THE ONLY QUESTION THAT MATTERS
When you’re selling a story (or trying to), there’s one thing everyone wants to know. To find out, they will ask you a simple question. And they will pre-judge your tale not on its merits, but on the answer you provide.
Before we get to the question itself, find a stopwatch. If you don’t have a “real” one (or a cool cell phone) handy, bring up a virtual stopwatch online. Either way, hit START the second you’ve finished reading the question below. Do not hit STOP until you’ve answered the question—out loud—to the best of your ability. (For a more accurate evaluation, have someone else ask the question and time your answer.) And here…we…go.
What’s your story about?
Ticktickticktick. Did your answer require more than 10 seconds? Did you hesitate or fumble? If so, you need a logline. Did you explain who your main character is, what he or she wants, and what keeps them from getting whatever-it-is they want? If not, you need a logline.
In fact—you need a logline, period. Everyone does. Because if you blow the answer to that question, nothing else matters: few (if any) industry professionals will read your story. This is so for several reasons.
First and foremost, the people who represent and purchase books and screenplays are incredibly busy. They need a way to decide which stories are worth a closer look, and which are not—without actually taking the time to read those stories.
They also need a way to get stories across to other busy people—quickly. And, finally, they have to market the stories they buy to a public besieged by the marketing machines of a thousand competitors.
This is where the logline comes into play.
And so it follows that few things are more useful than a good logline. It will keep you focused as you write (or revise) your story, and it will persuade complete strangers—agents, managers, editors and production executives—to read your book, screenplay, or whatever it is you’ve got. A bad logline, on the other hand, will make you and your tale less welcome than a circus clown at a graveside eulogy.
A great logline can get a terrible story read (or partially read), and a terrible (or average) logline can get the best story in the world round-filed before a single page has been turned. It’s that important. It’s also expected—so you don’t really have the option to ignore this.
The logline has but a single purpose: to convey the most essential elements of your story concisely, imaginatively, and smoothly.
To be effective, the logline must convey three things: WHO the story is about, what they want (their GOAL), and what stands in their way (the OBSTACLE). That’s it. No long-winded explanations, no secondary characters, no subplots, no character names (which would mean nothing at this point, unless they’re historical figures). Your story, reduced to its most basic elements: character (WHO) and conflict (which results from the character’s efforts to overcome the OBSTACLE and reach their GOAL).
A doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife escapes custody and struggles to prove his innocence while being pursued by a relentless U.S. Marshal.
This, of course, is The Fugitive—in 24 words. WHO: A doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife. GOAL: Prove his innocence. OBSTACLE: A relentless U.S. Marshal. Short, sweet, simple. Still, it could be better:
A fugitive doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife struggles to prove his innocence while pursued by a relentless U.S. Marshal.
Smoother. Faster. And down to 21 words. Notice that what we dropped—“escapes custody and”—is not WHO, GOAL, or OBSTACLE. That makes it nonessential. Adding the word “fugitive” tells us he’s on the loose, and helps describe our WHO (because escaping after the conviction must have required some ingenuity).
Now let’s dig a little deeper. The fact that he’s been convicted of killing his wife, rather than a stranger, ups the emotional content (always good) and makes things harder on our hero (also good), because now he’s dealing with the loss of his wife as well as the conviction.
The relentless pursuer focuses and (like the dead wife) personalizes the conflict; it’s not just cops in general, but a specific and (again making things harder) “relentless” opponent he must elude.
Using the word “doctor” tells the reader this is not some lowlife criminal who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; this is an intelligent man with a real life that’s been shattered by these events.
Such seemingly small tweaks—doctor, wife, relentless pursuer—help this logline stand out from similar, more generic falsely-accused-man (or woman)-on-the-run pitches. This is the best logline I can write for The Fugitive.
Occasionally, the WHO will be more than one person: a husband and wife, a cop and his partner, a wrecked ship’s crew members. When this happens, state the WHO as briefly as possible, while still conveying (only) the most essential details.
For example: could “husband and wife” be condensed to “couple?” Or “A cop and his partner” to “Two cops?” And how about cutting “A wrecked ship’s crew” back to “A shipwrecked crew?” You get the idea.
Sometimes, the WHO will be a WHAT—as in Toy Story (a toy), WALL-E (a robot), Cars (a race car) and Ratatouille (a rat). In such cases, the WHAT is almost invariably imbued with distinct human personality traits, in order to get the audience relating to the WHAT as if it were a WHO. Which, for all practical purposes, it is.
Once in a great while (unless you’re writing science fiction, in which case this happens more often), a logline will require a SETUP line to explain the unfamiliar world in which the story takes place. Most tales don’t need this, because they take place in the everyday world we all know and live in.
Minority Report is a classic example of a tale that does need a setup. A normal, everyday logline might read like this:
A cop convicted of murder goes on the run to prove his innocence.
Not bad—though not terribly original either. From this, we know WHO our main character is (a cop); we know what he wants, his GOAL (to prove his innocence); and we know what stands in his way, the OBSTACLE (the murder conviction and, by implication (on the run), the criminal justice system.
We do not have the kind of personalized antagonist/obstacle present in the (quite similar) Fugitive logline. While there is such an antagonist here (Lamar), explaining his role would introduce needless complexity to a logline that (as we’ll see) is already more complicated than most.
But, back to the cop convicted of murder going on the run to prove his innocence. Not a bad logline, as far as it goes. But it’s not the whole story, either. In fact, it completely misses this tale’s unique hook—because the murder he’s been convicted of has not yet happened. So let’s drop that into our logline:
A cop convicted of a murder he has not yet committed goes on the run to prove his innocence.
Perfectly accurate—but you see the problem. It’s massively confusing. Because this doesn’t just say he was wrongly convicted; that, at least, would be easy to comprehend. This logline says the offense has not yet been committed. How can anyone, let alone a cop, be convicted of something that hasn’t happened? And how can anyone know it will happen?
The whole thing makes no sense. The reader, knowing only what we tell him, must assume this story takes place in the everyday world. That same reader will then swiftly conclude that we cannot write a coherent sentence, let alone an entire story.
Unless we include a setup line to, well, set up the fictional world of the story: a future society in which captive, drugged psychics foresee crimes (and the people who commit them) before those crimes take place.
Still, that’s a bit too much information for a logline, so let’s reduce it to essentials: a future society where criminals are arrested before their crimes are committed. That’s the concept, without the clutter of supporting details. So let’s saddle up with that and see where it takes us:
In a future where criminals are arrested before their crimes are committed, a cop convicted of a murder he has yet to commit goes on the run to prove his innocence.
Better, but “he has yet to commit” makes this both awkwardly long and repetitive. A quick fix might be:
In a future where criminals are arrested before their crimes are committed, a cop convicted of a future murder goes on the run to prove his innocence.
Better, shorter, smoother—but now “future” repeats. So let’s go back and change the first “future”—giving us:
In a society where criminals are arrested before their crimes are committed, a cop convicted of a future murder goes on the run to prove his innocence.
Wow. That’s a mind-bending logline. The not-bad logline, which then became confusing, now smoothly conveys a radically original concept.
It also raises fascinating questions: how can anyone know what crimes will be committed—and by who—before they happen? And with enough certainty to arrest and convict? And if that vision and that certainty do exist—how can someone (a cop, of all people; talk about irony) be innocent? And if he is innocent, how can he possibly prove it when the crime hasn’t even happened?
That’s a story that begs to be read. Conveyed in a scant 27 words, setup and all.
Probably 95% of the time, the logline should present its three basic elements in this order: WHO-GOAL-OBSTACLE. When a setup line is needed, it should—again 95% of the time—come first. Yielding SETUP-WHO-GOAL-OBSTACLE. As with Minority Report.
ACTIVE NOT PASSIVE
Note the use of words and phrases like struggles, pursued, relentless, and goes on the run. These high-energy choices signify action and drama, propelling the reader forward with a sense of excitement. Contrast these with tries, followed, persistent, and walks around. These are passive, low-energy yawners.
Strive to make your logline active, rather than passive. And don’t be mislead by these action genre examples; this rule holds for all genres, across the board. For example—which of these loglines is more dynamic? This…
A financial executive employs a sex worker during a business trip, finds himself becoming quite fond of her, and explores the possibility of a lasting and meaningful relationship.
An emotionally shuttered Wall Street tycoon hires a vivacious hooker for the week, falls in love, and struggles to forge his first meaningful relationship.
The first is a passively-phrased snoozer, pitching a story that borders on ridiculous. The second is snappier (more active/dynamic: Wall Street tycoon; hooker; falls in love; struggles; forge), plays up the contrast (emotionally shuttered vs. vivacious), and closes with a hint of pathos but also hope for the future (his first meaningful relationship). Not only does it read better—it’s also shorter.
This particular logline brings up another point: many stories and concepts lend themselves to multiple interpretations. One author writes about a Nazi prison camp and pens Schindler’s List. Another writes Hogan’s Heroes. A tale about two people switching identities could wind up Face/Off—or Freaky Friday.
Likewise, the tycoon-and-hooker logline (above) could be drama, or comedy. It can be read either way—and that’s dangerous. Because if you’re pitching A Beautiful Mind, and your target’s hearing The Man With Two Brains—you’re in trouble.
And so if there is any imaginable way for someone to mistake the genre of your logline, tell them what it is, right up front. Not in the logline, but just below the title, like so:
Then go into your logline. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to do this anyway, with every logline you write.
Before getting into the actual construction of a logline, let’s take a moment to explore just what this tool can do for you—aside from helping to market your story.
LOGLINE AS WRITING GUIDE…
As an editor and consultant, I see an endless stream of writers—some of them quite good at the actual writing—whose stories are severely flawed simply because they started writing before they knew what their story was about.
As a result, the story winds up rambling aimlessly. Or being about nothing (or no one) in particular. Or about far too many things (or people) with no clear connection to one another. Invariably, when I ask these writers what their story is about, they have trouble explaining. What I tell them is this:
If you want to keep your story on track during the writing process, work up a logline that accurately reflects the story you want to tell—before you begin writing. Keep this logline in front of you, always.
Each time you think of a new character, event, or other story element, ask yourself: Does this serve my logline, or conflict with it? If the new element doesn’t fit your logline, it doesn’t belong in your story. Period.
When there’s a logline, you can make these cuts yourself, before you’ve gone to the considerable trouble of writing scenes that don’t belong.
Without a logline, you can only make them later, when you’ve got a story that’s not working because half the material you spent hundreds of hours writing shouldn’t be there. That’s assuming someone takes the time to tell you what the problem is, instead of (as usually happens) rejecting the story out of hand.
…AND DIAGNOSTIC TOOL
Of course, if you’ve already written a tale without a clear premise in mind, you’ll have to apply the foregoing advice to your next story. But you can still use the loglining process to diagnose problems with your existing story—and chart a course out of troubled waters.
Do that by using this article to build a logline for the story you already have. (The section below will guide you, step by step.) If you find that, no matter how hard you try, you cannot boil your story down to a brief WHO-GOAL-OBSTACLE statement—a logline—there’s a problem. Which could be that…
Your story lacks a clear focus. You can’t figure out the WHO-GOAL-OBSTACLE pattern because one or more of these elements simply isn’t there. Probably 99.9% of the time, this is the problem.
Your tale could also be logline-resistant. You can’t drag the WHO-GOAL-OBSTACLE pattern out of your tale because what you’ve written is not classically structured (meaning it has three major acts). That’s a post for a later time.
Suffice to say that upward of 90% of all commercially successful fiction is classically structured, and that the few nonclassically structured tales that do find success are nearly always written by established writers who made their reputations with classically structured writing, and then branched out.
Make no mistake: brilliant and heartbreaking works can and have been written using nonclassical structures—but try loglining something like Hurt Locker, Sideways, or Juno. Harder still: try selling something that can’t be loglined. Obviously, it can be done—but it’s a hundred times harder to get past that first step, and convince someone to read your work.
Which means, basically, that if you plan to make a living by writing, you should (for now) be writing things that can be loglined. Because established writers can pick up a phone and get a meeting, and they can get their material read by saying, “This is my latest work.”
Everyone else has 10 seconds. And the writers with the best loglines get read. Because, really, if you can’t get someone’s attention with one or two sentences you’ve had a year to prepare—what motivation do they have to read the whole story?
So, following the above logic—99.9% of the time, this is what you should do when you can’t come up with a logline for your existing story: create a new logline that represents what your current story could and should be, if all of those elements—WHO-GOAL-OBSTACLE—were present.
When you’ve got something you’re happy with—something that clearly, concisely, and persuasively summarizes the story you want (or meant) to tell—revise your current draft until it agrees with your new logline.
Don’t get hung up on preserving what’s already there, because what’s there isn’t working. That’s why you’re doing this. Anything that doesn’t serve your new logline must be altered until it does, or taken out. You’ll probably need to add new material as well. And be warned: this process will be time-consuming and painful.
But once you’ve gone through it, you’ll have a much-improved story, and a better shot at selling it. And you will never, ever begin another story without first working out your logline—because it’s a lot harder redoing your story than getting it right the first time around.
For more on loglines, see Logline Workshop: Jurassic Park.