(For Part 3 of this series click here.)
Your trailer is an ad for a story. It’s a story that exists on the page only. Though it lacks visuals, it still has a plot, a mood, characters and events. (Note: I’m limiting this topic to fiction). Thus your book offers the same basic experience as a movie. And so this promo should be approached as if you are selling a movie. Studying different types of film trailers will show you the rhythm of the editing, the importance of sound effects and music, and the difference between trailers for drama, thrillers and comedy.
Before you write the script for your trailer, please consider these three points.
Can we agree on one thing? Novels are meant to provoke. You’re prodding a certain response from the reader. What is the reaction you want to provoke in your book? Really think about this. Maybe you want the reader to laugh and have fun, or quiver with fear, be spiritually uplifted, or feel exquisite melancholy. So your trailer should give a hint, a promise, of that experience. For example, when writing my script for the Jane Was Here promo, I wanted to give the viewer the same feeling of eerie creepiness and foreboding that my book does. And accomplish all that in two minutes.
Item two: Obviously you want to create curiosity, too. As in a movie trailer, at the end of two minutes the viewer should want to see more.
Item three: find the movie in the book. Many writers fantasize about their books being made into films. What scenes stand out to you as most dramatic (that don’t contain spoilers)? Is there one scene or moment that can stand alone in representing the whole book? For example, when I wrote my book Jane Was Here, I tried to capture the reader in the early pages with one scene that I knew would awake tantalizing questions. A mysterious young woman calling herself Jane shows up in a small town, knocks on a door, and announces that this is her house. She says she was born and grew up here. Yet she’s never been here before in her life. How is that possible? Who is Jane? What’s she looking for? Why is she so weird? What happened to her in this house long ago? Is she dangerous? Since this scene succeeded in hooking readers in the book, it became the natural choice for the trailer.
If you have more than one scene from the book you want to use, you probably do not have time for both within two minutes. Hence you are now in montage territory. Most trailers are made up of short snatches anyway.
What images and/or sounds best represent your book? Are there motifs? Look how the promo for Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader uses motifs to make you want to know more:
The motifs here are lace, and a key. (Note: black-and-white photography is a clever choice her because it subtly establishes Barry’s book as classy not cheesy. Music videos often do this to make a song seem artier.)
Having pondered the above three points, you’re ready to make a stab at writing the first draft of your trailer script. Let yourself go and don’t worry whether your chosen scene or montage is practical on a budget. Write as if your book has already been made into a movie and you’re giving a taste of the goodies a moviegoer can expect. Avoid static or still images unless you plan to program some camera movement in the editing stage (indicate what kind of moves in your script). Play my trailer below, and you’ll see an illustration that isn’t static because I start close on one detail and then continually pull out until the picture transforms into something different.
Now add the hype.
Repeat the title at least twice, even better three times, to get it in the viewers’ heads. If you have any quotes that reduce to a few words (“gripping,” “hilarious beyond belief”) flash them at intervals.
Plan to show the book cover’s title graphic, too. (A caveat: using the whole cover is a little harder because a book is a vertical oblong and a film image stretches horizontally, so you can’t get the cover to fill the screen. Anyway, you deal with that problem in editing.)
Consider movie-trailer-style voice-over if you know someone or can cast someone with a professional-sounding voice. “A man. A woman. A building on fire. Only one will get out.” Don’t do voice-over yourself unless you are offering a personal narrative, as in a memoir: “The day I found out I had cancer...”
When you have a first draft, it should be like a wish list. Now it’s time to get real. If your book is a historical epic, then maybe you’ve done a montage of battle scenes. If it’s sci-fi fantasy, your scenes or images are heavy in special effects. You know perfectly well that to shoot these would cost millions of dollars.
But don’t rule them out. See if you can translate these scenes into a montage of snippets from other movies. Let’s go back to the example of a battle scene montage. You can grab these images from other war films or archival footage, off DVDs or whatever: quick shots of pounding horse hooves, swords slicing through the air, or explosions and planes taking off, airships landing. Capturing film clips is standard in this YouTube age. Just don’t use iconic or easily recognizable images from famous films, like the blood gushing down the hotel corridor in The Shining. Go to the more obscure B-list movies, or foreign films, or flops. Also don’t show recognizable actors’ faces. This announces you’ve stolen the material, and you want this to look as original as possible.
Suddenly your ambitious first-draft now looks affordable.
If you have a comedy or drama which best engages a viewer by showing a scene or two from the book, then you’re going to have to shoot your trailer with actors in a studio or on location. With Jane Was Here, I chose a two-person scene, with a Victorian house exterior. Very affordable. In the next post I’ll get into the technical production aspect of a trailer shoot. In the meantime, by way of example, below is the final script plus the finished trailer for Jane Was Here.
LOCATION: SMALL TOWN IN NEW ENGLAND. STREET WITH SMALL VICTORIAN HOUSE. NIGHT.
INT. FOYER - HOUSE - 3 A.M. - HOT SUMMER NIGHT
CLOSE-UP ON a frosted, etched PANEL IN THE FRONT DOOR. A
SHADOW APPEARS behind the glass. The SHAPE OF A HEAD comes
closer. A HAND on the pane. Then a knuckle RAP-RAP-RAPS.
COVER GRAPHIC OVER BLACK:
JANE WAS HERE
A NOVEL BY
FOOTSTEPS APPROACH. SOUND OF KNOB TURNING....
SAME ANGLE ON DOOR PANEL as it SWINGS OPEN to reveal:
A YOUNG WOMAN, about 22, standing in the street outside this
decrepit Victorian house. She wears grimy sneakers and
clamdiggers, and carries a small duffel. Pale, thin, with
lank tangled hair, she has the childish face of a waif.
She looks up pleadingly at:
BRETT, 28, tall, awkward and a touch nerdy, stands in the
doorway. He's dead tired from being up all night working.
Hi. Can I help you?
Yes. Are you looking for someone?
This is my house.
I've rented it for the summer. I
don't know the owner, are you
She shakes her head solemnly, speaking in a curiously prim,
I don't know anyone in this town.
Yet I feel sure, I was born here,
in this very house. And then...
something happened to me. I can't
remember. Sir, may I come in?
Jane, it's three a.m. Come back in
He starts to close the door, but she pushes against it.
Please - please! I have nowhere
else to go!
Surprised, he pauses. She gazes up at him desperately.
I am looking for myself.
CUE UP SPOOKY MUSIC AND...
WHO IS JANE?
ANIMATION - LINE CROSSES OUT "IS" AND WRITES OVER IT:
WHO IS JANE?
CU 19TH CENTURY WOMAN SEATED BEFORE MIRROR. BEGIN SLOWLY
CAMERA FINISHES PULL BACK. IMAGE IS NOW SEEN AS A DEATH'S
OVER BLACK: QUOTES FLY TOWARD CAMERA: "EERIE" - "HAUNTING" -
"TERRIFYING" - "KEPT ME UP AT NIGHT" - "SEDUCTIVE" -
"CHILLING" - "NOTHING SHORT OF MAGIC"
OVER BLACK: ZOOM SLOWLY TOWARD TITLE "JANE WAS HERE"
RECAP JANE CLOSE-UP:
I am looking for myself.
FRONT COVER SHOT. AVAILABILITY, WEBSITE, ETC.
Coming June 2011
For Part 3 of this series click here.
- I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My second novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011. My latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, came out in August 2015, now available on VOD, DVD, and streaming media. This blog is a paranormal memoir-in-progress, whenever I have spare time. It's a chronicle of my encounters with ghosts, family phantoms, and other forms of spirit.