Building the Perfect Logline for Your Book, Screenplay, or Other Story (SDFW Part 2)

by John Robert Marlow

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 handy, bring up a virtual stopwatch. 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 (in Hollywood or New York) will read your story, and there’s a good chance no one else will, either. This is so for several reasons.

Let’s start with your average book reader, because that’s a simpler equation. They’re scanning the bookshelves (real or virtual) deciding on their next read. They’ve got a bazillion titles to choose from. If you don’t hook them fast—intrigue them with your concept—they’re gone, and onto the next thing. You do not, at this point, have the pitch or the whole back cover to make your case. You have one sentence—because if they don’t like that, they’ll never get to your pitch.

Now let’s deal with New York and Hollywood. 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. The brutal logic of the situation is this: an agent or producer can read 1,000 loglines in the time it takes to read a single screenplay. If we’re talking average-length novels, the figure is more like 3,000 loglines. These people are never going to read everything. They can’t. It’s just not possible.

Once they have read the stories they’ve decided (based on those loglines and the pitches that came with them) to read, they 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, acquisition 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.

LOGLINE BASICS

The logline has but a single purpose: to convey the most essential elements of your story’s CONCEPT 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 or otherwise-recognizable figures—in which case, go ahead and plug those names in). 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).

For example:

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”—which 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). And—bonus—it gets the title in the logline (which is rare).

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. Not “tireless,” “persistent” or “indefatigable,” not “determined,” not “obsessive”—all of which mean almost the same thing. But none of which pack the same kind of punch as “relentless.”

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.

ADDITIONAL ELEMENTS

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 needs 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 (other cops, even former colleagues).

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.

SEQUENCE

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 urgency and 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.

Or this…

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.

GENRE-SPECIFIC

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 Life Is Beautiful—or 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:

PRETTY WOMAN (romantic comedy)

Then go into your logline. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to do this anyway, with every logline you write.

NOT A LOGLINE!

A momentary detour about what a logline is not. Something like “A witch. A knight. An ancient secret.” is not a logline. It’s nothing—scoring 0 for 3 when it comes to illuminating the three core elements of a logline: the WHO, the GOAL, and the OBSTACLE. Now, one of those might be the WHO, and one might be the OBSTACLE. The problem is, there’s no way to tell because the presentation is a jumble, and the overall impression one of confusion and uncertainty. There’s no drama, no conflict, no tension and no one to root for; the whole thing is devoid of emotional content. It’s not even a decent tagline. Maybe you get lucky and appeal to someone who’s into knights and witches, and they read a little farther—but you’d better up your pitch game fast, or they’ll move on, too.

A note about taglines, which are not loglines and do not have the same purpose. The movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula has a brilliant tagline: Love never dies. Doesn’t tell you a damned thing about the concept, and couldn’t be used to pitch the screenplay because of that—but once you know what the concept is, what the story is—it takes things to another level. And also reveals that what you thought might be just another schlocky Dracula remake is not a horror film at heart, but aspires to be an epic romance cleverly disguised as a horror movie. (If you really want to see a horror film, watch Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. That’s a horror film. But, as they say, I digress…)

Another thing that’s not a logline is that brief summary you see thrown up on the screen while surfing Netflix or Amazon. Those were not written by someone who needed to get their story out into the world; they were written after the stories were already sold, by (again for the most part) people who never read or watched the material and are unfamiliar with the art of the pitch. Do not model your pitch on that.

So, where were we? Oh, right…

Before getting into the actual construction of a logline (in the next post), 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. (Picture Miles in Sideways, or Eddie in Limitless, trying to explain what their books are about.) 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 before you’ve gone to the considerable trouble of writing scenes that don’t belong.

Without a logline, you can only make such cuts 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 issues 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. 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 in the story. Probably 90% 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 for now 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 could be charming and brilliant—but if you can’t pitch it effectively, you’re fighting an uphill battle.

Which means, basically, that if you plan to make a living by writing, you should (for now) probably 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 simply by saying, “This is my next book/screenplay/whatever.”

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 does anyone have to read the whole story?

So, following the logic above—when you can’t come up with even a rough logline for you existing story (because one or more of the critical elements are MIA), this is what you should do: 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.

SEPARATE SKILL SETS

Keep in mind that pitching (including loglining) is a radically different skill than writing a full-length story. It’s perfectly possible to write a magnificent book or screenplay—and be utterly unable to pitch it. One of the reasons for this is that writing is about conveying depth and richness of detail—while pitching is all about distillation and condensation; ditching all those wonderful details and subplots in a quest for the story’s essence, its beating heart. Often, the person least willing or able to do this is the very person who created the tale in the first place, either because they’re so attached to so many things that they can’t bear to leave most of them out, or because they’ve become so mired in a thousand little details that they can no longer see the forest for the trees.

In that’s you, it may be wises to enlist professional help…

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