An editor once commented in a pitch session I attended that writers should learn to write better pitch sentences from analyzing how movie trailers grab viewers. The remark stayed with me. Isn’t holding a reader’s attention all through a novel what writers hope to do? While acknowledging the importance of sales and awards, I’d argue that authors measure a story’s real success in whether readers stay up past their bedtimes while flipping pages.
With an eye toward fostering more sleep deprivation, then, let’s take a look at what makes movie trailers so compelling.
Movie trailers have the advantage of being visual whereas books can only use words, so comparing them isn’t fair, right? Yes and no. It’s true that moving pictures can grab attention with ease. However, readers use their imaginations to create mental images. It might even be argued that these self-generated images have more charm for them. Storytelling is always a partnership between the writer and readers, with the writer initiating storytelling and readers carrying it through. How well the writer does her part determines how fluently readers can do theirs.
How to Write a Page Turner Using Movie Trailer Tips
To make my points, I’ll be referring to the movie trailer for The Hobbit 3.
- Prompt the reader. In the Hobbit 3 trailer, we are given to understand that both war and a dragon threaten, and that some characters will survive and others will not. The viewer is cued with enough information to spark the imagination but no more than is needed. Doling out the right amount of information in just the right timing is an art that leads your reader effortlessly through your story. This is an acquired skill that must be practiced. As you get the feel for this, ask for feedback from a critique group to help you gauge the results of your efforts.
- Involve the senses. In vivid color and with Celtic music setting the mood, the movie trailer evokes more than sight and hearing. Can’t you smell the sulphur from the fire-breathing dragon’s flames, feel rough stone beneath your bare feet, taste fear as the hobbit faces the monster?
- Surprise readers. The trailer starts in a meditative mood that immediately gives way to surprise as the dragon sweeps through the village. Having something unexpected happen right off the bat in each chapter will carry your reader from surprise to surprise. This must be true to the story and not manufactured to gain attention or readers will know.
- Pack your story with emotion. The trailer brings us into emotions of fear, tenderness, grief, watchfulness, sadness, uncertainty in leadership, and fierceness, and all in the space of a minute and a half. Emotions must evolve from the organic story, not trumped up.
- Minimize backstory. In the trailer, someone (Bilbo) who has come all the way through the story looks backward to tell it. Within the framework of the story, however, you will notice that the characters don’t go into backstory. They are too busy dealing with events going on around them. In your novel, if you have enough happening, you won’t have much time for much backstory either.
- Employ pithy dialogue. Apart from the words of the song, the trailer has only six sentences, with three at the beginning that establish the story. Dialogue that conveys a wealth of meaning in a few words helps maintain a rapid pace. Use slower dialogue at points of rest, but don’t linger.
- Hook the reader. The trailer’s last sentence, with Gandalf challenging the characters to follow him one last time, is a hook and invitation designed to draw viewers into theaters. In the same way, leaving readers with a question at the end of each chapter will propel them into the next. I’m not suggesting ending on a cliff hanger. That becomes melodramatic and tiring. Rather, engage readers with the intriguing story you are telling.
What other things do you think writers can take from movie trailers and/or movies to enhance their stories?