Friday, January 28, 2011

The “Whoa” Factor

The “Whoa” Factor

whoa stopI was all set to post something about dissection agents’ reaction during the Writers Digest Conference last weekend. It seems that overall, writers had a great response from agents, with tons of requests for partials. Why? Well, after spending the week thinking about it, I think it comes down to the idea that WDC simply attracted some of the best new writers (and I hope I’m in that group) and blew the agents away. Their pitches were refined and honed, and agents recognized the effort it takes to come to such an event. It was a writing love fest.

So that being said, I want to discuss what I think made my pitch work. (for full disclosure, I did receive a rejection so it’s not sure-fire). This is what I’m now calling, The “Whoa” Factor. It all comes down to evoking an emotional response in the target of your pitch, whether it’s a live pitch, a query letter, or even a synopsis. I could actually see the response in the form of widened eyes and a change in posture. (See my last post).

Here are some examples of “Whoa” moments.

  • Jill walks down the street and witnesses a little girl run out in front of a car and get hit.
    Note that you might want to immediately know what happened…is the kid okay or does she get hurt? What does Jill do?
  • Joe’s arrives at work to find federal agents rifling through all the company paperwork. He’s told he no longer has a job, and he can’t leave town.
    Why? What happened? How does Joe react? What is Joe going to do?
  • Fred has just taken off from La Guardia when the captain comes on the speaker and says, “we’re being re-routed….to Canada. I have no further information.”
    Oh no, is it another 9/11 or just terrible weather? Is the plane itself being threatened?
  • Maria walks into work one day and meets her new boss, neither knowing her boss had given Maria up for adoption 20 years ago.
    How do they find out? What is their reactions? Are they able to bond? Do they want to?
  • Barney receives a letter from the old country begging him to rescue his family before they are murdered in a campaign of “ethnic cleansing.” (a true story)
    What does he do? Can he rescue them in time?

Note one common thing about all these examples: I don’t reveal what happens. But they all suggest grand conflicts, life-changing moments, and potential hardship for the characters. They are intriguing, but don’t describe the entire story arc (which is usually the reaction to these events). They are usually found at major turning-points of the story.

So my question for you is this:
Does your story have The “Whoa” Factor? Are there a couple incidents in your story that could be summarized in just one sentence that effectively creates a visceral reaction, something unexpected that would catch a reader/listener off-guard?

If you can find them, consider adding them to a query letter or a pitch and see if it’s an improvement.


  1. Thanks for all your help Andrew :)


  2. Great post and I totally agree with you. How was the conference? I've gone to it twice when it was part of BEA, but time seems to have gotten away from me this year.

  3. In a book my friend forced me to read, the author refers to this as the stakes, why we should care.
    I don't have much Whoa! in book 1 (unless you're me), but book 2 does, I'm happy to say. Book 3 is just starting and I'm paying attention to my stakes from the get go.

  4. Hey, did you know you're on a Writer's Digest's post? Best Tweets For Writers.

    Thats how I found you again. Anyway, great advice and congrats on your success at the conference.

    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  5. @Donna: Anytime!

    @Jay: It was pretty good. Pitch Slam was nervewracking but successful. Would recommend to anyone with a polished manuscript.

    @Spock: Stakes are everything. It's the only way to make the reader (or agent) care. Great observation!

    @Raquel: except that someone changed it to the "wow" factor. Grr. >:( But that's really kewl.

  6. Go you, Mr Friends-in-high-places - I'm delighted to have read your post. I've been playing with the wow/whoa factor

    When MI8 wanted to pick Thursday's brain, they brought along the scalpel to do it.

    What an excellent teacher you are :)

  7. @Elaine: Nice one! Always like spy stories. :)


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