the actual words. Not page numbers; it’s not the same thing)
  5. Plot Arc (2 paragraphs max)
  6. Stakes (bottom of 2nd paragraph, perhaps a stand alone sentence to make it stand out. Feel free to take a liberty here!)
  7. Comparables (novels similar to yours or … would appeal to fans of INSERT NOVEL(s). This helps agents know where to “shelve” it in the market.
  8. Short bio, if relevant.
  9. SAMPLE PAGES (this is different for every agency, so check web sites. Talcott Notch asks for the first 10 pages PASTED in the body of the email).

If querying nonfiction, I cannot tell you how important it is for you to speak to your author platform, aside from the pitch. Nonfiction is often sold on platform: do you have an education in the field you are speaking to? Do you have a well-followed blog? Do you pod cast? Do you do speaking tours? Hey, do you happen to be famous? Cool. Let’s meet for lunch and discuss…

BUT BACK TO THE FOCUS OF THIS POST. Because I’m nerdy like this, I made you a fancy smancy diagram about PLOT ARC & STAKES. Get an idea of the mechanics of them, then put that on paper!

I hope the best for you querying authors! I’ve written queries myself, and they are RIDICULOUSLY hard to write. When your work is so important to you, boiling it down to a few paragraphs isn’t easy. But it can be done – and done well. So go do it!

PLEASE NOTE: Click on the diagram to view larger!





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