ANATOMY OF AN IRRESISTIBLE QUERY LETTER
by Donald L. Vasicek (credits: Warriors of Virtue, The Crown, award-winning The Sand Creek Massacre, Faces)
The query letter is a marketing tool that can get your script read and you recognized in the highly competitive world of Hollywood. Condensing your 100-plus page script down to a one-page letter exhibits your ability about how good of a writer you are. To have the skill to write a compelling query letter defines who you are as a writer. It must be written just as creatively and professionally as you write your script.
If you are unable to attract readers to your script through your query letter, it is unlikely you will be able to attract anyone to your script. When you are on the firing line in the film business, there isn’t any room for inability to write creatively and succinctly. Either you are able too or you are not able too. And it can no better be illustrated than in your query letter.
So, how do you write a query letter that is irresistible to readers that will impel them to want to read your script? You have to achieve two goals. One, hook readers and reel them through the letter. Two, make the letter so compelling that readers will want to read your script.
Suppose we examine the query letter below. With different content, it was sent to thirty producers, agents and production companies. Twenty-six of them called and requested the script. Part of the structure is from Kerry Cox, former editor of “The Hollywood Scriptwriter”; another part by an unidentified writer and the third part, I wrote. The content is mine.
July 30, 2008
Hollywood Player Films
111111 Wilshire Boulevard
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Dear Hollywood Player:
FIRST SENTENCE: Last night, Generation Y Jenny Black ate a lasagna salad with her mom and little brother; she answered the door bell; went outside and never came back.
SECOND SENTENCE: Why?
THIRD SENTENCE: It’s a question that Lt. Icabod Poe has to answer fast.
FOURTH SENTENCE: The chilling fact is, the more he
learns, the more he realizes that she is living two lives…one as a
normal daughter and sister, a high school honor student and budding
artist; the other as a reclusive teenager who is depressed over her
recently murdered dad …and she is terribly attracted to the moon.
FIFTH SENTENCE: And Jenny might be gone forever if Lt. Poe doesn’t
come up with a reason soon why she disappeared.
SIXTH SENTENCE: DARK MOON JENNY is a suspense thriller with a
strong female protagonist, a deeply terrifying antagonist and a series of
disturbing surprises that build to an ultimate shocker of an ending.
SEVENTH SENTENCE: It is also a story of love, trust, betrayal, courage
and redemption and the fine line that separates the normal from the
EIGHTH SENTENCE: I’d like to submit DARK MOON JENNY for your
NINTH SENTENCE: I’ve been around the block twice with
TENTH SENTENCE: Two, STUPID AND STUPIDER and THE
GIRL HUNTER, okay, not Sundance or Nicholls’ award winners, were made
ELEVENTH SENTENCE: DARK MOON JENNY was a winner in the
“Writer’s Digest” Scripts Competition and a semi-finalist in
Chesterfield Film Company’s Writer’s Film Project.
TWELFTH SENTENCE: If you would like to read DARK MOON JENNY, you can
reach me at 123-456-7890.
THIRTEENTH SENTENCE: I look forward to
hearing further from you.
FOURTEENTH SENTENCE: Thank you for your time and consideration.
Donald L. Vasicek
Now, let’s dissect this letter.
FIRST SENTENCE: By establishing a time in the mind of readers, this makes the story look more immediate and real. When you introduce your main character immediately and tell readers something about them, this hooks readers into your character and story and your query letter to seduce them into wanting to read on. And evil is also implied here, a sure recipie to entice readers to read on.
SECOND SENTENCE: Asking the question, “Why?”, here, and separating it from the first paragraph, makes it stand out and gives readers hope that they will find out more. This will cause them to read on.
THIRD SENTENCE: In this sentence, you put readers on edge with the word, “fast”. It gives them a sense of urgency particularly since you have already gotten them concerned about your main character and they can’t wait to get to the next sentence.
FOURTH SENTENCE: The word “chilling” in this sentence sets up the rest of the sentence. It hooks readers once again and reels them through the sentence. What they see is the heart of the story and character. Jenny Black, a high school junior, seemingly normal, misses her dad and adores the moon. Wouldn’t you want to read on? I’m sure readers Hdo because now they have a stake in Jenny. They know her, they likes her, they see that she has possibly befallen some horrible experience and they want to help her.
The fourth sentence raises questions that they want answered. Why does she like the moon? How does her depression over losing her dad fit in here? Does it have anything to do with why she disappeared and why he was murdered? Is she a female werewolf?
How does Poe know Jenny is lost and not dead? Why does he think she disappeared? Maybe she ran away. Or was spirited away by the moon to communicate with her dad. How can he find a reason why she disappeared?
The more questions you raise in the mind of readers, the more they are going to want to read on. By now, in this query letter, readers are going to finish reading it with interest. So, you don’t want to lose them.
FIFTH SENTENCE: The words, “gone forever” and “soon” give an even greater urgency to Jenny’s dilemma. This ups the stakes and tightens the tension. Readers will want to read on now more than ever because they wants to help Jenny and the only possibility of doing that is by reading on.
SIXTH SENTENCE: By identifying the genre and the gender of the protagonist and one other main character, it gives readers information they can use regarding the marketability of DARK MOON JENNY. It certainly dispels the question as to whether Jenny is a werewolf or not. If she were, the genre would be horror instead of a thriller.
They know that this movie needs a a 30’s actor and a young actress and a thriller audience. The description of the villain gives them an idea that Lt. Poe isn’t only dealing with someone who opposes him in finding Jenny, but also the potential exists that something very bad has happened to her. Utilizing the word, “series”, creates the image that there is even more to the story. And just to top things off, by giving a hint of how the ending is going to be by using the words like “ultimate shocker” and “ending” is just enough to tease them into reading the next sentence.
SEVENTH SENTENCE: This sentence shows that the story is multi-dimensional, dichotomies with love, trust and betrayal and abnormal and normal. It also implies of evil and whets readers’ appetites for more.
EIGHTH SENTENCE: This humble, but confident and professional request increases interest for readers by asking them to see the script.
NINTH AND TENTH SENTENCES: A light approach like this helps readers learn something more about you as a screenwriter and shows them that even though you’re serious about your career, you do have the ability to laugh about it too. These sentences personalize you and helps readers “bond” more with you.
ELEVENTH SENTENCE: This sentence should identify any awards and/or recognition DARK MOON CHRISSY has received. Be creative here. If it hasn’t won any professional recogntion, but your aunt loved it, try to tell readers in a creative way that shows your aunt is as capable of rendering a learned opinion on your script as anyone else. Afterall, wasn’t it screenwriter Willim Goldman who said nobody knows anything in Hollywood?
TWELFTH SENTENCE: This sentence is utilized by sales persons. It calls readers to action. They utilize it to close the deal. You ask readers to call you. This request is simple, to the point and gives readers the opportunity to read the script. The utilization of “you” personalizes the call to action and gives readers a good feeling that perhaps they are special in that you haven’t let anyone else in on your script as yet.
THIRTEENTH SENTENCE: The purpose of this sentence is to inform readers that you think highly enough of them that you want to continue your communication with them.
FOURTEENTH SENTENCE: This sentence is a courtesty that you aren’t imposing on them. It gives readers a feeling of respect and professionalism.
Putting this form of query letter into service cannot quarantee that you will sell your script. It can, however, improve your chances that readers will request your script. And what more can you ask for as you move forward in your screenwriting career? Since the film business is so subjective, it is possible readers might not like your script, but if they are impressed enough with the writing of your query letter and your script, they might ask to see any other scripts you might have and request to see any future ones you write in addition to the possibility of being hired for work-for-hire or a working assignment. What more can you ask for in this business unless you want to direct movies too.
Stay tuned. I’ll be addressing that in a future article.
Oh, by the way, in case you’re still wondering what happened to Jenny, think THE SIXTH SENSE meets THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Does that help?
Falcon by Pamela Cuming