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Query Letter - Your Key to the Market

Contributed By Charles Deemer

For screenwriters who live outside of Los Angeles, the query letter is the most important manuscript aside from the screenplay itself. The query letter is what will open, or close, doors into the marketplace. Learning how to write this important tool is essential.

The 4-Paragraph Model

The query letter strategy I recommend to my students is this: a letter, always less than one page in length, with four paragraphs, each with its important task:

Paragraph one: Hook the reader so that he or she has to continue on.

Paragraph two: Pitch your story so that it becomes irresistible, and the reader must request the script.

Paragraph three: Summarize your relevant background as a screenwriter. Classes, contests, previous sales or options, whatever is relevant. I caution my students about mentioning a writing background in other fields. Journalism is good, and ad writing is good. Poetry is good. Playwriting is good if only because so many playwrights have successfully made the transition. But fiction writing is another matter. Right or wrong, the common attitude around the film industry is that fiction writers are notorious over-writers when it comes to screenwriting. I tell my students not to mention this background.

Paragraph four: One question: May I send you the script?

A Sample Query Letter

Let's put these principles in action. Let's write a query letter for the movie E.T.

Paragraph one. We want to hook the reader.

"What if aliens are not monsters, as Hollywood has traditionally portrayed them? What if our alien is a cute creature with all the cuddling potential of a large teddy bear? And what if our alien gets stranded on Earth and is befriended by a lonely boy?"

Paragraph two. Now we tell more about the story, making the pitch.

"E.T., the extra-terrestrial, gets stranded when his spaceship has to make a quick escape from humans who have discovered it. Elliot, our protagonist, discovers E.T. hiding in the garage and, after initial fear on both parts, the boy lures the alien into his house and bedroom. Elliot keeps E.T. as a secret playmate, sharing him only with his siblings, a secret from mom. But E.T., no dummy, quickly learns to communicate and tells Elliot he wants to go home. As the human scientists track the alien down (a ticking clock!), Elliot and his brother and sister help E.T. build a device to signal his space ship, which soon becomes a race against time. Then E.T. gets sick and gets captured -- and seems to die. But there is one more cosmic secret left that will help Elliot rescue his friend after all. E.T. is a coming of age story about a boy who learns that love sometimes means letting go."

Do we tell the ending? There are two schools of thought about this: yes, because producers want to know the whole story; no, because we want to intrigue the producer into asking for the script. I usually do the former, taking a more business-like approach. But either strategy is used.

Paragraph three. Who are we?

"I've studied screenwriting at Portland State University. An earlier script, The Secret, was a semi-finalist in the Willamette Writers Screenwriting Competition."

And finally: "May I send you the script?"

Now that we have our query letter, to whom do we send it? Next month I'll talk about how to find producers for your query letter.

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