Friday, June 20, 2014

What's it About? How Movie Trailers Can Help You Write Better Query Letters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Before I dive in, just a heads up that I have not one, but two guest posts this week. My monthly post over at Pub(lishing) Crawl with a tip on keeping your scenes moving, and a guest spot on Writers in the Storm on the benefits of putting your characters in emotional peril.

I'm a huge movie buff, so I see a lot of trailers. Even when I watch a DVD I've had for years, I still watch the trailers. There's something fun about a whole movie summed up in a few minutes or less. A good trailer makes me want to see the movie again, while a bad one reminds me why I never saw the movie in the first place.

Besides being entertaining, movie trailers are also excellent examples of what makes a good--and a bad--query blurb.

The Too Much World Building Query

If you're familiar with the Green Lantern mythos you'll probably understand more about this trailer than someone who doesn't know the comic, but what is this story about?

A guy gets a magic ring and helps an intergalactic group defend the universe. Hmmm. That's more of a premise than a story. There's no solid protagonist with a goal here, it's all setup. It feels like you know what it's about, but you can't actually give a specific plotline.

Notice how this trailer plays out. First, it's all backstory about how the world works, how the magic works. Then it goes into the Lantern core and who they are and how they work. It talks about the past bad guy who did something to setup what this story is going to focus on. Then it finally introduces the protagonist. But it never really says what that protagonist has to do or what the story is going to be about.

This is a great example of a query that spends all its time telling you what the world is about and the events that happened to get the protagonist ready for the story to actually happen. And then totally forgets to tell you anything about that story. If your query focuses on the worldbuilding and not the story, it might feel a lot like this.

(Here's more on what your query says about your book)

The All Action, No Story Query

Can you tell me what this story is about? I have no idea from watching this trailer, and that's a problem if this is supposed to make people go see the movie. It tells us there's danger right away, then goes on to show a lot of cool action scenes. A mysterious ship with a cryptic unicorn reference. People escaping from something. A plane crash. More chases. Folks lost in the desert. Cool image of a ship and ocean crashing into the desert. Then telling us "they can't turn back" like it means something.

This trailer is a perfect example of a query that focuses too much on the specific scenes in a novel and forgets that without knowing the story beforehand, those scenes don't mean anything to someone reading it without knowledge of the novel. It lacks context for these moments so no one cares. If your query reads like a string of events that only someone who read the book would understand, you probably have an all action, no story query on your hands.

(Here's more on how to write a query letter)

Now that we've seen two of the most common problems, so let's look a couple of trailers that work and why.

The I Get the Story Query

This trailer clearly states what the story is about and what conflicts the characters will face. Two people who don't get along wind up the guardians for a child they must raise together (and see how easy it was to give a one-line pitch for this?). Hilarity ensues and they fall in love. You get snippets of what the story is going to be like, who these people are, and the types of problems they'll encounter.

This is a great example of a working query. A little setup in the beginning to set the scene (the pair goes on a disastrous first date) then the inciting event (the friends die and they get custody of the baby) and the conflict (they must overcome their dislike for each other to raise the baby). You also get the thematic "this is what it's about" part because you know these folks are going to fall in love after going through this experience. "Love conquers all."

(Here's more on the query as a plotting tool)

Think it's just easier with a romantic comedy? Try this one:

A 98-pound weakling with a big heart volunteers for an experimental program and becomes a super soldier to help fight Hitler. One sentence sums it up. Again, you get a feel for the characters, the setting, the problems and what issues the protagonist will face. Even if you've never heard of Captain America, you come away from this with a good idea of what this story is about.

(Here's more on testing your query)

If you're struggling with your query letter or having bad responses with it, try looking at it as if it were a movie trailer. You just might realize you're focusing on the wrong aspects of your book and forgetting to just tell the story.

What struggles have you had writing queries?

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I think yo make an excellent point here, but I would add the caveat that a good query is like a bad movie trailer, one on that gives away everything and means you no longer feel the need to go see the film. And that may well be part of the reason so many queries don't work, because people try to write them like good movie trailers that hint at what the film's about without ruining it.

    Moody Writing

  2. I love movie trailers too! Whenever I go to the cinema, I make sure to get my seat in plenty of time because it's just not the same experience if I miss the trailers.

    My biggest fear when writing a query was trying to avoid slipping into "My book is about a great hero who saves people and it is very exciting!" like a schoolchild writing about a favourite movie.

  3. That's a great way to think of a query if you're struggling. The Green Lantern one might help to tackle a fantasy query though it's important to get to the main character soon in the query.

  4. Tintin's getting a movie? Awesome. I used to love those graphic novels.

  5. Great post and fun too! Your points are spot on. :) e

  6. Great post! I've never compared a query to a movie trailer before, but after seeing these examples, I have a better clarity of what needs to go into the letter. Funny how visuals work so much better than plain text just telling you what you need. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I love movie trailers! Well, I love watching good movies, too.

    I've found reading the movie descriptions on Netflix (yes, I spent an entire night doing just this) helps a ton as well.

  8. I am addicted to movie trailers and their music. So epic.
    I really enjoyed this post. Thank you for sharing.

  9. You make great points. The trailer for the Green Lantern is not the only trailer for that movie, btw. The one that they're showing in theaters shows very little backstory and mostly concentrates on what our hero must do. I think the trailer you showed is specifically targeted at the hard core fans, the people who want all the nitty gritty details.

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  10. Those visuals really got your point across. Though I admit I was distracted by thinking `Tintin movie! Awesome!' through the whole second trailer.

  11. Wow, thanks for this great post! Now I want to watch some of those movies. :)

  12. Great way to show (not tell) how to make a query work. Thanks for the great post, Janice!

  13. Slick idea, Janice! I had already heard about (and used) IMdb as a way to study effective log-lines and your movie trailer idea accentuates that well. Excellent examples, thanks.

  14. Great information. I kind of have to change my way of thinking. It's funny because I just posted a sample of my query letter for critique on my blog hoping to find assistance.


  15. Mooderino: I do think that a lot of queries fail because they're trying to tell the whole story (like a synopsis) instead of teasing just enough to show story, but leave enough open to want to read it. But good trailers do the same thing. It's a tough balance.

    Paul: I can't tell you how many vague queries like that I wrote before I figured it all out. It's even harder because you want that kind of ambiguity on a cover jacket, but an agent needs the details. You can usually avoid that if you look at every sentence and what it's actually saying. If there's no real info conveyed, rewrite :)

    Natalie: It really is. So many fantasy queries struggle because they try to do too much world building. You need some, and I've found it works well when the world building details also show conflict.

    Matthew: The name is familiar, but I have no clue who he is :) I knew wit was a comic, but that was it.

    Elizabeth: Thanks! I love combining two of my favorite things. Three actually, cause I'm weird and love critiquing queries.

    Autmun: Visuals often say so much more than words. Especially with something like a query that's already hard to get. So many subtitles.

    Robyn: Awesome tip! That's a great way to find your one-sentence pitch line.

    Lindz: Most welcome!

    Eric: Oh I know, but it fit for this example.:) Actually, I think this one is for the non-comic folks. Hardcore fans know all this stuff already. I didn't have to be told what the Lantern core was. I just needed to know if it was Hal, Guy or Kyle, lol :)

    Chicory: Another Tintin fan. I'll have to go see it just to find out what it's about.

    Brittany: Some of them look really good, don't they? I can't wait for Captain America.

    Amelia: Most welcome!

    Gene: I hadn't thought about the movie descriptions for loglines before, but that's a great idea. I always used the TV Guide listings as an example.

    Orlando: And I went over and offered assistance :)

  16. Great article! I would say that Tin Tin had a sucky trailer because the movie stank.... There are specialists who do nothing but trailers and they can only work with whats there....
    Okay back to WIP and dreaming about the future day when I will use this fully.... I have done my homework for today :)

    1. Well, true, the story has to be good for the query to work well, but I do know folks who enjoyed Tin Tin.

    2. I hope I didn't offend anyone then..... Sorry to whom I may have.

  17. Great post with yet another approach, also with excellent links. Congrats on being so busy with the guest posting!

  18. Love this post -- great idea!

  19. Good informative post, thanks for sharing.

  20. Great idea to show trailers that work, or don't. But I've also seen too many that show all the best parts of a movie...& those 3 minutes were the only parts of the whole 1 to 2 hours worth spending money on. On another note, songs are more like the written word (no visuals). A good one can tell a story or a chapter in about 3 minutes or less. Gale

    1. That's one of my pet peeves with current trailers. They give too much away these days. I've also seen ones that completely misrepresented the movie--for good and bad.