Even if you’re not familiar with the term logline (or log line) you’ve undoubtedly come across them when looking at TV listings or surfing movie info sites. It’s simply a brief summary of a television program or film often providing a synopsis of the program’s plot along with an emotional hook to stimulate interest.
White House Down: A Secret Service agent must fight to protect his daughter, the President, and the country from an attack on the White House.
In ye olden days of Hollywood, the studios stored their screenplays in script vaults and readers wrote a concise one line summary of what the script was about on the title page, allowing studio executives, producers, directors, and actors to scan a great many scripts quickly while searching for a project that met their needs. Loglines were also written on the spine of the script, allowing people to read the summaries of scripts that were stacked without having to unstack them.
Oblivion: In the future the world is decimated from an alien invasion. A drone repairman, one of the few remaining humans on Earth, finds another human who holds secrets that will put the repairman’s faith in humanity in question.
A competent logline–I shy away from using the word good because that’s so incredibly subjective–should contain the following parts (though not all do):
- The set-up. Where your story takes places and possibly in what time period. It also includes the inciting incident (the thing that forces the protagonist into action), and may set up your main character (but doesn’t necessarily have to).
- Protagonist introduction. Where we meet your main character and the physical/mental/emotional/internal challenges they face.
- Antagonist/conflict introduction. Where you establish the major action, conflict and/or antagonist in the story (essentially what your main character is up against).
- The goal. You’re not giving the story away, merely hinting at the climax.
- The hook. The answer to, “Why should I watch this?” Give ’em something juicy to whet their appetites. You should also work in your story’s genre and tone.
Elysium: In a future where the wealthy elite live on a ring-shaped space platform in the skies above Los Angeles, a slum-dwelling guy struggles to find his way there, first to save his own life but later to bring hope to all of humanity.
Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Well, the truth of the matter is most writers find the act condensing their screenplay/teleplay down to a single sentence that still maintains the the story’s raw emotion and power to be nigh-impossible. That’s because they put off writing the damned thing until the end, when it’s no longer about fleshing out a concept, but whittling a fully formed entity down to its skeleton.
But that doesn’t apply here, does it? Because you, being the smart person I know you are, will construct your logline waaaay before you even think about typing FADE IN: on Page 1 of your script… and I’m gonna walk you hand-in-hand through the rest of the process (who sez I ain’t a proper gen’leman?). In addition to the five points listed above, here are a few more helpful tips:
- No need to get personal. Keep character names out of your logline, they serve no purpose here. What you should do is use an adjective and/or job title (only if it’s relevant) to add a little character depth.
- Put the protagonist’s main goal front and center. Your main character’s action drives the logline and its the key ingredient in your story pitch.
- Give the antagonist equal time. Same rules apply as with the protagonist but in less detail.
- Make sure your main character is a pro. No, I don’t mean making them the best at what they do (that’s all on you, if you choose to go that route). I mean they’re your protagonist so make them proactive. They are the driving force of your story and this needs to be communicated in your logline.
- Time and pace wait for no man. Add a ticking clock, if at all possible. Nothing speaks to urgency like an action that must occur by a deadline.
- Brevity is the soul of wit… and a proper logline. Do not crowd your logline with unnecessary details. You’re not telling the entire story soup to nuts here. Your goal is to sell the story. Pique the crowd’s interest and leave ’em wanting more.
And there you have it, all the basics needed to begin tinkering with your own loglines. Remember, practice makes perfect, so don’t be afraid to jump in feet first and craft a few cringe-inducing logs until you get the hang of the process. I know I said it once before but it bears repeating: Your logline is a crucial element in the selling your screenplay and most often, along with the title, is the first thing a studio, prodco or acquisition exec will read, so make it as brief and mind-blowing as you can.
In case you’re interested in further studying the structure, here are some additional loglines of films released this year:
The Great Gatsby: When Nick Carraway moves in next door to Jay Gatsby, he is introduced to a world of affluence and lavish parties, and ends up striking an odd friendship with the charismatic and mysterious individual.
Frances Ha: An aspiring dancer moves to New York City, and becomes caught up in a whirlwind of flighty fair-weather friends, diminishing fortunes and career setbacks.
The Hangover Part III: While taking Alan to a psychiatric facility, the wolfpack is side-trekked when a mysterious man kidnaps Doug and forces them to track down Mr. Chow, who stole $21 million from him.
Epic: A troop of brave bugs march off to save a garden, where they encounter an evil spider queen and must summon the mythical Leaf Men to save the day.
The Internship: When their careers begin to sink due to the digital age, two salesmen land an internship at Google where they must compete against brilliant college students for a shot at employment.
The Purge: In the near future, a family hides in their home on the one night of the year when all laws are erased and people are allowed to murder without consequences.
Olympus Has Fallen: A Secret Service agent must rescue the President after a group of North Korean militants storm the White House, take hostages, and demand the United States remove military forces from the Korean Peninsula.
World War Z: A United Nations employee traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments and threatening to decimate humanity itself.
Lone Ranger: Spirit warrior Tonto recounts the adventures that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into The Lone Ranger, an outlaw of justice.
Pacific Rim: In a future where malevolent creatures threaten the earth, the planet must band together and use highly advanced technology to eradicate the growing menace.
Sally forth and be writeful.