Write the trailer

So you’re outlining your next screenplay.  Catchy title?  Check.  Well crafted logline?  Check.  But before you run to the trouble of outlining or structuring your plot I have a very simple writing exercise for you.

Write the trailer.

Sit down and write the trailer.  You can be as detailed or vague as you want.  The important thing is to visualize your completed movie’s trailer.  Who’s going to see this?  No one.  But this writing exercise has many valuable functions. Ultimately your movie is going to live and die in theaters. How much it makes–especially in the opening weekend–may very well determine your bankability as a working writer in this industry. You need to pack that theater. You do that with a kick-ass trailer.

True, you don’t actually edit the trailer. But if you pack your movie with tons of great moments it will make editing the trailer that much easier. The entire film is greenlit solely on the premise that it will make money. If you don’t consider this you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Tone check

Are there explosions?  Witty dialogue?  Is it scary?  Before you write one word of your script you need to commit to a tone.  You want a consistent tone to your script. Goodfellas and The Godfather may both be gangster films but the tones are very different. Don’t stress. Write the trailer from the gut.  When you’re done the tone will become clear and you can strip away any elements that suddenly stand out an incongruities.

Your written trailer will act as a barometer for your script.

Think about the music that will accompany your trailer.  That will help dictate the pace.  Does the trailer play slow and comfortable, or flash by at a frenetic pace?  Music and editing go hand-and-hand.  You might even discover a song that will help inspire you.  The visuals, the music, everything brings an emotion.  One that will hopefully keep you excited during the writing of the actual script.

Surprises

Suddenly a visual flashes to mind.  You’re not sure what the image means but there it is.  Maybe it’s a frame of a yet undiscovered scene.  It may lead to something unexpected.  Snapshots often swirl in my mind long before everything has been nailed down in the story.  I look at it like watching someone else’s dreams and trying to interpret them.

One of the most exciting things in the trailer for The Dark Knight was seeing that tractor-trailer flip over. How did that make it into the story? Christopher Nolan thought it would be cool to flip a semi. It was something that had never been done before. A powerful visual. He didn’t know where it would go in his script. He just knew he wanted to do it. When it came time to write that sequence he wasn’t fishing for something big; he already had it. He just plugged that stunt into the action sequence—and of course—it ended up in the trailer.

This works for dialogue too.  How many great one-liners can you come up with?  Before you live in the script, give birth to them right here.  You might be amazed by how many great liners you come up with when not encumbered with the context of the scene.  Also it will help you keep your lines short and sweet.  No room for long dialogues in a trailer.  Just short wonderful lines that are easily remembered.

When to write it

I recommend writing your trailer after your logline and character bios (if that’s how you prewrite) but prior to writing your outline. By the time you have an outline you’ve already made major decisions concerning what is going into your script. You’re already past the freedom point. Writing your trailer before the heavy burden of plotting will afford you creative latitudes which can benefit you greatly later.

Explore. Get lost in it. No one is ever going to read it. It’s just for you.

Sales in mind

Certainly it won’t hurt your script to remember that you want someone to buy it. Writing the trailer will help you with your pitch as you focus on the key elements to tell your story quickly. Any producer would love to know that you have the marketing of the project in mind. Every movie needs to be promoted.

The last thing you want is a bad trailer. In Hollywood, success is measured in dollar signs. If you’re script is great, it gets made. If the trailer is great, it gets seen. And a big box office return makes you look like a genius;  a genius that gets hired to write more projects.

The How To

So how do I write a trailer?

That’s the tough part. I don’t believe there is a one size fits all when it comes to this. Movie trailers can vary a lot.  And, every writer is different. But here’s the approach that I take.

  1. Tell as much of the story as fast as possible (short clips)
  2. Reveal the character’s uniqueness (often a problem)
  3. Reveal their goal
  4. Show the hurdles in his/her way (this includes friends and enemies)
  5. Show a progression of risks
  6. Memorable visuals (if your story has action input it here)
  7. Show emotion (laughing, crying, screaming, whatever applies to your story)
  8. Memorable dialogue
  9. Layer the whole thing in tone

What does that look like?  Watch the trailer for the film Momento. Now that movie wasn’t an action film, not even a thriller really. But that trailer is thrilling as hell and everything was setup very quickly. For my money it’s a brilliant example of a trailer. It’s also a good example that this works for even non-traditionally structured films.

(Sadly I can no longer find the exact version of that trailer online anymore. But HERE is a version pretty close to it.)

Let’s break down the steps with another example: Die Hard (1998)

Step #1  Tell as much of the story as fast as possible.

It’s Christmas in L.A. and New York cop John McClain visits his wife at her office, which just so happens to be taken over by terrorists.

Step #2  Reveal the character’s uniqueness

He’s stubborn. Which for the trailer materializes as “he’s hard to kill, or he’ll never stop” but in his personal journey equates to his character flaw because it drove a wedge between him and his wife.

Step #3  Reveal their goal

Clearly stated. To save his wife.

Step #4  Show the hurdles in his/her way

The terrorists are well armed and out number him. The cops won’t listen to him. He’s alone.

Step # 5  Show a progression of risks

First he’s riding elevators. Then he’s jumping in air shafts. Next helicopters are shooting at him. Followed by John diving away from a massive elevator explosion.

Step # 6  Memorable visuals

The famous shot of John jumping off the top of the building as it explodes in slow motion.

Step #7  Show emotion

Hostages screaming and crying. John laughing as he foils terrorists.

Step # 8  Memorable dialogue

“Yippee-ki-yay” anyone?

Step # 9  Layer the whole thing in tone

I think we saw that it was a high octane action movie filled with tense situations and yet a sense of fun.

Structure

The setup of your film is the setup of the trailer. The normal world. Then your Catalyst. Which brings the first Plot Point.

John’s a cop at a holiday party. Then terrorists take the building hostage. John must defeat the terrorists.

After that it’s off to the races with the best most interesting parts of your Act II and a few small flashes of Act III.  You don’t want to give it all away.

Useful Application

Now you have this fantastic written trailer. Or at the very least, list of images and dialogue. What do you do with it? You reference it. Time and time again. As you write your outline. As you write your script. You use it to pull scenes and dialogue from. You reference it to double check that you’re creating the movie you intended to.

And if you get stuck just remember – people love sex, violence, and special effects. We just do. Otherwise Transformers II wouldn’t have made so much money. I mean seriously.

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