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

by John Robert Marlow


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. Read more…