Writing Effective Query Letters

Posted by Marc Hernandez on

Our reader Sanborn from Costa Rica asks:
Why is there so much fuss about writing query letters? I always thought it's my story or script that counts, not my cover letter. Please advise.

Marc Hernandez, Managing Partner and Literary Manager with the Crescendo Entertainment Group in Los Angeles responds:

With seven years in the agency and (Literary) management business, I have received and read literally thousands query letters from screenwriters with various levels of screenwriting experience. The letters have ranged from the completely non-descript to those that have compelled me to immediately pick up the phone to call the writer.

In order to be effective, a query letter should 1) "hook" the executive; 2) demonstrate the writer's ability to write; 3) pitch the screenplay or teleplay; and 4) sell the writer as someone that the executive would want to work with. It's important that the letter include these important components as well as be written as efficiently and concisely as possible

Hooking the executive

It's important to know that executives work in a very fast-paced, somewhat effective environment. Therefore, the letter needs to get right to the point and grab the executive's attention. This is where creativity, ingenuity, and humor can come in to play. For example, I once received a query letter that started out with: "When I lived in New York, I had a friend who, when meeting someone's dog, would be compelled to sniff the inside of the dog's ear, which would further compel her to shout 'Yonger!'". Needless to say, I found the opening, or, "setup" quite intriguing and was compelled (myself) to read on to see how the letter "paid off". It's extremely important that the query letter be written to garner such a response.

Demonstrate the writer's ability to write

From what I read, many writers don't take the writing of their query letters seriously. Many letters are written carelessly, with little command of basic compositional and grammatical skills. Letters written carelessly will not be taken seriously. This is where a writer can and should show the executive his or her talent as a writer.

Pitch the screenplay or teleplay

The primary purpose of the query letter is to attempt to get the executive to read a sample of the writer's work. And, every executive is looking for a fresh, interesting story. The letter should put forth the writer's best piece of material (based on a distinctive idea; commercial; best execution, etc.). With that in mind, the letter should pitch the story in a brief and intriguing one-to-two sentence logline. A "movie cross" is another tool to get an executive's attention (e.g., "it's IN THE LINE OF FIRE meets DODGEBALL"). Again, keep in mind that it has to be intriguing and concise.

Sell the writer as someone that the executive would want to work with

In reading query letters, executives try to weed the "wannabe's" out from those that are "the real deal". The query letter should put forth information that illustrates that the writer is serious, dedicated, passionate and prolific (as a writer) about his or her craft. The letter should contain information as to: screenwriting education; number of scripts written (total as well as "per year"); screenwriting awards; screenplays sold or optioned; writing assignments obtained; previous representation history; executive relationships, etc. In the query letter that I referenced previously, the writer "closed" her letter by saying" I am compelled to write for television, specifically, sitcoms. Although new to Los Angeles, I have already been admitted to the Advanced Sitcom Writing program at UCLA, am a member of the Writer's Guild Training Program, and have three spec scripts ready for action. My hope is that, like my dog-ear-sniffing friend, you'll feel a compulsion--not to sniff my dog's ear, but to help me launch my career."

With a little thought, some creativity and knowing how to get an executive's attention, a powerful and effective query letter can be written that enable a writer to submit his or her material and, hopefully, get him or her noticed as a talented screenwriter in today's highly competitive screenwriting business.

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