Most writers loathe writing query letters, and I did too, until I learned how to concentrate on distilling the important parts of the story I was describing. It’s hard to judge your own story with all the secondary characters and subplots clamoring for attention, so I’ve found it helpful to practicing by writing queries based on classic books or movies. In honor of Halloween I decided to do a sample query based on Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. Before I write any query, I answer some questions:
1. Who is the main character and what about him/her is interesting?
2. What does the main character want at the beginning of the story, and if it changes, what does he/she want later on?
3. Who is the antagonist, or what is preventing the main character from obtaining his/her wants?
4. What are the stakes if the main character fails at obtaining the goal?
Based on how I answered those questions for FRANKENSTEIN, here’s the story part of the query:
Victor Frankenstein, a brilliant young scientist, is obsessed with discovering the secret of life.
He prowls the cemeteries and charnel houses of 18th century Bavaria, determined to unlock the mysteries of life and death. After years of work, he succeeds beyond all his expectations, managing to bring life to a creature made from body parts of the dead. The scientist’s elation at his success is brief. It disappears the moment the creature opens its eyes and Victor realizes he has created a monster. Distraught at the horror of his creation, he unwittingly lets it escape into the night.
Tormented by the knowledge of the creature’s existence, Victor dreads the reappearance of it in his life. He never imagines how terrible the return will be, until the monster murders Victor’s brother. When Victor confronts the creature, it vows to kill all of the rest of the scientist’s family and friends unless Victor creates another monstrosity, one that could be a companion to the monster in all its loneliness and misery.
Victor is faced with a choice-appease the monster by doing as it wishes, or follow his conscience and face the consequences of a creature set on revenge. When Victor chooses, the monster kills Victor’s dearest companions, driving Victor on a hunt that takes him to the icy regions of the Arctic to find his creation so he can destroy it. The chase will end in the death of one or both.
(add closing thank you, etc., etc.)
Actually, both Victor and the monster die in the end in non-glorious ways. I suspect if this story were written today, Victor and the monster would engage in a hand-to-hand battle, the monster would fall into an ice crevasse, leaving Victor to believe the monster is dead. Since the ending should be open enough for a sequel, the monster wouldn’t actually die. He’d merely be injured, so that in book two he could come back to take over the world with his army of polar bears angered by global warming.
Notice I didn’t mention Victor’s fiancée, Elizabeth, who is killed by the monster right after the wedding. Introducing her and the circumstances of her death would show there was a bit of romance in the book, but the complications in doing so would far outweigh the benefit of describing this subplot.
I also didn’t mention how this story is told by Victor as he is on his deathbed on a ship trapped in the ice of the North Pole. Again, that would add way too many details. It’s not the real setting of the story and it’s not important for the purpose of a query letter.
It would be tempting to go into detail about the monster, but trying to explain an eloquent eight foot creature with black lips overwhelmed me, so I didn’t attempt it, and I don’t think the query needed it. I think I’ll try DRACULA next. Another of my movie/book sample queries can be found here: