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The only guide to writing a logline you’ll ever need – Part Three!

Welcome to the third and final part of a series of posts about how to write a logline. Whether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay, a logline is an important marketing tool. But with a little practice, anyone can create the perfect logline

Let’s go over what we’ve learned so far (and if you haven’t yet, I’d encourage you to read parts One and Two of this guide):

What is a logline?

A logline is a one or two sentence pitch for your story. 

What is a logline not?

A logline is not a tagline or a teaser. It summarizes the essential elements of the story so that someone can see at a glance what the story is about and whether it is marketable.

What does a logline contain?

A good logline contains as many of the following as possible:

A great TITLE. The GENRE. A HOOK with IRONY. The HERO. The CATALYST. The CHALLENGE the Hero must face. The Hero’s JOURNEY. The ARENA.

Last time we covered what constitutes as great title, how to signpost your genre, what is a Hook, and the importance of a central Hero.

Now for the difficult part!

CATALYST

The next ingredient in our perfect logline recipe is the CATALYST.

In Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT, the catalyst is referred to as the incident that sets the story in motion.

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s not necessary to reveal all three, but the story must begin somewhere. This is the Catalyst. This moment usually occurs about 10 to 12 minutes into the film. For instance, the catalyst in “Star Wars”, the catalyst is Luke Skywalker discovering the secret tapes held by R2D2. It is this incident which sets the story in motion, as Luke then begins his journey to join the Rebellion. So the Catalyst is Luke joining the Rebellion.

Here is what I’ve noticed: most loglines fail because they are too VAGUE. Authors don’t want to give up the main plot points of their story. Tey want to generate enthusiasm and excitement by not giving the game away.

That is a mistake.

The excitement is in the writing. Not the logline. The logline is a selling tool.  Remember when I said it’s not a Teaser or a Trailer? People need a logline to see if the script is their kind of thing. You don’t have to generate the same amount of page-turning excitement that is in your script. Just focus on getting the essentials down.

For example, here’s my own unproduced “Demophobia” script logline again:

A man with a phobia of people must search a crime-infested city for his missing girlfriend, only to come into conflict with a mysterious entity controlling the homeless population.

Okay. We have a hero. We also have Irony. But what’s the catalyst? His girlfriend is missing. This may be the thing that kicks off the story. But it’s weak. She’s already missing when the story starts? A weak catalyst indicates a weak structure.

I revised this and came up with the following:

When his girlfriend goes missing following a clinical drugs trial, a man with a phobia of people searches for her in a crime-infested city, only to come into conflict with a mysterious entity that controls the homeless population.

It’s not quite “Liar Liar”, but it’s at least a little better. We know that the catalyst is when his girlfriend goes missing. We also get more of a sense of the genre. The drugs and the mysterious entity indicate this may be science-fiction or horror.

CHALLENGE

Again, most weak loglines omit this. You can’t afford to dance around this issue, as it is the main conflict in your screenplay. It is the struggle the hero faces.

For instance, in “The Poseidon Adventure” the challenge is that the ship is sinking.

Here’s a logline for the movie “Predator”:

“A team of commandos on a mission in the Central American jungle find themselves stalked by an invisible alien hunter.”

How’s that for a challenge?

If your logline doesn’t have a central conflict, chances are your story is weak. This may be because the hero doesn’t have a strong enough GOAL. A lot of scripts and novels have a hero who wanders around without taking charge and pushing the action forward.

So how’s my “Demophobia” logline shaping up?

When his girlfriend goes missing following a clinical drugs trial, a man with a phobia of people searches a crime-infested city for her, only to find that a mysterious entity controlling the homeless population is out to stop him.

Hmm. It has a challenge and conflict. It’s not terrible.  It also has something else going for it:

THE HERO’S JOURNEY.

A movie sets up a promise to the audience. Sometimes this is inherent in the GENRE. Sometimes it’s obvious in the hero’s FLAW.

Audiences are smart these days. They watch a lot of movies. If you set up a hero with a huge flaw (for instance, that he’s a compulsive liar) the audience expects that by the end of the movie he’s going to learn that lying is sometimes bad. You can imply a lot, so you don’t necessarily need to spell this one out.

Improve your logline by hinting at the hero’s TRANSFORMATION – the inner journey he goes on. Here’s where you can even use your logline top improve your script – you can tailor the challenges to suit the FLAW.

For instance, to use my own example of “Demophobia”, the hero has a phobia of people. But he’s forced to go out of his comfort zone into a city and come into conflict with the entire homeless population.  Chances are that by the end of this ordeal he’ll either be a basket case or he’ll have shaken off his phobia off people.

By now you may have realized that the Hero’s Journey stems from the Challenge which forces him to overcome his Flaw.

FLAW + CHALLENGE = HERO’S JOURNEY

For instance, at the end of “Liar Liar”, the challenges that lying attorney Jim Carrey will face are going to show him how he can win the day by being truthful. That is his Hero’s Journey.

ARENA

Sometimes a story can grab a producer’s attention if it involves a setting, group, society, place, or occupation we’ve never seen before. “Top Gun”, for instance, is set in the exciting world of the  USAF’s flight school.

You can also tweak the arena to better suit your story.

To use my “Demophobia” example again, the city is a place full of people – exactly the opposite of where someone with a phobia of crowds would want to hang out. I may have overdone it with having a “crime-infested” city. Sure, cities have crime.  But this seems a little irrelevant to the rest of the logline. But I’ll stick with it for now as it conveys the kind of  intense experience he’s going to face when he sets foot in there.

BONUS POINTS – ANTAGONIST

Sometimes you can add a little spice to your logline if you have an exceptionally cool villain. For instance, the invisible alien hunter in “Predator”. Or how about the great white shark in “Jaws”? A character is only as good as he opponent she is facing, so if you have an unkillable cyborg from the future, you may also want to mention it here. Remember, the aim of the logline is to SELL. If you have something UNIQUE in your story, whatever it is, don’t omit it.

So to wrap things up, here’s our all-singing, all-dancing logline formula:

HERO + IRONY + CATAYST + (FLAW + CHALLENGE = HERO’S JOURNEY) + ARENA (+ ANTAGONIST) = SALE!

 

NOW SIMPLIFY…

If your logline contains all these elements, chances are it’s still not ready for the world.

Why? Because it’s probably too complicated.

It can be very hard to distill 110 pages into one or two sentences, especially if you’re emotionally invested in the story. This is why I recommend doing nothing.

Nothing?

Yes.

Nothing.

Let it sit. Give yourself time to drift away from the story and forget about it. Come back with a fresh vision. Once you are objective, you are in a better place to examine whether or not the logline conveys everything you want it to convey.

For instance, in my logline, do we really need so many adjectives? Do we need the homeless people? Sure, they are a major part of the script. But we’re trying to boil the story down to its  bare essence.

Another thing to remember is that you can go too far in paring things down. You have to give the reader the bare concept, but with enough specifics so that it doesn’t become just another Tagline or Teaser.

This takes time. But the more time you put into your marketing materials the better your chances of success. Remember, you only have ONE CHANCE to make a good impression. That industry pro will not take a second look at the same logline. So make that first time count.

And finally…

Here’s the latest version of my own logline for “Demophobia”:

After his girlfriend goes missing following a clinical drugs trial, an artist with a phobia of people searches the city for her, only to find that a mysterious entity that can leap from body to body is out to stop him at all costs. 

 

What do you think?

(Let me know if you think I’ve left something out!)

 

…ONE LAST WORD

By now you are probably sick to death of loglines.

Good. You are now less likely to send it out before it’s polished to diamond hardness. Put the script in a drawer for a week, then come back and take another look at that logline.

It’s amazing what a different time makes, isn’t it?

You should now know what makes up a successful logline. However, your logline is only as strong as your story. If your logline is weak, it may be that your story is weak. In that case, use your logline to improve your story.

One last thing to bear in mind, is that nobody is perfect. Some of the above loglines lack some elements. “Predator” lacks a hero with a journey. Arnie at the start of the film is Arnie at the end of the film. “The Poseidon Adventure” lacks a central hero, but makes up for it by having a terrific arena and unique challenges.

The point is, you can make up for deficiencies in one aspect by having something else that is truly great. So don’t get all paranoid about loglines to the point where you’re too paralyzed to write. Just ask yourself if your logline contains enough of the above elements to hook whoever it is you’re pitching to.

I hope this guide improves your loglines. And don’t forget, above all else, have fun!

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The only guide to writing a logline you’ll ever need – Part One

Do you want to know how to write a logline? Do you even know what loglines are? Chances are, if you’re an aspiring screenwriting you will have heard of them. But even prose fiction writers and novelists can use loglines.

The ability to write a logline is one of the most important skills you can learn as a writer. Having used them with a pretty good success rate, I thought I would share with you my observations on how to create a compelling, marketable logline. That’s why this post is longer than normal. In fact, it comes in three parts.

Here is the first…

WHY USE LOGLINES?

Loglines evolved out of the old Hollywood practice of studios and producers asking writers to pitch them their story in 25 seconds or less. Nowadays, loglines are used to SAVE TIME. This is the major concern of most professionals. In Hollywood, time is severely limited.

A logline is a powerful selling tool

A logline is usually the first thing a potential buyer of a (TV or film) script or novel looks for. It tells them whether or not they wish to read the entire work.  So the better your logline, the better your chance of getting your movie made, your script sold, your book published etc. etc.

As nobody has any time to read in Hollywood, it can also tell someone whether they want to buy it!

It also shows the decision-maker how they may be able to sell it to others (including collaborators and studios).

Finally, a logline is a good indicator of the writer’s skill level. If he or she can’t stitch together a decent logline, they’re probably an amateur.

All this from two sentences max!

You would think that people would take more time of something so important. However, about 98% of all loglines are poor. Most are terrible!

This means that by taking the time to craft a compelling, marketable logline, you can instantly rise above 98% of everyone else out there who is clamouring for attention. A good logline can show a producer, agent, publisher, or manger that you are professional enough for them to invest at least a little more time in you.

The good news?

Loglines are easy!

In it’s simplest form, the logline is a one or two sentence pitch for your story. 

Look at the TV guide. You will see dozens of loglines. They are a BRIEF summary of the film. Something that helps you decide if you want to commit to watching the whole thing.

If they can do it, you can too!

As with most things except particle physics, the more you practice, the easier it becomes. And loglines have another purpose. They can be your guide as you create and rewrite your script or novel from initial concept to finished screenplay or manuscript.

WHAT ARE LOGLINES NOT?

i) TAGLINES

Look on IMDB.com and you will see taglines for many movies. For instance, the famous tagline for JAWS 2 is “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…”

It’s a great tagline, but it’s not a logline. It reveals nothing about the story.

A great tagline is almost a dare to go see the movie.

Here’s another: “Whoever wins… We Lose.” (Aliens vs Predator)

Great tagline. Tells you absolutely nothing about the film.

So why use them? Well, posters and other marketing materials such as TV spots and trailers should have already clued the audience in as to what the movie is about. The poster for Jaws makes it pretty obvious what is going to happen in this movie. It’s about a killer shark. A logline doesn’t have that. It’s the sprinkles on the icing on top of the cake.

A logline must be SELF-CONTAINED.

ii) TEASERS

Too many times I see loglines that hint at the story… loglines that say ; “If you just read this mysterious script you will eventually figure out what is going on. But as the writer, I created this mystery, so I want to tease you and incite your curiosity without giving away the bast part.”

Wrong.

A logline is not a teaser. You need to reveal the WHOLE STORY. By that, I mean the ESSENCE of the concept and the plot.

Can we see what the movie is going to be about just form the logline? If not, the logline is not working.

For instance, here’s the first draft of a logline I worked on for a script I wrote called DEMOPHOBIA.

A man with a phobia of people must search a crime-infested city for his missing girlfriend, only to come into conflict with a mysterious entity controlling the homeless population.

What do you think?

Here’s what I think.

It’s too vague. What is the “mysterious entity”? And how is it connected to the search for the girlfriend? It’s a mystery, right? Therein lies the problem. What is a producer going to think when he or she reads that? Probably: “What the hell is this story about?”

Does it tell them what to expect? Is this a comedy or a horror? Is it big or low budget? What is the mystery about?

It’s not just a tagline; there’s at least a hint of story there. But nor is it a fully developed logline.

iii) THE MOVIE CROSS

This is sometimes used in addition to a logline. However, you still your basic logline. Otherwise it tells the listener nothing about the story. Sure, it may “The Graduate” meets “The Matrix”. But what is it about?

Nevertheless, some people find them useful.

For me, it has pros and cons.

The pros are that Hollywood always loves a remake, reboot, or whatever you call it. It gives the decision-maker an excuse if things go south. “But Ghostbusters was a massive hit, so how was I to know a film about a team of dedicated fairy hunters wouldn’t work?” etc etc.

The cons are that you have to get it right.

Choose a movie that didn’t do well, and you’re sunk. Also, the movies you choose must be the same genre/tone to your own. And at least one must be recent. By that I mean it was produced in the last year. This could be tricky if your movie breaks new ground (unlikely) or if you choose a movie that gives a false impression about your script (more likely).

There is no right or wrong answer. It’s a judgement call. I’ve used it, sometimes to great effect, sometimes not. For instance, I pitched my “Demophobia” script as “It’s Inception meets Scanners” to mixed results.

You may have heard that “Alien” was pitched as “Jaws in Space”. Great story. But I would watch out for anecdotal evidence. Ridley Scott was famous for being a commercials director. You are not… unless you are, in which case, go ahead!

SO WHAT IS A LOGLINE, REALLY?

So far we’ve covered the basics. What is a logline used for? What is a logline not? We’ve discovered that vague or incomplete loglines do not work. We’ve discussed the merits and perils of the dreaded Movie Cross.

But how do I write the perfect logline, I hear you scream?

In the next post, I will answer that question…

How to Write Loglines – an actually useful guide

Want to know how to write effective loglines for movies and books? Read on!

INTRODUCTION

There has been so much written on the subject of writing loglines that I thought it was about time I added my tupppence (or two cents, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on) to the debate.

Let’s start with the basics:

1. WHAT IS A “LOGLINE”?

A logline can apply to both novels and screenplays for movies. They are generally short, punchy descriptions of the plot (i.e. the thing your story is about). Editors, agents, producers and assorted other people often ask for a logline when they are deciding whether to buy or represent your work.

Interestingly, neither Robert McKee in his lauded book “Story” nor William Goldman in his seminal essay “Adventures in the Screen Trade” mention what a logline is. Yet I would argue that is one of the most essential tools the screenwriter or novelist has at his or her disposal. In fact, it is an essential skill to master.

One thing a logline is not is that thing you see on movie posters. This is in fact a “tagline”. Tagllines are very short (usually one sentence, or sometimes less!) statements used to entice someone into watching a movie.

An example of a tagline:

“In space, no-one can hear you scream” (Alien)

While this is a great tagline, note that it tells us nothing about what is going on (other than it’s in space, and you’re likely to scream).

A logline is more sophisticated and tells us more about the story.

For example:

“A psychopath escapes from an asylum and slashes his way through a quiet suburban neighbourhood until he is defeated by a bookish young woman” (Halloween).

Okay, so it’s not poetry. But you get the picture.

 

 

2. WHY THE HELL DO I NEED A LOGLINE ANYWAY?

But Eric, you say, why should I distil my 100,000 word novel or my 120 pages screenplay, work of genius that it is, into a single sentence?

The answer: a logline is a selling tool.

Loglines allow you to “pitch” (i.e. tell) someone about your story in a very short space of time. And when you’re dealing with producers, agents and executives who can only spare you less than a minute, this becomes important.

Of course, if you’re happy just writing and never selling anything, loglines probably won’t apply to you. Good luck on your chosen career path. Some of us have to eat.

A good logline can make someone sit up in their seat and pay attention. It can entertain, move and arouse curiosity in the listener. And it can delay that moment when they start yawning or hang up.

 

3.  OKAY, SMARTYPANTS. WHAT IS A GOOD LOGLINE MADE UP OF?

Opinions abound on this.

In his excellent guide “Raindance Writers Lab: Write and Sell the Hot Script”, Elliott Grove suggests that you first come up with a “basic premise”. This, to me, is a logline: a 25 words or less summary of the plot.

A rule of thumb is, the shorter the logline, the higher the concept.

High concept is what sells in Hollywood (although other types of film also sell). What is a high concept? Basically, something that’s real easy to sell.

In “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder (a book no screenwriter should be without)  the author says that a killer logline should include the following:

– Irony

– A compelling mental picture

– An idea of audience and cost

– A killer title

Let’s investigate:

Irony

What is Irony? In the film “Borat” , Sascha Baron Cohen in his alter ego of the Khazakstanian ambassador to the USA, interviews a real-life professor of comedy. When the Professor tries to explain a joke to him, Borat deliberately gets the wrong end of the stick repeatedly. This goes on for some time until it becomes very funny. Everyone but the Professor of comedy, who is paid to understand humour, gets the joke. That is irony.

An example of irony in a logline would be: “A lawyer is forced to tell the truth for 24 hours after his son makes a birthday wish ” (Liar Liar).

The other elements are all important. A title is essential to help your movie stand out from the crowd. A sense of scale and budget will help others to decide whether to invest (is it “The Blair Witch Project” or “Avatar”?) .

However, there are basic elements I think this definition leaves out.

The easiest way to analyse what makes a good logline is to look at one.

Here are two examples:

“A police chief with a phobia of the sea must kill a giant shark but faces opposition from the local mayor who demands that the beaches stay open” (Jaws).

“A naive farmboy on a distant planet learns that he is actually the son of a legendary warrior and sets out to rescue a princess from an evil galactic empire”. (Star Wars).

Here we can see irony at work. The police chief is afraid of the water but must fight a shark. The farmboy is naive but must somehow defeat a whole army.

But there is more than just irony in a logline. Looking at our examples, here are some common elements:

A PROTAGONIST in an IRONIC SITUATION must overcome an OBSTACLE to achieve a GOAL in an ARENA.

Tackling “Jaws” first:

“A police chief [PROTAGONIST] with a phobia of the sea [IRONY] must kill a giant shark [GOAL ] but faces opposition from the local mayor [OBSTACLE ] who demands that the beaches stay open [ARENA]”.

The ARENA is the environment the story takes place in. This could be a location (a distant planet), a particular organisation (for example, the mafia), or even within the family unit (see “Ordinary People” for an example).

Sometimes the ARENA will be implicit. Other times you will have to spell it out. But the logline should give a sense of this.

Note that the OBSTACLE may be the same as the ANTAGONIST, or it may not. In “Jaws”, you may think the antagonist is the shark. But in fact it is the local mayor who opposes Brody’s shark safety measures. Killing the shark is the GOAL.

In “Star Wars” the antagonist is Darth Vader (or Grand Moff Tarkin to be precise). But in fact the whole Empire is what poses the problem.

The point is, the OBSTACLE is a fluid concept, depending upon how you craft your logline. But I believe there is an optimum balance to be achieved for maximum effect.

Here is another example that shows the flexibility of the logline concept:

“A young man and woman from different ends of the social spectrum fall in love aboard an ill-fated ocean liner.” (Titanic)

Breaking it down:

“A young man and woman [PROTAGONIST] from different ends of the social spectrum [OBSTACLE] fall in love [GOAL] aboard an ill-fated ocean liner [ARENA and IRONY].”

Note that it is the young woman who is the protagonist. More on that in another post. But the story is always about ONE PERSON’s journey. Unless it’s an ensemble film. Which just goes to show that William Goldman was right when he said “Nobody knows anything”!

One more for the road:

“A loyal Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by an insane Emperor and returns to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge” (Gladiator)

Here’s the breakdown:

“A loyal Roman general [PROTAGONIST] is betrayed [IRONY] and his family murdered by an insane Emperor and returns to Rome as a gladiator [OBSTACLE and ARENA (literally!)] to seek revenge [GOAL]”.

Note also that sometimes it is the Protagonist’s FLAW which provides the irony (such as the farmboy being naive in “Star Wars” or the police chief with a phobia off the sea in “Jaws”). Other times it is the entire situation which is ironic, such as the loyal Roman general who is enslaved and betrayed by his own Emperor. Again, it’s a flexible concept.

The important thing is not to get hung up on the details but to check all the boxes.

One last thing. It may be worth your while to develop the logline BEFORE you write the script, as this way you can build a story that has the strongest foundations possible.

IN SUMMARY

So there you have it:

PROTAGONIST + IRONIC SITUATION + OBSTACLE + GOAL + ARENA

Not necessarily that order!

Have fun with loglines. You will probably take quite a few goes to build the best logline for your story. But the rewards are worth it. A logline is the PRIMARY selling tool. Once you practice it, you will surprised at the results.