Why a movie trailer is like a query letter

How is a movie trailer like a query letter? Or, you may be asking what is a query letter?

Quick answer: in the world of book publishing, you never submit your raw manuscript to an agent or editor. Instead, you send a query, which is a letter approximately one page long that details your novel. If you write a good query letter, then the agents/editors may ask to see part of your manuscript. It can be an excruciating process for writers since you have to squeeze all of your novel’s goodness into a few paragraphs. If you want to learn more about the basics of query letters, check out these posts by Janet Reid, Kristin Nelson, and Nathan Bransford, or look into the free book from Noah Lukeman entitled How to Write a Great Query Letter.

So, from that brief low-down, you should be able to see that movie trailers and query letters have the same goal: to sell. But it’s more than just that. We can use the techniques employed in movie trailers to write and improve our query letters.

Here’s the theatrical trailer for Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood :

What you need to notice are that the following things are always covered in a full-length trailer:

  • Genre — from the feel of the trailer, its action scenes, and its actors, we know this film will be a high-quality action/adventure
  • Characters — the MC was introduced (Robin Hood), along with the love interest and the villain
  • Plot — the general story is mapped out (sans the ending): Robin Hood comes home from the Crusades and sets out on his own crusade against a false and bad-guy king
  • Credits — if the director is famous, you can bet his name will be emphasized in the trailer — “From Ridley Scott, director of Gladiator“. Popular or award-winning actors? Yep, they’re included, too.

Ok, great, you say… But how does this help me with my query letter. Well, if you’re not including these same components in your letter, then you need to reevaluate what you’re sending!

According to various agents who frequently post on query letters or even have books on the subject, your query letter needs to include the following:

  • Genre — in one word, what is the genre of your book? Is it a historical? A romance? A thriller?
  • Characters — who is the MC and why do we care about him/her enough to want to read your book?
  • Plot — what is your story about? Don’t be general; give specific details, and give them in quick, to-the-point sentences. You have to summarize the highlights in a few paragraphs!
  • Publishing credits — if you have any experience writing, be it contest awards, published articles, or an M.F.A., be sure to mention it.

Um…notice some parallels there? 🙂 You should. But there’s one more thing about your query letter that should mimic a movie trailer.

Show, don’t tell.

It is the age-old rule of fiction — show us who the characters are and how they feel, don’t just tell us. Show me Robin Hood is a man worthy of respect by showing me his actions to protect the poor. I’m not gonna believe he’s a great man just because you tell me he is.

Granted, movies have the advantage of relying almost entirely on show-not-tell since they’re a visual form of entertainment, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them. Simply include what the characters do and why they do it in your query letter — the actions will “speak louder than the words” in this instance and clue us into the characters and plot.

Want some help? Kristin Nelson has query letters that hooked her posted here, C.J. Redwine shares her own successful query letter here, the folks at Let the Words flow share their letters here, and finally you can peruse critiqued letters here, here, and here.

Best of luck crafting your letter — you can do this! But more importantly, are you as excited about Robin Hood as I am?

Happy writing!