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  • The Keys to Query Letters That Work

    October 25th, 2010

    By Daniel Manus

    The query letter is often a writer’s first impression – an all-too-important introduction of one’s writing ability and personality to an executive or representative. And much like when trying to get a first date, the point of a query letter is to entice whomever is reading it, to want more.

    After pouring 110 pages of heart and soul onto a blank screen, a half page query letter should be a breeze, right? …So how come writers keep screwing it up?

    Between snail mail queries, online query sites, the spec market, pitchfests, websites, consulting clients and general submissions, I have probably read about 2,500 query letters and over 25,000 loglines.  So you can imagine how impressive your logline and query letter has to be to not only grab an executive’s attention, but keep it, and impress them to the point where they want to read more!

    Your query letter could be the thing that’s keeping your great script from getting read. If you find that you have sent out 100 queries and gotten no reads, you need to rework it. So, I want to give you a simple, straight forward and darn-near foolproof plan for writing successful query letters.

    Let’s go back to the dating analogy. Approach your query letter like you’re approaching the opposite sex, trying to impress them. Be descriptive, honest, informative, appropriate, and seductive. You wouldn’t walk up to someone at a bar and start with a cheesy cliché pickup line question like “Haven’t we met before?” or “Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?” So, don’t start your query letters with a silly rhetorical question either – it’s not like whomever’s reading it can answer you.

    Don’t start with something insanely personal or embarrassing. You want the person to WANT to get to know you and work with you. You want to come off as professional, but much like with dating, you want to seem like you have a personality and there’s something special about you too. 

    As for format, your query letter should be about a half page, and never more than ¾ of a page. And while there are different ways to structure your letter, I recommend the following:

    The greeting; your title; then a 2 sentence introduction to you which should include anything that is special about you that pertains to your story, writing, or the film business in general that will set you apart. 

    For example, if you are represented (or were), if you’ve ever been produced, optioned or published (yes, even books), if you won (or were a finalist in) any prestigious contests – even if it was for another script, if your script is “based on a true story,” if it is an adaptation to a successful comic book or novel or webisode series that you own the rights to, etc. Anything that is going to set you apart from the stack of others. However, it needs to pertain to the business. Execs don’t care if you were raised on a farm with 3 cows, 2 goats and a chicken named Ted. If you can’t think of anything to say, or there’s nothing to connect you to the business at all, then leave it out.

    If you were a quarter-finalist, that’s usually not good enough to mention on a query letter UNLESS it was for Nicholls. That’s the only contest where being a quarterfinalist still means something. And if you’ve won the Po-Dunk Town Regional Screenwriting Contest – no one cares. It’s not worth mentioning and only tells the executive that you are that much removed from Hollywood.

    Back to format. Next, comes your logline. The logline should be 35 words or less and contain no more than 2 commas. It needs to make clear the genre, the major conflict, and what makes your script different – basically, it’s hook. It needs to contain action words, not just passive, descriptive words (for example, “chooses” is passive, “is forced to choose” is active). It should tell us a bit of the set up or starting point, who the main character(s) is, and then whatever the main story is about. It doesn’t need to say your main characters’ name, but it can. Not easy to do in 30 words, is it?

    Often writers use a tagline on a query letter instead of a logline. Don’t do that. A tagline is much different – it’s the 6-7 words on a poster that intrigue you about the story. The logline tells us what the story actually is and makes us picture the movie in one line.

    Then, 1-3 short (!) paragraphs about your story, your main characters, what happens, etc. I always like it when one paragraph is a bit more descriptive and places the script in context by using comparison movies. It’s “this” meets “that.” Or “it’s in the vein of THIS and THAT.” Just make sure to use movies that are similar in genre and tone and that did WELL at the box office! Don’t use a movie just because it starred the same actor you want for your project!

    These short paragraphs need to convey your story, its’ stakes, and the visual, emotional elements in an impossibly small amount of words.  It should be more stylized than your synopsis, which means your voice as a writer should shine through! It needs some detail, but don’t get bogged down in minutia – there’s not enough room.

     In 6-10 lines, you needs to give the BROAD STROKES of your story which should show us you have three acts and (inherently) answer the three major questions an executive asks – ‘Can I sell this? Who can I sell it to? When can I sell it?’ And the most important question for a query letter to answer – ‘Do I want to read more?’

    And there better not be ONE typo or grammatical mistake. If you can’t write half a page without typos, I could only imagine what your script looks like. Don’t give execs a reason to pass that is totally in your control.  Then close with a gracious and engaging closing and include your contact information, including email (even if they have it already). And you’re done.

    Here is a sample query letter using this format for a project I made up. Obviously, the things in parentheses are for you and would not be in the actual letter:

    To Whom It May Concern:

    Title: “Untitled Cop Thriller Screenplay”

    My name is Your Name Here and I’m a former police officer turned optioned screenwriter and Nicholls Fellowship (or whatever prestigious contest) semi-finalist and I’ve written an exciting new action thriller based on a true story (if it is) titled “Untitled Action Thriller Screenplay.”

    Logline: When a rookie cop in South Central LA gets paired with a grizzled detective secretly running a drug operation, he is forced to decide which side of the law he’s on before it’s too late. (sets up main characters, conflict, setting and that action is imminent)

    In the vein of Training Day and Boyz in the Hood, “Untitled” is a gritty, explosive story about vengeance and redemption (or whatever your big exciting themes are) that follows ROOKIE COP NAME, who has been pushed around his whole life. Now that he has his badge, he thinks he can finally command the respect he’s been seeking, while just maybe making the world a better place. But when he’s partnered with the hard-nosed veteran DETECTIVE NAME, he realizes getting respect on the streets needs to be earned.

    When a drive-by shooting kills a respected gang leader, it’s up to the new partners to investigate and keep the peace, any way possible. But Rookie begins to suspect there is more to the murder than meets the eye.

    As a city-wide gang war escalates, Rookie uncovers that Detective is secretly running an underground drug ring and is in business with the very gangs he is supposed to be arresting. Not knowing whom he can trust, and with his own family caught in the middle, Rookie must decide what’s more important – his badge, or his soul.

    If you’d like to read “Untitled Action Thriller Screenplay,” please contact me at ___________. Thanks for taking the time to consider my script, and I look forward to hearing from you.

    Email/Phone Number 

    That’s basically all you need. You can mix it up a bit and make sure your own voice comes through, but that’s about it.

    The funny thing about query letters is that unlike loglines, treatments and synopses, query letters are a tool only used by unrepresented writers or those trying to break into Hollywood.  A good agent or manager doesn’t send out general query letters on behalf of their clients. If they need to, they don’t have the contacts necessary to be an agent or manager. Once you have relationships around town, query letters are unnecessary.

    Queries, and the way they are sent, have changed over time. It used to be that if you didn’t have connections in Hollywood, sending a query letter through the mail and hoping someone read it and liked it, was the best way to break in. Now, snail mail query letters have become bird cage lining. I honestly don’t know why writers keep sending them. MAYBE an intern opens them, but in the last 5 years, I haven’t heard of more than ONE success story coming from this method of querying.

    So what are your other options? Well, there are online query letter services. There are sites like Virtual Pitchfest, InkTip and PitchQ. Yes, they are more expensive than a stamp, but at least you know someone is seeing what you’re sending.

    No matter how you send them, execs can tell if someone can write by their query letter! And much like with dating, these first impressions could be the difference between you getting lucky, or you going home alone.

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