Logline Workshop: Jurassic Park

by John Robert Marlow

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LOGLINING JURASSIC PARK

Let’s walk through the process from start to finish, working up a logline for a story that most people already know. Jurassic Park was a hugely successful novel that went on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest hits. Keeping that logline mantra in mind—Who, Goal, Obstacle (see Building the Perfect Logline for Your Book, Screenplay, or Other Story for more on this)—how do we build a logline for this story?

WHO (or perhaps What) is this story about?

Most of those new to loglines begin by saying something about dinosaurs. Many of those who don’t, start with the park itself. Still others kick things off with “An experiment” or “A scientist.” Let’s take those roads and see where they lead.

DINOSAURS. Okay, what do they do—what’s their Goal? Run rampant, search for food, that kind of thing. What’s their Obstacle? An absence of food-bearing park personnel caused, basically, by a hurricane coupled with a power failure. So:

Dinosaurs run rampant on an island resort, trying to feed themselves during a power outage caused by a hurricane.

What’s wrong with this? It is, after all, an accurate description of what happens. But replace “dinosaurs” with “tigers” and you’ve got a documentary. Besides, running rampant and eating each other is what dinosaurs do. There are no real stakes involved here, unless you’re a dinosaur. What’s their Obstacle—high winds and rain? That doesn’t quite cut it. And what the hell are dinosaurs doing on an island resort?

Lastly, for all the hype, Jurassic Park is not, at its core, a story about dinosaurs. And even if it were, they are (in this tale) more than a little hard to relate to. So let’s try…

A PARK. There’s no denying that the park is a central element of this story. So we might be tempted to try something like this:

A park featuring dinosaurs descends into chaos when the power fails.

Also accurate, as far as it goes—which isn’t very. First problem: a “park” cannot have a Goal. Which means it can’t be our protagonist or hero. Second problem: we can’t have an Obstacle in the way of a nonexistent protagonist with no definable Goal. There are three basic elements to a proper logline, and we’ve just struck out on all of them.

Even setting that aside, there are other issues here. A park descends into chaos. So what? Again, where are the stakes? Why do we care? “Park” is not something an audience can relate to, identify with, or root for. Why? Because there is no emotion associated with “park.” It’s a thing, not a character. Building your logline around a park isn’t much better than casting a brick as your lead. If we replace “dinosaurs” with “moose” in this park-centric logline, we’ve got another documentary. And, again—what’s with the dinosaurs?

A SCIENTIST. Which scientist? There are four: John, Alan, Ellie, and Ian. Immediate confusion. But let’s go with John, who set the whole thing in motion by creating the park. What does he do? Well, he tries to restore order, mostly. Get things back the way they were before everything went to hell. What’s in his way? Dinosaurs, basically. Thus:

A kindly scientist tries to restore order when a park full of dinosaurs descends into chaos during a power outage.

Also accurate. But again: so what? Who cares? What are the stakes? Replace “dinosaurs” with “otters” and it’s a National Geographic Special. And then there’s that brachiosaur in the room: the dinosaurs.

AN EXPERIMENT. The whole thing is sort of an experiment, in terms of both science and profitable entertainment. Which might lead us to something like:

An experimental park featuring dinosaurs descends into chaos during a power outage.

Already the old problems crop up: our protagonist cannot be “an experiment.” “Experiment” has no will, and therefore no Goal. No Goal means no Obstacle—and again our logline winds up in loserville. Along with those unexplained dinosaurs.

Let’s start over by stripping this story down to the bone. At its marrow—or, more to the point, at its heart—Who (or What) is this story about? Dinosaurs? No. A park? No again. An experiment? Not at all. A scientist? Closer, but not really—making this, at best, a partial yes.

Following up on that—why is “scientist” closer than “dinosaurs,” “park,” or “experiment?” Well, “scientist” is a Who, not a What. People exercise will, pursue goals, tackle obstacles. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Who-Goal-Obstacle. Still, “scientist” is not our protagonist here.

Here’s a shortcut to figuring out who is. Ask yourself this question: Who are we rooting for? In this case, just about everyone but Nedry, making this a rather broad answer. So let’s narrow it down: who are we most rooting for? Who have we bonded with, emotionally? If we were to play god (which, let’s face it, we do)—who is not expendable?

Let’s run down the list. No one’s going to miss the “bloodsucking attorney” (who is, in fact, the first to go) or the lazy, thieving Nedry. Ray is cool and has his uses, but he’s not essential. Same goes for Muldoon.

John is likable but, all things considered, he’s lived a long, full life and this whole mess is more or less his fault. Ian Malcolm is both likable and entertaining—but when you come right down to it, he’s comic relief, hovering just outside the core group of characters. To be brutally honest, we can still have a relatively happy ending if all of these folks die (which, in the novel, they do).

But what about that core group? Who are they? Alan and Ellie (two romantically involved scientists who are considering children; in this respect, also, Ian is an outsider), Tim and Lex (John’s young grandchildren). This, really, is Who our story is about.

Unfortunately, this also makes for an awkward logline: “Two scientists and the two grandchildren of another scientist…” is already a mess. How can we smooth that out and make it flow, while at the same time conveying the essence of Who the story revolves around? We need a single word that summarizes what is actually a multiple or ensemble protagonist. (Which, it should be noted, is an unusual complication; most commercially successful fiction revolves around one or two characters.)

So what do these people have in common? Not much. In fact, they meet for the first time during the course of our story. But is there some brief term we might apply to them as a group—preferably one that will strike an emotional chord with readers?

Two adults, two children. More specifically: a man, a woman, and two young children (brother and sister). If we didn’t know any better (which the readers of our logline will not), we’d probably call this A FAMILY. They may not qualify genetically, but they do fit the archetype: man and woman, protecting children. Technically incorrect or not—this is (for our purposes) a family.

How many members of this family can we afford to lose to hungry dinosaurs? Zero. We want them all to come out okay. Making them—together—our main character. And so our logline begins:

A family…

Short, reasonably accurate, rich in emotional content. In a word: perfect. That’s our Who.

GOAL

Now—what is our family doing? STRUGGLING to stay alive, obviously—but also something more.

Because they’re not looking to find a nice cave, build fires and whittle spears for the next forty years. That would be “staying alive.” There’s a larger Goal here: they’re looking to get the hell out of Dodge. In short (which loglines must be), their Goal is TO ESCAPE. So:

A family struggles to escape…

“Struggles,” by the way, is a great word because it implies conflict, which all great tales must have.

Still, struggling to escape is only half of the Goal. To get the other half, we need to figure out what it is they’re struggling to escape from. Dinosaurs? Well, yes—but also no. We wouldn’t say “A family struggles to escape dinosaurs.” That’s confusing. What are these, cave-people? Even that doesn’t hold up, really, because dinosaurs were long gone when the first cave folk came down the pike.

Remember the basics: Who-Goal-Obstacle. Who’s your protagonist, what does he want, and what’s in his way? If we say A family struggles to escape dinosaurs—there’s nowhere left to go, because…what’s in their way?

We could try the hurricane: A family struggles to escape dinosaurs while battered by a hurricane. But this is also confusing, and raises difficult questions: Where the hell did the dinosaurs come from? What are people and dinosaurs doing together? Is this a comedy? A time-travel tale? Is the setting prehistoric, or modern-day?

That’s way too much to think about at this stage, where clarity is vital. Back to the Goal: what is the family struggling to escape from? Well, where are they trapped? In the PARK, of course. They’re struggling to escape from the park.

Still, it’s not that simple. Why don’t they just walk (or drive) out the front gate? Call the cops, the army, order an airstrike? Because…what? Because the park is located on an ISLAND, of course. And not Manhattan; this is a REMOTE ISLAND.

This is where things start coming together:

A family struggles to escape a remote island park…

So far, so good. Now for the final element:

OBSTACLE

What’s in the way of the family as it struggles to escape the remote island park? DINOSAURS! But we can’t just drop “dinosaurs” into a logline and expect it to work. Plague, pirates, armed revolutionaries, sure. But—dinosaurs? That is, to say the least, a stretch.

True, it makes perfect sense when you’re reading the story. But no one’s going to get that far if they don’t buy the premise. Our challenge is to get that premise across; to make “dinosaurs” work—quickly, efficiently, believably—within the confines of a logline. (This explanation or SETUP is a second unusual complication, which most loglines do not require because we’re already familiar with the everyday world in which their stories take place. For more on this, See the Minority Report logline in Building the Perfect Logline.)

So what do we have in the story itself? A program to recreate dinosaurs using genetic engineering and the dna of—well, that’s too long already. While we do need an explanation, it must be concise. So how about this: a remote island park WHOSE MAIN ATTRACTIONS—GENETICALLY RESTORED DINOSAURS—?

Quick, reasonably accurate, explanatory without being kludgy. How can there be dinosaurs and people? The dinosaurs were recreated through genetic engineering. Okay; possible, maybe. There’s the science. But why would anyone do that? To make money. That’s why the park: charge admission, make a mint.

This tells the reader we’re talking present-day, rules out time travel (or there’d be no need to recreate the dinosaurs), and gives us a motive—which adds believability to the mix. Now we’re cooking:

A family struggles to escape a remote island park whose main attractions—genetically restored dinosaurs—

The rest almost writes itself. Naturally, the critters must be confined within the park. And so something must have gone wrong, or we’d have no story. The main attractions HAVE BEEN SET LOOSE. All right-but how? A POWER FAILURE. No need to mention Nedry or the hurricane; they’re the warm-up; the power failure is the main event triggering the chaos.

LOGLINE

And so we arrive at this:

A family struggles to escape a remote island park whose main attractions—genetically restored dinosaurs—have been set loose by a power failure.

Even with the added complexity of an ensemble protagonist and the necessary “dinosaur” explanation, this comes to 23 words. Read aloud, it’s a mere ten seconds of someone’s time. More than that—it’s something they’ll want to read.

That’s a logline: WHO the story’s about; what their GOAL is; and the OBSTACLE that stands in their way. No subplots, names, deep characterization or cast of thousands. Instead: bare-bones concept. Complete, concise, intriguing. Certainly enough to keep you focused while writing the story—or keep the attention of someone reading or listening to your 10-second pitch.

If the bones are good enough—and you’ve managed to convey them effectively—your audience will want to see how you’ve fleshed them out with your story.

And that’s what the logline is all about: getting someone to want more.

Of course, you must also target your audience: a company that adapts romance novels for the direct-to-dvd market is unlikely to bite on Jurassic Park, no matter how intriguing the logline.

If all goes well, you’ll be asked to submit your manuscript or screenplay for consideration. And your story had better live up to the promise of your logline.

BUT I CAN’T LOGLINE THIS STORY…

If you find yourself utterly unable to come up with a proper logline for your story concept, or for a story you’ve already written, that means one of two things: your story is inherently nonclassically structured (does not fall into three acts, and cannot by its very nature be revised into three acts)—or there’s something wrong with the current version of your story or concept.

In the vast majority of cases (and very nearly every one I’ve ever edited, developed, or consulted on), the impossible-to-logline concept/story is either missing or unclear on one or more of the three crucial elements: the Who, the Goal, the Obstacle.

Put another way: logline problems almost invariably result from problems present in the story or concept itself. Because if everything lined up in the concept/story, coming up with a snappy logline wouldn’t be such a problem.

And don’t think you can get away with a substandard logline, even if your tale is brilliant. Here’s why: agents, editors, producers and the people who read for them can evaluate roughly 1,700 loglines in the time it takes to read a single screenplay—and close to 3,500 loglines in the time it takes to read a book manuscript. And most of the material they receive is (at best) mediocre.

If you were in their position, would you rather find that out by spending hours reading the works themselves—or seconds reading the loglines?

Great loglines do not guarantee great stories—but they do offer hope. Flawed loglines, on the other hand, suggest flawed tales, posing the same question as a bad movie trailer: This is the best they can come up with?

Don’t let that happen to you—or your story. If you’re not happy with your logline, reread Building the Perfect Logline for Your Book, Screenplay, or Other Story.

Then rewrite the logline until it accurately reflects what your story should be (even if the story itself isn’t quite there yet)—then use that as a guide when writing or revising your tale. (For those seeking professional help with logline, structure, or story development, see the author’s contact link below.)


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Jurassic Park still owned by Universal Pictures

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jeremy Nielsen May 28, 2012

John,

Love the article. Had a question. What if your story has a twist in it.

Thinking of the Sixth Sense, a quickly written logline could be “A psychologist struggles to help a young boy who can actaully see dead people.” Ok, that sucked, but leaves the twist completely out. Would this be the way to go on such a tale?

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