Elevated Diction + the Importance of “When” and “But” in Your Query

Let’s talk about elevated diction. Elevated diction means using fancypants words or phrases when simpler, more easily recognizable synonyms will do.

Elevated diction usually pops up in queries when authors assume slush readers are pipe-smoking, tweed-jacket-wearing septuagenarians with PhD’s in comparative literature who still hold sway over their life’s imaginary GPA. Thus, “I wrote a book” becomes “I have penned a manuscript,” or “my book is complete at 100,000 words” becomes “one-hundred-thousand words comprise my now-completed tome.”

This is commercial fiction, not your dissertation. Bring it down a notch, there, Sparky.

However, what if you’ve written a novel in an elevated style—a literary work or a sweeping historical novel or an epic fantasy? Readers of these genres accept (and expect) elevated diction. It’s a genre trope that you, the author, are expected to deliver. So shouldn’t your query’s style echo your novel’s style?

Sure. But.

Elevated diction—or, in the case of this partial query below, too great a focus on nailing the epic-fantasy voice—becomes a problem when it obscures a reader’s ability to clearly understand your story:

Before: The Emperor’s missives have been rarer of late, but they’ve never been blank before. Tim, a loyal but disillusioned veteran, sees this letter as a portent of the Empire’s demise. The village council agrees and sends him and his brother Chuck to the Imperial capital to investigate. Tim is a natural choice for this venture, but his brother is as cynical and aloof as all young men of his generation. Seeing this mission as an escape from the outmoded confines of his village, Chuck accepts his role as protégé and begins plotting how to turn the journey to his advantage.

Here are the questions I have so far:

  1. Why does the Emperor send Tim missives in the first place? What is their relationship or arrangement?
  2. Why is Tim disillusioned? Is “disillusioned” meant to imply that his loyalty is precarious?
  3. What is Tim a veteran of? If it’s a war, is the war over, or is it still raging?

If the answers to these questions aren’t germane to your query, then ask yourself why you’re raising them in a slush reader’s mind. If they are, then develop/explain. I’m going to attempt a revision, but keep in mind I’ll have to make some assumptions about the story:

After: Ten years ago, during the Big Bad Imperial Wars, Tim Commoner served as a trusted lieutenant under Commander Bob. Now Bob is Emperor, and Tim lives a quiet life in Boring Village.

Two brief sentences of setup, establishing that Tim and Bob share a history and trust each other, and, more importantly, that the Emperor would have a reason to reach out to Tim when trouble is nigh. Moving on.

After (continued): When Tim receives a cryptic message from Emperor Bob, he suspects the Empire is in trouble. The village council agrees and sends Tim to the Imperial capital to investigate. But they insist that Tim’s brother Chuck—cynical, aloof, and desperate to escape the tedium of Boring Village—accompany him.

Two important words I want you to notice here: WHEN and BUT. Learn them. Love them. Use them! No query or pitch is complete without them.

  • WHEN signals change. (Hint: Your novel’s inciting incident)
  • BUT signals complication or conflict. (Hint: A major obstacle your hero will face)

The original query does include “but”: Tim is a natural choice for this venture, but his brother is as cynical and aloof as all young men of his generation.

However, note that this but only serves to tell me that the brothers are nothing alike. It’s an expository but. The but I’m looking for is one that delivers complication or conflict. The but in my suggested revision implies (a) that the village council has some plot-related reason (which your plot will have to circle back to at some point) for sending both Tim and Chuck to the capital, and (b) that Tim’s not amenable to this arrangement. Conflict! Yay! Now I understand that the brothers are likely to clash on their shared mission, and that Tim is really just a puppet of the village council—which may or may not have nefarious intentions.

One last thing before I sign off on this one:

Note how the original query shifts its focus to Chuck’s goal (to get out of Boring Village) and Chuck’s plan (to turn the journey to his advantage). This was confusing. When you lead with the Emperor and Tim and the village council and the mission, then when I get to Chuck, I’m like, who the heck is this guy all of a sudden?

According to the rest of the query (not given here), the brothers are of equal importance in the manuscript, each becoming entangled in opposing interests once they arrive in the capital. Knowing this now, I’d recommend that this author lead his query with something like…

When two brothers are sent by their village council to the Imperial capital to investigate rumors of a dark rebellion, one remains loyal the emperor while the other is seduced by the demonic forces rising to destroy the empire.

If your story is about two brothers, then lead with two brothers.

See you next time!

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