A Common Query Problem (also Kung Fu Panda)

Disclaimer: The only query slush I read is on the internet, but there's a lot out here, and I read most of it. So don't knock it.

Every query letter is different, but I've seen a lot lately with the same problems. It looks kinda like this:

Paragraph 1: Hook.
Paragraph 2: Innocent World.
Paragraph 3: Inciting Incident (often repeating the Hook).
All his life, Po wishes he could be a kung fu master, but he gets more than he bargained for when he's mistakenly named the legendary Dragon Warrior.

Po has spent his whole life in his father's noodle shop. Blah blah [his father's a goose] blah blah blah [Po plays with kung fu action figures] blah blah [he doesn't actually want to cook noodles] blah blah, etc.

Until the day it is announced that Master Oogway will decide who is to become the Dragon Warrior. [Po tries to get in to see it. Can't.] When Po crashes a slapped-together rocket chair in front of Master Oogway just in time to find the master's finger is pointing at him, his life is changed forever.
A few reasons why this doesn't work:
  1. The hook is repeated and redundant.*
  2. The reader is forced back in time at the beginning of paragraph 2.
  3. Paragraph 2 is setup and backstory. There is no plot.
  4. The query stops before it tells us the meat of the story.
  5. There is no difficult choice for the MC and, therefore, no stakes.

What you want to do with your query is more like this:

Paragraph 1: Hook, Innocent World, AND Inciting Incident.
Paragraph 2: The struggles that occur as a result, leading up to...
Paragraph 3: The Sadistic Choice

Obviously the three paragraphs are just a guideline (mine had four; your story might do it in two). The point is to start with your inciting incident and end with your sadistic choice. A compelling choice is what will make agents want to read more.

Let's look at Po again:
All his life, Po wishes he could be a kung fu master instead of making noodles, but he gets more than he bargained for when Master Oogway names him the legendary Dragon Warrior by mistake.
(See? The inciting incident IS your hook, and you don't need to spend more than a few words on the innocent world. Now the rest of the query is free to talk about what agents really want to know: the story. Moving on.)
Unfortunately, Po suffers from weight and incompetence problems. The Furious Five mock him, and Master Shifu is trying to get rid of him. Even so, Po is determined to learn everything he can, and his refusal to give up eventually earns the respect of the Five, even if his kung fu skills do not.

Master Shifu receives word that the powerful Tai Lung has escaped from prison and is on his way to seek his revenge. He runs to Master Oogway, the only master who has ever beaten Tai Lung, but Oogway insists Po is the one who will defeat Tai Lung. When Oogway passes away, Po must decide if he will risk his life based on the ramblings of an old man, or if he should run away, risking the destruction of the entire valley.
It still needs work of course (query letters are hard, guys), but hopefully you get the idea. Start with the inciting incident, end with the sadistic choice, then connect the dots (all the while being specific and skipping everything that isn't necessary for the agent to understand the weight of the choice -- hey, I said it was hard).

What do you think? Is this helpful? How would you handle things differently?

* The concept of a "hook" paragraph comes from query help sites like this one. It's a sound idea, but often misunderstood.


Matthew MacNish said...

Yep. Character, conflict, choice. It's pretty much all you need, unless, you know, you break the rules and make it work anyway.

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

I spent a lot of time trying to break rules in my query (oh! but the voice...blah, blah, blah). I finally rewrote the query last week, and it basically fits the format you posted here. Hook, three sentences defining the problem, ending with the Sadistic Choice. I guess I finally got it right!

Thanks for confirming it!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Fan-freaking-tastic. I've never heard it put so well or so succinctly. This is a must-read post for anyone trying to write a query.

(P.S. I've never liked those hook paragraphs. Why sum the story up in one sentence if you're also going to sum it up in two or three more paragraphs?)

Angela Brown said...

So this one hd definitely made my Bookmark list because frag it all, this will help me so much when it comes time to get my query letter for MINGLED into shape. First things first...got to get MINGLED into shape :-)

Thank you so much for this helpful info, Adam. You so rock!

Rena said...

This is fantastic, and very well timed. I just sent this link to all my friends who are working on Query letters.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Oh god yes, this!!
I have to tell people all the time that their queries are stronger if the end with that choice. I mean, come on! Ending with a terrible choice almost always makes me want to read more.
Sigh. Of course, after all this, i still have to go back and fiddle with my current query, which just isn't quite there yet.

Christine Tyler said...

Holy cow, you are a genius. This is an excellent break-down that is useful to everyone.

Nancy Thompson said...

It took me a long time to get the query formula down pat. Glad I don't have to worry about it anymore. At least not now! I might be back for a refresher in a few months though.

Steve MC said...

Duly copied, Dragon Warrior.

linda said...

Awesome! Thanks for the great tips. :)

Daisy Carter said...

Great post, will be linking!