Selling Secrets of the Selling Trade - Proven Advertising Techniques Can Make Your Queries & Loglines Stand Out From The Pack
You've slaved over every syllable to make it memorable. Your manuscript spills over with high ideas, scathing wit and a dash of drama that would send even the coldest executive producer groping for a box of Kleenex.
Yet, for the life of you, you can't get anyone in the business to read it, let alone give you a call. What gives?
Let's face it.
You're not just competing with the other good scripts and first novels. You're competing with piles and piles... and piles... of bad ones.
Aside from step one -- producing the most imaginative, tightest manuscript you can muster -- is there any other way to rise head and shoulders above the rest? Absolutely. And the secret is closer at hand than you might think.
You can find it in your bathroom medicine cabinet... your icebox... on the inside cover of the magazine that's lying on the floor next to your bed...
On every billboard in America. In every issue of the Sunday paper. On tubes of toothpaste. And, most especially, in every piece of junk mail that stuffs your mailbox.
I'm talking, of course, about advertising copy.
Most copywriters will tell you -- writing advertising copy isn't art. It's a simple craft. A trade. And like any trade, there are proven, specific techniques that make it work.
By virtue of words alone, copywriters have convinced hundreds of millions of people to pick Coke over Pepsi, McDonald's over Burger King and the Wall Street Journal over Forbes. Ad copy builds billion- dollar businesses... adds thousands of jobs to the economy... puts hundreds of politicians in office... raises millions of dollars for good causes...
Name the selling challenge, strong ad copy drives the boat. And that's the good news.
Because the same formulas that sell a product can also help you sell your screenplay or your novel. Just as an example, let's take a look at the writing of screenplay loglines.
A typical screenplay logline is about 25 words. So is a typical print ad headline.
In both, you get about 3 seconds to grab -- and hold -- attention.
Three seconds to coax a studio to sink millions of dollars into your movie project... to get a publishing company to invest in publicity campaigns and book runs... or to talk an agent into gambling a paycheck and his reputation on your career.
That's a tall order.
Copywriters face similar kinds of pressure when they write ad headlines. But they have an advantage over you. They're already starting with time-tested, proven formulas for headlines that pack a punch.
Here's one popular formula -- borrowed from copywriter Michael Masterson -- that works just as well for loglines as it does for selling products. It's called 'The Four U's' -- from the four aspects that make ad headlines work.
In no particular order, the Four U's are: 'Unique,' 'Useful,' 'Urgent' and 'Ultra-Specific.'
It's these four aspects that almost all winning ads have in their headlines. Try the same formula applied to a logline. For instance, here's one used by writer Michael Thomas to sell his script of 'The Rum Diary':
'SET IN THE LATE '50'S IN SAN JUAN, A JOURNALIST FEARS THAT HIS DREAMS OF WRITING ARE EVAPORATING AS FAST AS THE RUM DRINKS HE GUZZLES.'
Does that sound Unique to you? Definitely. There's no mistaking this script for, say, another knock off of 'Pretty Woman.'
Is it Useful? Any producer who's ever written (and many of them have) can see this is a story a certain audience can identify with.
Urgent? In sales, that's means where's the 'buy now' impulse going to come from. Here, you might translate it to mean 'dramatic tension.' And Thomas gets it. We're watching a writer's dreams evaporate.
How about Ultra-Specific? Does the logline pull it off? Absolutely. This story happens 'In the late '50s...' Where? 'San Juan' To whom? 'A journalist who drinks...' Why? 'His dreams are fading...' And How? We don't know yet, but we might look deeper into those glasses of rum...
Whatever Thomas did, he managed not only to sell the script, but to get Johnny Depp, Nick Nolte, and Benicio Dell Torro to star. Let's try another one.
Here's the logline from Hossein Amini's new script, 'The Great Raid'...
'SET IN THE PHILIPPINES IN 1945 DURING WW II, AN ARMY LIEUTENANT LEADS A RAID BEHIND ENEMY LINES IN ORDER TO RESCUE 500 AMERICAN POWS'
Unique? Well, other war movies have rescue plots. 'Saving Private Ryan' comes to mind. So on that score, this logline probably wouldn't have gotten prospective agents and producers to start hitting speed dial on their cell phones.
But notice what happens when Amini added just a few key details...
'500 P.O.W.s.'... In 'the Philippines in 1945'... 'behind enemy lines'... The possible directions for this story come into sharp focus. We can see now that it's NOT necessarily going to be like every other war movie...
How about Useful? In this sense, I mean does the script sound like one that will sell movie tickets? Right now, it does. With the war on Afghanistan well on American minds, Amini's timing is good. But that's surely no accident. Simply knowing what the market is looking for goes a long way toward telling you how to position your pitch. It's no wonder Miramax picked this up for an undisclosed sum in February 2002.
Urgency -- in exactly 25 words, Amini gives us just enough key plot points to charge his short description with high drama. These 500 soldiers are trapped behind enemy lines. Will they be rescued?
Is Amini successfully Ultra-specific? Again, it's the details: 'Philippines in 1945,' 'Army Lieutenant,' 'A raid behind enemy lines,' '500 P.O.W.s'
In advertising, there's a saying -- 'The more you tell the more you sell.' But there's another expression, 'Keep It Simple, Stupid.'
It's a fine line about what to leave in and leave out. Notice how Amini's logline picks only the key storyline points. Just the facts you need to conjure up visuals of the main plot conflict. This is 'precision persuasion' at its best.
The 'Four U's,' of course, is just one selling tool in a whole arsenal used by copywriters.
Here's another technique you can 'borrow' -- the hidden 'architecture' of working sales letters. Think about it. A query letter isn't anything if it's not a sales letter.
Only, instead of trying to sell a magazine or raise funds for a charity, you're trying to sell your script idea. And yourself as a writer.
Meanwhile, copywriters have used almost exactly the same device -- the simple letter -- to sell $10,000 vacations, luxury cars, even plots of property overseas. How? In a nutshell, here's what makes a good sales letter work:
First it hooks your attention...
Then it holds your interest while hammering on promises and benefits....
It underscores the credibility of your every claim....
And last, it calls for an active response. Compare that to the query...
On her website, talent agent Marcie Wright says, 'We get 50-100 queries letters every week and we are not on the list that the WGA mails to writers. The letter should be smart, short and hook the reader without using gimmicks or being too cute. Also, don't say 'it's the best screenplay...' - everyone feels that way.'
So what CAN you say that will persuade?
This is where the sales letter architecture can help you.
In direct-mail advertising, all great letters (the ones that have sold millions of dollars worth of products) have four parts. In order -- 'Picture'... 'Promise'... 'Proof'... and 'Push.'
Watch what happens when you apply the same structure to a query letter....
First you might open with an emotionally charged 'Picture'...
'Dear Mr. Agentinski, I would love to have the opportunity to send you a copy of my new script, 'The Great Raid.' The story opens in 1945. Deep in the Philippine jungle, there's a small cell with a dirt floor. A prisoner is collapsed in the corner, beaten by Japanese interrogators. He's just one of 500 American soldiers, captured during a night drop that went horribly wrong. 'The Great Raid' is based on the true story of a daring rescue mission during World War II...'
That's not polished, but you get the idea. Focus only on key details. Keep it tight and full of tension. But not so tight that you fail to stir a visual, emotionally charged response.
Next in the sales-letter model - the big 'Promise.'
In advertising copy, benefit is king. The more clear and specific those benefits are to the reader, the better. As Marcie Wright suggested, agents don't want hype. But designing your letter with implied promise is not a bad idea. Pack it with teaser plot points and you're promising a fun ride. Make smart comparisons to similar blockbuster movies and you're implying rich rewards.
So far, you're talking no more than two paragraphs of copy. But streamlined to sell.
Next you want 'Proof.' Prove to the query letter reader that you can do what you're promising - show past script sales, contests you've won, places you've published. List work or life experiences that give you extra insight into your characters or the plot.
You're almost done. Last but not least, a 'Push.'
Every good sales letter closes the sale by making an offer. Don't think 'Boiler Room' or 'Tin Men.' Agents and producers, remember, get pitched all day. All you need is a polite, one-line request for action: 'If you're interested, I've enclosed a self-addressed postcard for your convenience. I look forward to hearing from you.'
Remember, this is a hidden architecture.
You don't want the query letter reader to actually see the outline and how it works. No more than you'd want someone to spot the three- act structure that governs your script. The power of the hidden sales letter architecture is in the sum of the parts, not each part taken by itself. You need all the pieces to make it work.
By the way, you can use these same two techniques for more than just selling your masterpiece. The same goes for dozens more copywriting secrets. In fact, that's how more than a few great writers cut their teeth....
Joseph Heller was a copywriter with Time Magazine and McCall's. Kurt Vonnegut wrote press releases. George Orwell, Mark Twain, poet Fay Weldon - all wrote advertising at some point in their early careers.
It's no accident.
Copywriting teaches you how to open with a hook... appeal to emotions... and write under pressure. You have to learn quickly how to figure out what your target audience wants, how to write with relaxed dialogue, and tell a 'story' that moves the reader from problem to solution. The best ads have rhythm. Every word is crafted to create a memorable melody.
If you want to learn more about copywriting - even if it's only to find out how to write queries and loglines that will make an agent spill his coffee - read about the Accelerated Program for Six- Figure Copywriting offered by The Writers Store.