SDWF Series

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…

Story Development for Writers (SDFW), Part 1: The Basics

by John Robert Marlow


Most writers, when they get around to writing, sit down and do just that—start writing. The story grows with no real plan or, at best, a fuzzy idea of where things are going and (maybe) how they’ll get there.

I know this because, as an editor, I see the less-than-stellar results. And when I ask how things wound up this way, the answer is most often the same: “I just started writing.” For most of us, this is not the way to write things worth reading.

Imagine a skyscraper constructed with no blueprint: floors are added and subtracted on the fly; some floors are bigger than others; stairways connect random floors, but don’t go from top to bottom; someone decides to fix the stairway problem with an elevator, punching a ragged hole through every story; only half the rooms have power or plumbing, and there’s an Olympic-sized pool on the roof, so they put the helipad in the basement.

That’s what happens when you just start writing. I see it all the time—as do agents, editors and producers sifting through mountains of submissions. Sure, these problems can be fixed—I help writers do this all the time—but it would be a whole lot easier, faster, and less stressful to get it right the first time. And, not coincidentally, to make a better first impression on that agent, editor, or producer—because if your first impression isn’t your best, it may be your last. Read more…