Step 3. Select Approach

Trailer Approaches

One of the first design decisions when creating a book trailer is to select the approach. In studying trailers, I have found the following to be a fairly complete list. Selection of the approach is driven by the mood of the book, as well as the key focus item. As an example, if the most interesting thing about a story is the protagonist, then a character trailer may be best. A trailer is not meant to educate the user about the book; its purpose is to interest the viewer enough to at least visit the book website for more details or to order it.

Some approaches refer to the style, such as humorous or cool; some focus on the look like cinematic, with actors; and some refer to the target audience of children or teens. Study your building blocks from step 2. An approach may jump out at you. A plot-line approach is the most widely used.

Here are the most common approaches. A trailer may use multiple, but usually one will be dominant.


Definition: Authorial trailers focus on the author’s popularity and reputation. The trailer stresses the author’s fame, expertise, skill and/or previous published work. These books are often asked for by the author’s name rather than the title.

This approach has several advantages for both the author and book trailer viewers. The trailer relies on and helps to build the author’s credibility. It enables him/her to capitalize on past successes and contribute to building a writer’s platform. The book trailer may help to add appeal for agents, editors and/or publishing firms who may take an interest in this or future work by the same author.

With non-fiction, the author may already be considered an expert in his/her field, which will carry weight toward the viewers buying the book – and if not, the book and trailer will help to establish that standing. In the case of fiction, if viewers liked a previous novel by this author, they are likely to purchase a new book by the same person.

The authorial approach applies to both fiction and non-fiction. Trailers that illustrate this approach:

  • Inferno – Dan Brown – This 25-second teaser video is a pure authorial approach trailer. It relies on Dan Brown’s reputation and name recognition. If the viewer is a Dan Brown fan, then knowing there is a new book by him called Inferno is enough. If the viewer does not know Dan Brown or did not like his last book, then there is nothing to entice the viewer to get more information. The total trailer narrative is “From the bestselling author of The Da Vinci Code… Dan Brown… Inferno. One Hell of a Read.” There were no longer-length trailers for Inferno made.
  • An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Chris Hadfield – This is a humorous (2:22) trailer for Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s book. I can imagine people asking for the astronaut book at the store. The Hadfield trailer uses an authorial approach with humour, showing an astronaut in his spacesuit trying to do everyday things on earth, in contrast to the book content, which involves everyday things in space. Unlike Inferno, this trailer uses Hadfield’s popularity, but also builds a case for viewers who are not Canadian and may not know who Chris is.



Definition: Character approach trailers focus on and generate interest through one character, usually the protagonist, often to the exclusion of any other element of the book such as plot. When you watch the example trailers below, there is no discussion of anything but the character. A nice advantage is that the trailer can work for a series of books. Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black trailer was modified after the second book came out to show both books. No other change was made to the trailer, as Miriam Black is the protagonist in both books.

In the case of literary fiction, which is often character centred, this approach may work best, especially if the character focused on is intriguing, iconic or relatable in some way.

The character approach is used in both fiction and non-fiction, but more commonly in fiction.

Trailers that illustrate this approach: Ghostman and Blackbirds/Mockingbird are pure character trailers, as there is no mention of the plot line, situation or challenge.

  • Ghostman – Roger Hobbs – This 56-second trailer is cinematic in appearance, but focuses purely on the antagonist. It never mentions the plot, setting, situation or challenge. The trailer creates an atmosphere of intrigue and wonder about the main character.
  • Blackbirds & Mockingbird – Chuck Wendig – This Mini-Radio Drama trailer uses a story written just for the trailer to introduce the main character, Miriam Black. The other character in the trailer dies in the end, so is used in this trailer only to interact with and illustrate Miriam as a character. Like Ghostman, no mention is made of setting, plot or challenge.



Definition: A cinematic approach is visual and creates a movie-like experience, i.e. the cinema. Cinematic trailers often present acted-out, movie-like scenes. A key challenge with cinematic trailers is if they are not well done, they come across as cheesy. At the opposite end of the spectrum, cinematic trailers that are too slick can leave viewers wondering where they can see the movie rather than how they can get the book.

Well-done cinematic trailers can be used not only to promote a book, but also to show its potential as a movie script. A cinematic trailer can go a bit longer than videos done with the other approaches, but be careful – if too long, it can come off as a movie trailer. The cinematic trailer usually costs more than the others.

The cinematic approach applies to both fiction and non-fiction. Trailers that illustrate this approach:

  • The Whipping Club – Deborah Henry – This (3:26) trailer is custom video using a select scene from the book to set the plot line. The risk with such a movie-like approach is the viewer asks, where can I see the movie? rather than where can I buy the book?
  • The Bleeding Land – Giles Kristian – This (1:09) cinematic trailer works on three levels, with one scene the loading and shooting of the musket, while an audio voiceover scene is a parliamentary meeting discussion. On-screen titles present praise and setting.
  • Monument 14 – Savage Drift – Emmy Laybourne – This (1:43) trailer promotes both the book and upcoming movie. It feels more like a movie trailer than a book trailer, including the use of CGI attack scenes at the beginning.



Definition: Defining cool is like defining obscenity – tough to define, but I know it when I see it. As I discover a cool trailer, I can feel a smile form on my face. Interestingly enough, cool does not equate to expensive to produce. Cool comes more from unusual and new.

Originally, people were cool if they remained calm under stress. What is cool can be very age specific. Cool to a teenager is something their peers accept, but their parents reject. Winning is cool, but winning at all costs is not. Cool does not conform, is not predictable and takes reasonable risks.

Applies to both fiction and non-fiction. Trailers that illustrate this approach:

  • Bookmans does Book Dominoes – This (0:47) bookstore trailer is not only cool, but also illustrates you do not have to spend a lot of money to create an effective trailer. While the trailer took many hours to set up and create, the shooting and editing are simple.
  • Where Good Ideas Come From – Steven Johnson – This (4:07) non-fiction trailer uses an unusual white board approach to create a complex chart demonstrating the book’s content.



Definition: A documentary film is one that is factual, dramatic and usually presents a point-of-view. A book trailer using the documentary approach is the same. These books often fall into the category of biography, history or autobiography.

Applies to non-fiction. Trailers that illustrate this approach:

  • Hooked: When Addiction Hits Home – This (1:28) trailer documents life with an addicted parent or sibling. It focuses on coping and surviving others’ addictions.
  • Hotels, Hospitals and Jails by Anthony Swofford – This (2:02) trailer is Anthony Swofford’s memoir, his spiral down to crisis and the decision to do road trips with his father in his motor home.



Definition: An emotional trailer tugs at your heartstrings. When used, it is usually the dominant approach.

The example trailers are both powerful and emotional like a swift kick in the gut. Room starts innocently enough but it becomes evident how bad the situation is. To This Day starts out hard and never lets up.

Applies to both fiction and non-fiction. Trailers that illustrate this approach:

  • Room – Emma Donoghue – This (2:15) trailer is about a woman and her child held in a small basement room for seven years. This powerful trailer uses a child narrator and animation to introduce a tough subject as seen through the child’s point-of-view.
  • To This Day by Shane Koyczan – This (1:46) trailer is based on a slam poem by Shane Koyczan, who performed at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics. The message is delivered like a swift kick to the gut. Powerful trailer.



Definition: A humorous approach trailer aims to provoke laughter, provide amusement or perhaps even evoke a snicker. Many humorous trailers use misdirection, but misdirection is also its own approach. Misdirection does not always mean humorous. There is a danger in using humour, as people may take offence. Granted, they are probably not in your target audience, but don’t be surprised if some don’t like it.

Applies to both fiction and non-fiction. Humour is a popular approach. In these examples, the humour supports the theme of the book. Trailers that illustrate this approach:

  • Gangsta Granny – David Walliams – This (0:39) animated trailer is about a children’s book with a quirky granny as the gangster.
  • It’s a Book – Lane Smith – This (1:02) animated trailer explains the concept of a ‘book’ to a tech-savvy character.
  • Schrödinger’s Caterpillar – Zane Stumpo – This (2:30) humorous animated trailer was created by the author. Love the hook “A stupid book for brainy people.”



Definition: An informational trailer teaches. It introduces a topic such as a time/era.

Could apply to fiction, but more common in non-fiction. Trailers that illustrate this approach:

  • Where Good Ideas Come From – Steven Johnson spends four minutes educating the viewer to generate interest in wanting to know more.
  • Neil Flambé – Kevin Sylvester – This (2:07) trailer is a tutorial on how to draw the main character of the series Neil Flambé.



Definition: Google defines literary as “concerning the writing, study, or content of literature, especially of the kind valued for quality of form.” Basically, a literary trailer is about a literary book. As the focus of such a book is quality of form, the trailer has a refined feel to it.

Could apply to non-fiction, but more common in fiction. Trailers that illustrate this approach:

  • Living Underground – Ruth E. Walker – This (1:34) trailer is literary. It spends much of the beginning informing the viewer of life in the 60/70’s.


Mini-radio Drama

Definition: Radio Dramas are audio programs. While not popular anymore on the radio, they are an effective approach to a book trailer. A Mini-radio Drama could stand on its own as pure audio. The key is the audio portion of the trailer. The visuals support the story, but the audio is the driving force. A key advantage is that a lot of information can be packed in the minute of audio vs. screen titles. Also, the cost of production is not as expensive as cinematic. Mini-radio drama has many of the advantages of cinematic, but is easier and less costly to produce.

Applies to fiction and non-fiction. An audio non-fiction would be a documentary or instructional. Trailers that illustrate this approach:

  • Blackbirds & Mockingbird – This (2:31) trailer shows Miriam’s talent via a two-minute radio-like drama. I contacted the author, Chuck Wendig, and he confirmed that the story was made up just for the trailer. The story introduces us to Miriam, “eyes like hot coals, hair like she French kissed a car battery… My name is Miriam Black and I bet you $50 I can tell you how you’re gonna die.” The story continues. The second character is irrelevant to the books, as he is dead by the trailer’s end.
  • To This Day by Shane Koyczan – This (1:46) trailer is based on a slam poem by Shane Koyczan, who performed at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics. While the visuals support the narration, the audio could stand on its own. The audio is the driving force.



Definition: A misdirection trailer leads you in one direction, then does an about-face. Often, this results in humour. The term misdirection originally came from magic. The idea is to get the viewer to focus on one hand while the switch is made with the other. In humour, it is leading the audience to believe they understand what is happening and where it is going, then reveal the error and turn the action a surprising direction.

Applies to both fiction and non-fiction. I love misdirection trailers. Two of my favourite examples are:

  • Shark vs Train – Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenheld – This (1:02) trailer starts like a serious adult work, then presents the preposterous conflict.
  • Kill You Twice – Chelsea Cain – This (0:31) trailer plays on the title with a visual and twist-of-phrase gag.



Definition: For a trailer to be off-the-wall, it has to be different. It may be humorous, but the stronger trait is uniqueness.

Applies to both fiction and non-fiction. Trailers that illustrate this approach:

  • Buying Cigarettes for the Dog – Stuart Ross – Even though this (0:44) trailer fails to provide a directive impacting its effectiveness, it is definitely off the wall. The trailer was listed first in a Huffington Post article on the Best/Worst book trailers. As a result, it received thousands of views. 
  • A is for Angelica – Iain Broome – This (1:35) trailer is also off the wall. I think it would be punchier is limited to 1:00 in length.
  • Schrödinger’s Caterpillar – Zane Stumpo – This (2:30) humorous animated trailer was created completely by the author. Love the hook “A stupid book for brainy people.”


Plot Line

Definition: Plot line is by far the most common approach. A plot-line approach trailer sets up the plot. The goal is not to summarize the plot; it is not a plot synopsis.

In a book trailer, introduce the characters/setting and sometimes the ordinary world and the conflict or problem to create interest. Basically, show the setting, characters and problem. A trailer may focus on one to the exclusion of others. If only a character is profiled, this becomes a “character” approach. A plot line approach must present more. The hook is usually how will the protagonist solve the problem?

Ordinary World – the norms and rules of the world. If the story is set in a dystopia, fantasy or paranormal world, then the reader needs to be educated in what a typical day is like. These trailers often spend significant time establishing the norms. While this would be classified as a plot-line approach, the plot may not be revealed. It may be more ordinary world than the act-one crisis.

To quote L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between (1953) “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” For authors of historical fiction, it is important to ensure your viewer understands the trailer plot or hook. Ordinary world may be important to enlighten on the norms of that time and era.

Applies to fiction.

Plot line is the most common approach used in book trailers. Most plot-line trailers focus on the ordinary world aspect. Trailers that illustrate this approach:

  • Midnight Crossroad – Charlaine Harris – Most of the (1:41) trailer is spent describing the ordinary world – a day in the life of Midnight, Texas. I love when the population sign changes from 84 to 83, hinting of a disappearance.
  • Time Snatchers – Richard Ungar – The (1:00) teen trailer sets up an Oliver Twist scenario with time travel. The focus is the ordinary world, then goes on to the challenge.
  • Uglies – Scott Westerfeld – The (0:51) YA trailer presents the offer “We will make you pretty, you will be pretty” and then “you will be ours,” hinting of the crisis. Tight strong setup for the ordinary world.



Definition: A reputation trailer focuses on the reputation of the author, institution or brand of the book. The reputation can be of the:

  • Author’s prior fictional work
  • Author’s non-fiction expertise or experiences
  • Institution
  • Book brand (Example: Dummies brand)

Applies to fiction and non-fiction. Trailers that illustrate this approach:



Definition: A serial approach trailer is a series of trailers released on a schedule. Like the old Buck Rogers serial films of the 1930’s, which were released on a regular basis, each episode ends in some cliff-hanger.

Could apply to non-fiction, but I have seen it used only in fiction. Trailers that illustrate this approach:

  • The 5th Wave – Rick Yancey – The 5th Wave is an excellent example of a serial trailer. The first trailer introduces the first wave of the conquest, the second trailer the second wave and so on through four. The 5th wave is answered in the book. The series was released on a weekly basis to gain exposure. A regular schedule is important so that users know when to return for more.



Definition: Targeted at a specific skill level.

  • Beginner
  • Advanced

Applies to non-fiction where the expectation is to learn. Trailers that illustrate this approach:



Definition: What is the book about?

Applies to non-fiction. Trailers that illustrate this approach:

  • Bones Never Lie – Elizabeth MacLeod – Modern forensics help to solve history’s mysteries.
  • Rollin White Thesis – Michael Helms – This trailer was created to summarize a university thesis.


Age Specific – Teen/Children

Definition: The trailer is aimed at a specific age group. The word teen is used in a generic sense to refer to non-adult/non-child audience books including young adult. Specific age group audiences affect the trailer design including age-appropriate content, as well as intensity and tone. Applies to both fiction and non-fiction.



Everyone wants the viral video that millions view and CNN reports on. It is an advertiser’s dream, but creating a viral trailer is hard to do. It must include something interesting that has never been seen before. A second version of a viral video never goes viral. Been there, seen that.

Viral tends to use humour, misdirection, off-the-wall or serial.

For non-fiction books, an extreme advice approach can work as illustrated by Canon vs. Nikon.

Check out Bookmans Does Book Dominoes  for a fun bookstore video that was not expensive to make, yet has over 285,000 views.

A major factor in the selection of an approach is whether the goal of the trailer is to be viral. Let’s look at characteristics of a viral video.

    • Extreme
    • Completely unexpected, surprising, unique and unforgettable
    • Usually 30 to 90 seconds, but there are viral videos that are over an hour with many millions of views
    • Universal appeal, relatable
    • Evoke strong emotional response

So if I shoot a trailer with these characteristics, will it definitely go viral? No. These are just common traits.


Types of Viral Videos

    • Right place, right time – Extreme coincidence
    • Extreme – stunt – talent – high risk – intense
    • Extreme stupidity – usually featuring a young man
    • Extreme emotion (Sainsbury’s Christmas 2014 Ad)
    • Expert advice (Canon vs. Nikon)
    • Extreme humour