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Friday, June 20

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.

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 that 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.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 they story is going to be like, who these people are, and they 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. Again, you get a feel for the characters, the setting, the problems and what things the protagonist will face. Even if you've never heard of Captain America, I think you can 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 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? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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