It’s always important to start with a good definition, so let me explain what a logline is and some of the conventions of using one.
Let’s start with the name. Who came up with that crazy logline thing, anyway?
As far as I can make out, the term logline (or log line, as some people insist on writing it) originated in early Hollywood. Studios would stack scripts in vaults, which made it tough to figure out what was what without disturbing the whole pile.
To counter this calamity, some brilliant person came up with the idea of sticking a one-line summary onto the spine of the script. That way, you could read the loglines and quickly find the one you wanted.
Now we have digital screenplays, so loglines are a different kind of shortcut. Film professionals are busy busy busy people. They don’t have the time of day to read all the screenplays that come across their desks, so they read the loglines instead. If one grabs them, they might just read the script. Maybe. If their coffee isn’t too cold.
“Okay, that makes sense,” you say, “but I write novels, not movies. I don’t need to convince a film professional to buy my screenplay.”
You’ve just hit upon one of my pet peeves about loglines. Nobody outside of filmmaking seems to know about this powerful tool. And that’s a shame, because you can use it no matter what you’re writing. You may not have to pitch to a producer, but you will have to sell agents, publishers, illustrators, and readers on your masterpiece. So forget what medium you’re telling your story in. Just write a logline, okay?
Now. I didn’t know the interesting origin of the term logline until I began to write this chapter. Along the way, I discovered something else. Something terrible.
There are things called loglines out there that are not loglines! Or at the very least, they aren’t good loglines.
It seems that the people who write TV Guide and the descriptions for DVR listings have twisted the beautiful form of this indispensable device and made it something laughable. Really, go to movies.tvguide.com, skim some of these disasters that they claim are loglines, and you tell me if any of them are really compelling.
They tend to look something like this:
Megamind: Tom McGrath directed this animated comedy about a super villain who wants to try being the good guy. Will Ferrell stars as the title character.
The Adventures of Tintin: Jamie Bell is joined by Andy Serkis in this action adventure film which marks director Steven Spielberg’s animation film debut. Daniel Craig is brilliant as the villain Sakharine.
Those are not real loglines. And that brings us to a discussion of what a logline is.
A logline is a way to break your story down to its lowest common denominator. It’s a sentence that tells what the story is at its core. You’re trying to write the elevator statement version of your story.
“Got it,” you say. “But what’s an elevator statement?”
Remember our little elevator scene in the introduction? An elevator statement is a pitch that’s short enough to give someone in an elevator.
Powerful, ain’t it? If you already knew about loglines, you’re probably cackling like a villain with a destruct-o ray.
But can you do anything with a logline besides hit me with it on an elevator ride?
Of course you can!
A logline is like that great actor who never gets typecast. It’s versatile and can play more than one role. Not only can you use it to tell somebody what your story is about, but you can also use it to tell yourself what your story is about.
“But I know what my story is about!” you protest.
Really? Can you tell me in one sentence?
That’s what I thought.
If you don’t know what your story is about in a single sentence, you run the risk of meandering your story into places where it doesn’t belong. You fall into the trap of putting everything and the kitchen sink in because you don’t know what your story is. (Though the latter is not usually admitted and often materializes with the excuse of, “But it’s cool!”)
By the way, while we’re on the topic of single sentences, let me just square something away real quick. A lot of people quibble over the length of these amazing storytelling tools. There are those who will tell you that a logline can have two sentences (I’ve even seen people say it’s three.), but I am a very firm believer in the single-sentence logline. It’s neater, it looks less intimidating, and it forces you to condense things into as small a space as possible. And that means it’s easier to memorize your logline for that mythical elevator moment.
There’s another neat thing you can do with a logline. You can use it as a basis for marketing materials.
Once you know the core essence of your story, you can take your handy single-sentence logline and expand it with more details to create all sorts of things—things like a summary or the blurb on the back cover. And we’ll cover that in more detail at the end of this adventure, so stay tuned!
At this point, I hope I’ve convinced you that you’re going to want to get your story into a logline before you write “FADE IN” or “It was a dark and stormy night.” Tape it to your monitor (or typewriter if you’re still in the dark ages) if you have to. Remember, you’re promising us something with this story. Find your story’s core and tell us your premise in a single sentence, then make us happy by sticking to it and delivering on your promise.
And if you’ve already written a draft or three, that’s okay! Just decide not to write another draft until you can boil your story down to a logline. Your next draft will thank you. (It might even send you a card! Wait, what? Your drafts don’t do that?)
Just so you know, you generally format a logline like this:
TITLE: My Great Movie
LOGLINE: This is my logline.
For the purposes of this book, however, I’m going to write loglines like this:
My Great Movie: This is my logline.
And that’s just because I think it looks neater. The reason you include the longer format is really for the genre section. Sometimes including the genre can make your audience think in a certain direction. But we’re here for the loglines, so I’ll be condensing the format.
First, we’ll jump right into the world of loglines in the very next chapter, which is a handy-dandy crash-course in logline building. Then, we’ll take a look at the components of a logline and cover each in detail, rubbing our hands together with glee over the power of what we’re learning. Once we’re done there, we’ll knock down some common pitfalls one by one.
You’ll also find some exercises at the end of each chapter. Personally, I never do these things, but some people like exercises, so I threw them in just in case somebody wanted some to do. Your choice.
Let’s start writing a great logline. This should be fun!
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