What Query Letters And Movie Previews Have In Common

A beautiful young woman with red hair sits alone in a cinema.
A beautiful young woman with red hair sits alone in a cinema.

The lights dim, a hush falls over the audience, and all eyes turn to -- your query letter. Okay, maybe it’s not exactly like that when a literary agent starts to read the query letter for your book, but the reaction you’re hoping for is still the same: You want the reader of your query letter to be attentive, intrigued, and eager to see more.

Here are three movie preview elements that your query letter must have:

Brevity: A typical movie preview runs for 2:30 minutes or less; the maximum time allowed by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). Similarly, your query letter must be concise and no longer than one page. The summary of your story should be no more than 150-200 words.

After spending months (maybe years) creating your book, you may be convinced that it’s unique and deserves paragraphs of detail. But a busy literary agent with hundreds of queries to consider will have little interest in reading an overly long query letter. If a three-hour epic movie can be summed up in two minutes or less, your book can be summarized in two-hundred words.

Effective Marketing: A movie preview is primarily an advertising tool designed to make the audience eager to see the actual movie.

Some authors may shudder at the idea of writing something that would be considered “advertising” -- they consider themselves real writers and their books above such tactics! But here’s the truth: Your query letter is essentially an advertisement for your book. And while it shouldn’t read like a hard-sell car commercial, your query letter isn’t a piece of classic literature, either. A good query letter effectively promotes you and your story.

Focus On Highlights. When you watch a movie preview, you’re viewing a highly-polished compilation of the best parts of the film. You’re not seeing all the characters, every plot twist, or how the movie ends. The preview is designed to give you an overview of what the movie is about in a way that leaves you wanting more.

A query letter must be written to have the same effect. You should mention the protagonist and maybe one or two essential supporting characters, but not all twenty characters in your book. Provide the overall story arc in your query letter summary, but don’t include less-essential secondary points. You want the literary agent reading your query letter to have a general sense of your story and plot, but not a word-for-word recreation of your book.

And just as a movie preview will often end on a cliffhanger moment, you should never give away the ending of your book in a query letter. A successful movie preview concludes with the viewer thinking, Wow, I really want to see that! After reviewing your query letter, the literary agent should be thinking, Wow, I really want to read more!

So grab some popcorn, take a seat at your computer, and start writing a successful query letter using these persuasive movie preview tips.

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