A Different Approach to Book Trailers

The first time I spoke with my editor at Penguin we talked about the difficulty of marketing a swashbuckler set during the American Revolution. My book is a spy thriller and I’d been pitching it in movie terms, as La Femme Nikita meets Dangerous Liaisons. We agreed it would appeal to readers who loved Pirates of the Caribbean and Last of the Mohicans, but wondered how to get that message to readers. During the conversation, she said, “You’re a filmmaker. Maybe you could make your own book trailer.”

It sounded like a good idea to me—a way to show readers that the American Revolution could be as sexy as the Tudor court and as dangerous as the Spanish Main. I was thinking like a filmmaker, putting something together in my head that used the language of the cinema, and the highly specific idiom of the movie trailer. I had ideas for locations, casting, and costumes, and a good idea of when I wanted to shoot.

The only problem was that I’d never seen a book trailer. Or at least not the kind that most books get. I’d seen the trailers for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls because I’d been at film school with those guys and seen those pieces go viral. It was only when I started to research the phenomenon that I found out that most book trailers are deadly dull and languish in well-deserved obscurity.

There’s a reason for this, but it’s not because books are verbal and movies are visual. I’m a screenwriter. I write the words that movies are made out of. And I’m an author, so I know that books contain as much imagery as films. But more importantly, I’m a storyteller—I know the secret: it’s all about emotion. Books and films are just different delivery mechanisms for story, and story is just a vehicle for emotion. We read books and we go to the movies because we want to feel.

Most book trailers don’t make us feel anything, even the slickly produced ones put out by publishers. That’s because the folks who make them don’t understand movie trailers. Book trailers are conceived as video advertisements for books. They are commercials. With rare exceptions (I’m looking at you, Old Spice Man) no one wants to watch commercials. And with our DVRs, we don’t have to.

But we love to watch movie trailers. We arrive at the theater early to see them, we seek them out online. That’s because movie trailers aren’t advertisements. They’re samples. They give us a taste of the emotions we’ll feel if we watch the feature film.

It’s the difference between a poster for cake and a bite of cake.

The trailer for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children works because it captures the creepy sense of wonder you will feel if you read the book. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls works because it delivers a taste of the witty iconoclasm of the book. When the trailer asks: The Bennett sisters are ready. Are you? We enjoy the same delicious in-the–know frisson of pleasure we will get from the book—we are in on the joke.

But how to do that for my own book? At USC I learned to break down an hour of episodic television into an outline I could use to “spec” or write my own script for the show. I did the same thing with movie trailers. I identified films that had emotional arcs similar to my book and broke down their trailers. These were disparate as Spiderman (2002) Jane Eyre (2011) and Pretty Woman (1990).

I discovered that most trailers cut two or three important scenes from the movie together to introduce the protagonist and her conflict, then shift at the midpoint to quick cut action shots suggesting the rising tension of the second act. This usually ends in a visual and musical crescendo that stands in for the climax of the film. Sometimes there is a “button” at the end.

This is a formula that can work whether you are shooting live action sync sound as I did, or acting your book with puppets and voice over—as long as you have mapped out the emotional territory of your story and used the language of the trailer to navigate it for your viewer. In my next post, I’ll share my map, the Turncoat Trailer Script.

In the meantime, you can view the trailer here.