The query animal is not a wild beast, though most writers will assure you it seems to be when first faced with writing one. If you are one of those wrestling with these wily creatures, here’s a checklist and a few tips to help. Checklist:
1. Who is the main character? This seems obvious, but it will focus you on not worrying about all the secondary characters. Almost all of them don’t need to be in the query, especially not by name. Sure , they are going to help or hinder the main character along the way, but there’s not enough room for them to pop up in the query.
2. What is the main character’s ordinary world? Contemporary? Historical? Fantasy world? Kansas? Middle Earth?
3. Important-What is unusual or unique about the main character? Their background? Their interests? You don’t want a query that says ‘Joe was just an ordinary teenager’. Snoozefest may follow. Find something about Joe that is slightly interesting, and something that will be important in the plot, even if it’s just a hobby. You’re in luck if your story is fantasy or historical, because that often adds a bit of interest right away.
4. What happens to the main character to take them out of their ordinary world?
This relates to number 5
5. Who or what is the antagonist? What is the main problem the main character have to solve? Make sure you can show that the main character is an active participant in the story. In modern fiction, it’s hard to get a reader interested in a passive MC.
6. *VERY IMPORTANT* What bad things will happen if the main character don’t solve the problem or triumph over the antagonist-THE STAKES.
Once you have this list, it becomes much easier to write the query without letting distracting subplots sneak in. Don’t let them in, no matter how much they plead their case!
In my opinion, I wouldn’t spend too many sentences, especially in the beginning of the query, talking about the theme. Too often, writers spend a whole paragraph describing what the main character learns about themselves or others, while neglecting to add in the most important part-The Plot! It’s okay to add in a few sentences about the theme after you’ve hooked an agent or an editor on the story itself.
Here’s an exercise I did trying to come up with a query for The Wizard of Oz:
Twelve year old Dorothy Gale longs to travel over the rainbow to escape her drab life on a depression era Kansas farm, but when a tornado magically transports her to the land of Oz, she realizes life on the other side of the rainbow may be far more dangerous than she expected. As soon as she arrives, Dorothy makes a powerful enemy, the Wicked Witch of the West, when she accidentally kills the witch’s sister and gains control of a pair of magic shoes. Learning her only way home is to seek out the mysterious wizard in charge of the land, Dorothy must travel down a perilous yellow brick road to find the legendary emerald city before the witch can capture her, and keep her from ever returning to those she loves.
Hope this helps.