Cardinal Query Sins: Wants Nothing, Does Nothing, Has Nothing

A Sinful Query

Dear Agent Fullname,

Light Yagami wants nothing more than to get through each day of his senior school year without dying of boredom. When a mysterious notebook finds its way into his hands, Light is intrigued by its magical properties. The notebook—called the Deathnote—has the power to kill anyone whose name is written inside it.

Light soon discovers that the ‘owner’ of the Deathnote is Ryuk, a Japanese god of death with dark motivations of his own. Under Ryuk’s evil influence, Light is gradually seduced by the Deathnote’s potential and comes to believe he is capable to saving humanity–as long as he’s willing to use the Deathnote to kill those who deserve to die. He might even save the world from itself.

But as Light uses the Deathnote to kill more and more people in the name of justice, he risks losing sight of very principles which drive him.

(Comps + Bio)

The above query reads okay on a line-by-line level. Unfortunately, if I were reading this in a critique, I’d be putting it on the scrap-and-redo pile—and so would Essa Hansen, who is cowriting this article 😉  

We are not query experts by any means, but we do a lot of query critiquing these days and a few of the same issues routinely crop up in otherwise-promising letters. We’ve tried to construct a query which suffers from the three biggest red flags that we encounter, and that we ourselves have struggled with in the past.

Let the autopsy commence!

******

Cardinal Sin #1: The character who wants nothing

Light Yagami wants nothing more than to get through each day of his senior school year without dying of boredom.

Ehh. The last time I had goals like “I just want to get through each day” was in the midst of severe post-natal depression. Because in that situation, getting to the end of every day was legitimately challenging.

Most happy and healthy people should want things beyond basic survival. Therefore, either the MC lacks sufficient depth in the manuscript, or else the query isn’t adeptly conveying the their motivations.

Of course, if the MC isn’t happy or healthy, then that’s totally different! But in that case you’d have an opener more like “Light Yagami spends every day of his freshman year fighting off feelings of deep-seated ennui or something, which is still active and provides immediate conflict, immediate goals, immediate setting.

I’ll circle back round to this point in #3 and expand on it a bit more.

Cardinal Sin #2: The character who does nothing

When a mysterious notebook finds its way into his hands, Light is intrigued by its magical properties. The notebook–called the Deathnote–has the power to kill anyone whose name is written inside it.

Light soon discovers that the ‘owner’ of the Deathnote is Ryuk, a Japanese god of death with dark motivations of his own. Under Ryuk’s evil influence, Light is gradually seduced by the Deathnote’s potential and comes to believe he is capable to saving humanity–as long as he’s willing to use the Deathnote to kill those who deserve to die.

A lot of things sure happen to Light! A magic notebook finds him. Its properties intrigue him (it’s very powerful). The god who owns the notebook, manipulates Light. The potential power seduces Light.

But what does Light, himself, actually do? The answer is “bugger all,” which means Light’s query is in trouble.

Have a look at the highlighted words above: finds it way, is intrigued, soon discovers, is seduced, comes to believe. In addition to being passive, these terms are also vague. Simply converting them into specific details can go a long way to making the MC seem active.

Consider these questions: HOW does Light find the notebook? WHAT intrigues him, HOW does he discover it can kill, WHAT does he do to be seduced/come to believe? In a query letter, specific details are the difference between a generic story and a unique one.

Note: Answering those questions doesn’t fix this particular query, but it can help to reframe our approach to rewriting the letter.

 

Cardinal Sin #3: The character who has nothing (invested)

Going back to #1, a character who wants nothing, also has nothing to lose. In our specific example: all Light wants is to get through each day at school without being bored, so whether he achieves that or not is totally flat.

Here’s how this query breaks down, so far:

  • Light wants nothing except to be survive boredom—>
  • People/notebooks don’t leave Light alone—>
  • LIght has already failed at his goals—>
  • …so what??

The ‘consequence’ of failing his goals is that Light now has an interesting life. In other words, Light has zero worthwhile stakes in the query.

A common solution to this problem is to “go big” with stakes, and make statements like “all s/he loves will be lost” or “just might change/end/save the world” as we’ve done at the end: He might even save the world from itself.

And? Again… so what? The book isn’t about your world. The book is about your character, and their choices. Grand, sweeping events aren’t relevant unless they touch the MC. Even in epic fantasy and space opera, this rule holds true.

Agents (and readers!) want to know that your character takes charge of the story, rather than being a plot device who gets punted around to showcase a series of events.
Summary: In this version of the query, Light Yagami wants nothing, does nothing, and has no stakes. Therefore, Light Yagami probably never makes it out of the slush pile, despite having a cool concept and interesting story to tell.

 

******

Penance and Redemption

Penance #1: Make the character want something

Alright. So how do we actually tackle cardinal query sins? Let’s break our story down into its basic elements, rather than its basic plot events. 

  • Big picture motivations: Light has a strong sense of justice, learnt from his police-chief father. He wants to make things better, but isn’t sure how to do that.

  • Personal motivations: Light is also a tad prideful. He knows he’s smart, and deep down would really like it if everybody could see just how clever he really is.

Now that we know what Light wants, we can set the stage for what his eventual stakes and actions will be.

 

Penance #2: Make the character do something

Let’s just concentrate on getting events down on the page, and worry about smoothing them out later. We know what Light wants, so now we need to look at: what Light does, and what gets in his way.

WHAT LIGHT DOES:

  • Light finds the Deathnote, complete with instructions on how to kill someone. He thinks it’s a sick prank, until he tests it out on a criminal (how? By writing their name in it) and the criminal in question dies.
  • Terrifying! But Light doesn’t give up the Deathnote. He has a strong sense of justice, a very real anger at all the un-righted wrongs of the world… and, as before, wants to use his cleverness and be revered for it, even if anonymously.
  • Light starts writing many criminal names in his notebook. Gains anonymous fame, which feeds his ego, and allows him to convince himself he’s doing a Good Thing.
  • Light naturally gets investigated by the police, so to protect himself from being caught he joins the investigation. That’s easy to do since his father works in the police force.
  • As Light enjoys more success and fame, his goals begin to shift: he wants to change the world, or maybe rule it. For its own good.

WHAT GETS IN HIS WAY:

  • Super-detective and genius savant, codenamed L, is put on the case.
  • L is very, very smart, and quickly works out through an elaborate television trap that “the killer” needs to know your name to eliminate you. L therefore keeps his name secret, to investigate safely.
  • Light and L are both working to discover each other’s identities.

Penance #3: The character has something (stakes):

We’re close to the end! Now that we have motivations and events written down, let’s take a look at what stakes the MC has.

THE STAKES:

  • If L finds out first, then Light will go to prison and worldwide justice will never be served. (Big picture stakes.) Light’s ego also can’t handle that this “kid” will have outsmarted him (personal stakes), and instead of thinking he is clever, the world will laugh at him for being caught.

Looking good! We have motivations, actions, problems, stakes… and now, hopefully, the crux or ‘crunch point’ of the story concept. If the query is solidly built, this section should fall into place pretty naturally.

THE CRUX (of the query):

  • Light must join the investigation into his own murders–which he can do, through his father’s connections–and find L’s true name, in order to write it in the Deathnote.
  • But the longer Light stays on the case, the more he risks incriminating himself by spending so much time with the very detectives who are hunting him.
  • WORSE, Light finds he enjoys L’s company, and begins to regard him as a friend. If he really kills L, then Light will violate his own moral code of not killing innocents, and lose one of the few people who really understands him. (Note: I left out the ‘moral code’ violation in the end, because it was complicating the query and didn’t add much.)

******

A Redeemed Query

18-year-old Light Yagami is top of his class with a bright future ahead of him–and that isn’t enough. He wants to change the world. All he lacks is the means to do so.

His keen intelligence and fierce ambition attracts the attention of a Japanese death god, who gives Light a magical notebook: anyone whose name is written into the “Deathnote” will immediately die. Now able to enact his own personal justice, Light fills the pages of his Deathnote with criminals’ names. The killings attract media attention and global crime rates plummet as criminals live in fear of their lives. The public deifies this anonymous, virtuous murderer, much to Light’s secret joy.

As the killings escalate, a special police detective—codenamed L—is put on the case. Light’s methods and timing are brilliant, but L is a genius savant, and constantly one step away from discovering Light’s identity. If Light doesn’t derail the investigation, the trail of bodies wlil eventually lead back to him, and he’ll end up a laughing stock in prison.

Spurred by arrogance and necessity, Light leverages powerful family connections to get a job working under L, aiming to learn the detective’s true name and eliminate him using the Deathnote.

But as Light wrangles his way into L’s confidence, he is surprised to find a kindred soul who shares his love of games and puzzles. The more time they spend together, the more Light’s doubt stacks up. Killing criminals who deserve it is one thing. Killing someone he’s grown to consider a friend, and his intellectual equal, is quite another.

(Comps + Bio)

Definitely not a perfect query, and a little on the long side at 260 words. (On the other hand, the manga is 14 volumes long, so there was a LOT of ground to cover.) But hopefully it illustrates one approach to tackling the problems raised earier in this post, by giving Light clear desires, actions, and stakes.

 

Why this matters

The truth is, Sinful Query might get requests. Despite its in-built flaws there are clearly some interesting things going on in the story. Naturally, this begs the question–why does it matter, as long as agent reads pages?

Here’s the thing:

  • If you cannot crystalise your character’s motivations in a query, it’s possible they’re not shown in your manuscript.
  • If you cannot make your character active in a query, there’s a good chance they’re not active in your manuscript.
  • If you cannot give your character stakes in a query, there’s a good chance your character doesn’t have stakes in the manuscript.

Writers often ask, How do I know I’m ready to query. The answer, surprisingly enough, is often in the letter itself. If you can answer the basic questions above, you’re in a good place. If you’re going through revision after revision of your Q Letter and can’t seem to crystalise motivations/actions/stakes, then it may be worth examining the manuscript itself. (Exceptions, as ever, do apply!)

******

Appendix

For them that are interested, here are some additional notes that went into Essa’s initial construction of an active

  • 1A Status Quo / passive goal (School not stimulating? Wants to do something about injustice in the world but is just a kid? Inner goal: wants everyone to know how great/smart/powerful he is, top grades aren’t enough for him.). 1B Notebook falls from the sky during boring school day. (it claims if you write a name in it, that person will die. he thinks it’s a dumb prank) Light sees Scumbag and is galvanized to try. Truck rams into that motherfucker. Holy balls, the notebook works. (In manga, first victim was a douchecanoe harassing a woman on the street.)
  • How this makes him active to/closer to passive goal (a way to take justice into his own hands.. He writes a shit-ton of criminals’ names right off the bat. He wants to change the world because it’s rotten. Become the god of the new world. Crime rates start to go down as people are afraid of him, validating his choice.).
  • But there is a problem/antagonist (He joins his father on the police force to steer investigation away, from the inside—but then L is brought on and may be even smarter).
  • What he does to try to evade them. (might not need this part)
  • What’s at stake (If L finds out it’s him, then what? Something worse than jail, leverage inner or moral desires. I forget the climax, tbh. I think L just continued to get closer to finding out, until the second notebook appears and complicates things.).
  • Bad Situation and it looks like he won’t win. Unless/If/Stakes.
  • If he’s found out, [stakes]. [Pivotal point in plot or escalation, e.g. will be discovered if he doesn’t kill L, also is preserving his godly capability/moral superiority worth dirtying his hands along the way.]
  • Light can’t kill “L” without finding out his name, and the more he investigates, the more he incriminates himself.
  • – Light is involved in the police investigations via family connections (dad) and intelligence
  • – Leverage high possibility of being discovered as the murderer, and family stakes (but main stakes seemed to be losing the intellectual battle against L, which also means losing fame/moral validation, and the stakes of wavering on his own moral code if he has to kill an innocent… as well as the bigger picture stakes of becoming a Bad Person, though he’s not aware of this himself: ‘drunk with power’ escalation {this is kind of like Caiden’s “become everything he hates,” e.g. Light might be becoming as bad as the murderers/rapists/etc he is killing. The story is about justice vs vengeance like Nophek.})
  • – Escalation/climax was how close L was to finding out, and how complicated Light’s situation was, I forget if there was Plot otherwise (e.g. if he had to murder a family member to keep himself secret or something, some Big Choice that shakes his moral ground)
  • – Will be cumbersome to get both Ryuk and L in the query. Ryuk mostly just watches so I would cut him and just lean on the notebook’s own power. This is where people get in trouble with setup-style queries, it’s easy to lump in characters/elements that don’t carry through.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: