How to write a killer query letter

The query letter is king!
The query letter is king!

You’ve just finished the best screenplay you’ve ever written. Congratulations. The easy part is over. Now you’re ready to move on to the real challenge, getting someone in power to actually read the damn thing!

In other words, in the if-it’s-not-one-thing-it’s-another category, after having successfully scaled Pike’s Peak, you now find yourself staring up at Mount Everest. Take a deep cleansing breath, and get ready to master yet another deceptively difficult form of writing: the query letter.

You know the old saw: If only I had more time I could have written less? It’s why a good query letter takes longer to write than the screenplay it’s pitching. Or at least, it sure feels that way. What’s more, query letters have a format that is just about as rigid — four paragraphs, half a page, lots of white space. And that’s a good thing. It allows yours to shine. Why? Because since even properly formatted queries can come across as mind-numbingly similar, a letter that leaps off the page instantly leaves the others in the dust. Which is why it’s essential to keep in mind that although when you’re writing your query, it’s just one letter, and so by definition it stands alone, chances are the agent or development executive (or more likely, their assistant) reading it has just pulled it from what feels like a never ending stack of submissions, and her mind is already muddy. That’s why your letter needs to be like a spoonful of sorbet — you want to cleanse her palate. You want her to open your letter and smile, because just looking at it, before she reads word one, is a welcome relief, and you have her attention, and momentarily, her gratitude.

Yes, but how, exactly, do you do that? The answer is, attitude.

There’s a story about Marilyn Monroe. She was walking through a hotel lobby with Truman Capote, who was surprised that no one gave her a second glance. With a grin she asked, “You want to see me do ‘Marilyn’?” And without breaking stride she switched gears, instantly projecting the drop dead confidence of the woman who owns the room. Even though she was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, suddenly every head turned in her direction.

Sure, she may have been teeming with insecurity inside, but on the outside, all you saw was the utter self-assurance of someone who is well aware of their power, and who knows that the best way to wield it is to stand back and let it do its job for you.

Exactly like a good query letter. Regardless how insecure you might feel, its tone is of blithe self-confidence. And completely devoid of self-confidence’s evil twin, arrogance, which always comes across as insecurity on steroids.

The truth is, almost all writers are insecure, regardless of their level of success. Ironically, it’s often the ones who aren’t insecure that really should be. Here’s something that helped me big time: When I lived in New York I asked a therapist who lived in my building and had a wide ranging practice, if there was any one trait she saw in all her patients across the board, regardless of age, race, gender, education or socio-economic standing. Without missing a beat she said, “Everyone feels like they’re faking it.” Sort of levels the playing field, doesn’t it?

With that in mind, here are several ways to come across as confident (whether you feel confident or not):

Be succinct. Be concise. Assume you’re a good writer. You don’t have to convince anyone of that. All you have to do is get them to read your script.

Don’t apologize for anything. Ever. And don’t qualify your statements. “I think” and “I believe” weaken whatever point you’re making. Consider the difference between, “I think this is a compelling story,” and “This is a compelling story.” The former reads as if you’re not quite sure, the latter, as if it’s a fact.

As important is passion. There is little that is more intoxicating than someone who is passionate about a project that they have complete confidence in. Passion and confidence are power.

Luckily, the appearance of confidence IS confidence. In a way the query letter is a fabulous “cover” for the shy. No one has to know that you spent three weeks sweating over a four-paragraph half-page letter. Or that your eyes bled over each and every word. Or that you can’t believe that anyone would take you seriously, no matter what your letter says. What’s reassuring and rather astonishing is that in the end the letter will read as if are so sure of yourself that you tossed it off in five minutes on your way out to walk the dog.

Okay, now, you have four lines max to entice an exhausted agent or development executive, in the form of their assistant, to read your script. How do you do that?

First, there’s the logline: The trouble is, you have to know what your script is about in order to summarize it in an effective logline. This sounds like a no brainer. It’s not. Why is it so hard? Because you know every single detail of your script inside and out. How can you possibly leave out even the most minor turn and still have it make sense? The irony is, the more you explain, the muddier it gets. And here’s something else: It isn’t as if your logline has to invoke the entire script. All it has to do is whet the appetite. To tantalize. To suggest. It has to prick the curiosity of the person you’re querying by raising the central story question that he or she wants answered. And of course, the only way to do that is to actually read your script.

You also have to know what genre your script is in. Sounds like another no brainer. But that’s genre, singular. A description like: it’s a romantic/action-adventure/sci-fi/western tells you next to nothing about the script, but all you need to know about the writer. As with the logline, sure, there are facts that you are positive are absolutely essential in order to get across exactly what the movie is about. But this isn’t a term paper. It’s a sales tool. So pick the genre that seems to be the primary one, put your pencil down, and exit quietly.

Now, on to the nuts and bolts of the query letter itself:

Always write to a specific person. While there are several sources of lists of agents and development executives, it’s essential to call and make sure that the person still works there, and that you have the correct spelling of their name, along with their specific title. And while you’re on the phone, take the time to schmooze with the receptionist or assistant. Not only are these people often agents and executives in training, but they may very well be the person who will actually read your letter and decide if it’s worth their boss’s time. They work grueling hours, are often underpaid and their efforts are largely unsung. They appreciate your kindness, deference and respect. Ask their name and write it down, so you can ask for them the next time you call. In a high stakes business where success depends on what will capture the public’s attention, but without any way to predict just what that will be, personal relationships are everything. Who knows which script will be the next big thing? The only sure thing is that people like to work with people who they like. The executive’s assistant is a great place to start!

It is essential that your first sentence have a hook that instantly sets you, and your script, apart. How’s that for pressure? Just keep repeating, less is more, less is more. In a way it’s liberating. Imagine that someone was pitching your story to you. What would most capture your imagination? What you’re looking for is a way to intimate why this story absolutely needs to be told, and as important, why your script is the one to tell it. And because every word in your query does double, triple, sometimes quadruple duty, you’re also trying to convey your passion for the project. Think of it as the subtext of the entire letter.

In your second paragraph, you have three or four lines to pitch your script. Don’t forget to mention your main characters by name, their goal, the obstacles, and how they plan to over come them. That’s it. Except, of course, that you have to do it in a way that will pique the imagination. And whatever you do, keep the ending to yourself. They have to read the script to find that out!

Next comes a paragraph about you and your credentials. If you’ve won any relevant awards, been produced or published, or if a script you wrote won or placed in a contest, be sure to mention it, along with your educational background, but again, only if it relates. If you don’t have much to say in this category, don’t be tempted to fill in the blank space with chatter. It will come across as desperation. Being honest about your insecurity in this case is not refreshing, it’s a red flag.

Finally, you want to invite them to read your script. That’s it. For this, you will want to enclose a SASE — self-addressed stamped envelope — for their reply. Although as we all know, it’s rejections that come via snail mail. So, you want to be sure to include your phone number in the letter — for good news, they call.

Here are a few things that you want to avoid at all costs:

Typos. Bad grammar. Cute fonts. No illustrations, no fancy paper. This is a professional letter, it’s not personal. You don’t want to do anything that gives off the whiff of being a neophyte, even if you are one. In fact, since they’ve most likely never heard of you, and you have no credits to your name, they’ll figure out that you are, in fact, a neophyte, but at the same time they’ll think of you as a quick study, because there is nothing in the tone or format of your letter to give you away.

Don’t mention specific actors who you think would be prefect for the movie. Not only does this come across as amateurish, but since chances are these particular actors will not be available, you don’t want it to read as if without them, the script is worthless.

Don’t be cutesy. Ever. No matter what. Gimmicks almost always work against you, and while they might make the recipient laugh, it is rarely in the way you intend. Also, you always run the risk of having it backfire, by making the agent or executive start to wonder if you’re resorting to gimmicks because you don’t have enough confidence in the script itself.

Don’t make false claims. This applies both to specific lies — such as that you were recommended by someone who, a simple phone call will disclose, has never heard of you — and to general aggrandizement — “This is the best script ever written” — which you will have just guaranteed they’ll never take the time to find out, because they instantly tossed your query and moved on to the next.

Don’t tell them it’s your first screenplay ever. If you’ve written several, you might want to mention that — it shows that you’ve spent time learning your craft. But best not to mention that this is your eleventh script, or they’ll start wondering why the first ten didn’t sell.

If you’re looking for an agent, unless you’ve been offered a deal, don’t mention that some studio is interested in looking at your script. One of the ironies of Hollywood is that while very little actually gets optioned, no one wants to come right out say no, either. You’re far more likely to hear that they’d love to look at your script, but you need representation first. That way, they haven’t offended you just in case you really are the next Quentin Tarantino, but since the odds of anyone getting an agent are slim, it’s primarily an effective way to say no without actually having to say it.

Why is all this so important? Look at it this way, if you were an agent or development executive, and you read a half-page four-paragraph letter rife with typos, maundering digressions, grammatical errors, written in a tone alternating between pleading and braggadocio, what hope would you have that its author could write a compelling 120 page screenplay? I’d say the odds are about the same as that they’ll ever find WMD circa 2002 in Iraq.

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