WHAT IS A LOGLINE?
Hard work! Many writers whine about the logline. I’m guilty of it too. It’s not a simple task to distill 95-120 pages into a single sentence. But that’s what you need to do – boil your movie down to its core in one catchy, compelling sentence that will grab the listener’s attention and make them want to hear more or ask to read your screenplay!
With a little time and effort you can do it! So let’s get started.
Wait! I get what it is, but…
WHY DO I NEED ONE?
Oh, right. Well, here are two reasons:
- It’s not enough to have a great idea. You have to be able to sell it. You do that by pitching it. Your logline is a one-sentence pitch of your movie.
But I’ve seen writers with 3 and 4 sentence descriptions. Why can’t I do that?
Because that’s a premise line, not a logline. A premise line contains more story elements. There are differences of opinion on this matter, and there are a lot of approaches to the logline that many would consider a premise line. I think a premise line is a brief summary of your movie that contains more story details than your logline. The premise line is a great conceptual tool for you, the writer, to brainstorm and develop your idea and figure out how your story works in a compressed, manageable way.
The example of the premise line template below is three lines long. Once you fill it in it will be at least that, but probably longer.
On the verge of his current stage of life, the flawed protagonist experiences an inciting incident and breaks into two; but when the midpoint happens, he must learn the thematic lesson before all is lost to defeat the antagonist.
Don’t get caught up in that particular order. It’s not meant to be formula, but rather a guideline to help you construct your premise line. Play with it. Rewrite it. Cut out the fat. Find what works.
But I digress… back to the logline and pitch!
If you haven’t already heard someone talk about the elevator pitch, sooner or later you will. Like right now.
You’re a hard-working struggling writer on your way to see your shrink located in a giant building on Sunset Blvd. You just happen to step into the elevator with (insert big-shot movie or TV producer here). DING. The doors close. The elevator begins its ascent. You notice Big-Shot producer is heading for the fourth floor. Your heart pounds. It’s now or never. You finagle a way to reveal that you are a writer in one of the following ways: a) Balls – just come out and say who you are and what you want. b) Flattery – compliment his work and mention your hope to write for them someday, or c) “accidentally” – drop your script on the elevator floor inches away from their feet. Whatever the case, Big Shot producer asks you what you’re working on!
Now you must hook him with your big idea before he reaches the fourth floor. If you drone on for too long, you risk losing the Big Shot’s interest, and you risk losing Big-Shot literally, when DING… he reached his floor in the middle of your story. Hence the need for the ‘elevator pitch’.
The other reason and perhaps more important reason you need a logline, is this:
- If you cannot for the life of you distill your movie down to a clear attention-grabbing story in a single sentence – or maybe two for a more complicated story – chances are your script will be unclear too.
If you fail at #2, you blow your chances with the Big Shot.
Oh… that’s no good. Fine. I’m sold. So…
HOW DO I CONSTRUCT A LOGLINE?
There are dozens of ways to craft a logline. Here are a few options, one of which, after much obsessive writing and rewriting, should work for your story.
- Protagonist has a problem and must achieve his goal to solve that problem.
- Protagonist has a goal but a major obstacle/opponent stands in his/her way.
- A situation causes the protagonist to face his/her largest obstacle plus outcome.
- Protagonist has a problem and must take action to solve that problem and achieve goal.
- Protagonist experiences an inciting incident that compels him into action to achieve a goal that is opposite from the antagonist.
Similar, but different attacks, with some versions allowing for a tad more story detail.
If there are dozens of ways to construct a logline, there are hundreds of ways to execute them. Okay, so let’s take a stab at a few.
1. Protagonist has a problem and must achieve his goal to solve that problem.
First we’ll attack this logline as if it weren’t about a known person.
Protagonist: loner sports junkie
Problem: trapped under a boulder
Goal: cut off his arm to live
When describing the protagonist I may have also come up with “thrill-seeker” or “emotionally distant” or “intimacy averse”
Part of the protagonist’s problem is that he didn’t tell anyone where he was going. He didn’t bring the right supplies. The trick is to pare out what you don’t need. And choose the details you do. That comes down to personal preference.
In a drilled-down nutshell you might have:
A climber trapped under a boulder in a remote canyon cuts off his arm to survive.
With just that simple sentence most of us would recognize this as the logline for 127 HOURS. Personally, I find that pretty intriguing without any other details. If this were 2002 before Aron Ralston’s horrific experience, I’d hear that logline and want to know more. But here it is again with a few more details:
A thrill-seeking loner is trapped under a boulder in a remote canyon and must cut off his arm in order to survive.
Thrill-seeking loner gives us more about the protagonist flaw and hints at theme. Aside from indicating flaw, the word loner hints that he’s by himself and has no help.
Now, because this story is actually about someone known it’s okay to use a name in the logline, which, using template #3 might look something like this:
With his hand trapped under a boulder in a remote canyon, Utah climber, Aron Ralston, faces the greatest dilemma of his life: cut it off or die.
Cut it off or die – gives us the dilemma and stakes.
An inspiring true story of American climber, Aron Ralston, who, trapped under a boulder in a remote canyon for 127 HOURS, was forced to amputate his own arm to survive.
2. Protagonist has a goal but a major obstacle/opponent stands in his/her way.
Protagonist: 14-year-old stubborn spitfire
Goal: hire someone with true grit to capture father’s killer
Major obstacle/Opponent: killer hiding out in dangerous Indian Territory
A 14-year old spitfire hires a reluctant, whisky lovin’ U.S. Marshall to help her hunt down her father’s killer.
Or if we try it with #3, we might get this:
When a stubborn 14-year-old spitfire’s father is murdered, she enlists a reluctant whisky loving US Marshall to help her hunt down the killer in hostile Indian Territory.
Considering the trio in the film has a common goal, here’s another take:
A drunken, callous U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger help a feisty 14-year-old track down her father’s killer in hostile Indian Territory.
3. A situation causes the protagonist to face his/her largest obstacle plus outcome.
Oh boy, for some reason, with BLACK SWAN, I could go on and on with details. These were the first thoughts that came out of my brainstorm. There’s so much going on thematically, symbolically and it’s fun to include, but… alas, it’s just a logline, so I’ll have to pare it down.
Situation: cast/struggles to play black swan
Protagonist: repressed, perfectionist, obsessive ballet dancer
Largest obstacle: herself, her dark side, her mind/neurosis – she thinks Lily’s out to get her role. Thomas said: “The only person standing in your way is you”
Outcome: transformation leads to psychotic break; must kill her innocence to perfectly embody the role.
Struggling to dance the dual lead in Swan Lake, a repressed ballerina explores her dark side, both on stage and off, until her inner “Black Swan” pushes her into a psychotic break.
Or… because I might want a more active second act with theme:
Struggling to dance the dual lead in Swan Lake, a repressed ballerina explores her dark side, until the transformation into the delicate White Swan’s seductive, evil black twin pushes her into a psychotic break.
Both of these are still on the long side – bordering on a premise line. I’m falling in love with the story details. This probably works just as well.
A perfectionist ballerina is driven mad by the demands of playing the dual role of good and evil swans in Swan Lake.
Okay, I think you get the point. And you’re getting better at this logline thing already. Just remember, there is no perfect logline. You can keep messing with it forever. That’s both the fun and the maddening aspect of a crafting one. Once you come up with a logline you like you might need to spice it up. Ask yourself:
- Does my logline convey my story in a clear, CONCISE way while still being engaging?
- Are my word choices descriptive and do they evoke the GENRE and TONE?
- Have I written my logline in an ACTIVE VOICE?
- When I pitch my logline to 5 friends DO EYES LIGHT UP OR GLAZE OVER?
That last one is important. Is the listener intrigued? That’s the goal. You’ve succeeded when they want to hear more or ask to read your script.
JUST FOR KICKS
I stumbled onto this site on the Internet one day awhile back. I don’t endorse using this as a way to generate your story ideas, but just for silly fun, check out this RANDOM LOGLINE GENERATOR.
Here’s the first one that came up for me:
A fairy, a wrestler, and a bartender celebrate the Holidays in cyberspace.
Okay. Enough procrastination. Now get to work on those loglines!