During the decade or so I have spent working in Hollywood, I have discovered a near-universal truth: Writers hate (or at least dislike) loglines.
Often the reasons for this vary from writer to writer. For example, Writer #1 finds himself incredibly frustrated “because I just can’t sum up my entire screenplay in one sentence,” while Writer #2 “can’t stand that nothing about what makes my screenplay so unique and wonderful can be expressed in this crude, simplistic manner.” I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
Besides, we haven’t even gotten to what is by far the most common logline problem – and this is generally combined with either or both of the other problems, as sort of an extra-special package deal. Writer #3 has already written a screenplay that lacks vitally important dramatic elements, which means this writer has no chance of writing a good logline that accurately represents his or her screenplay.
Anyway, that’s enough about what other people are doing wrong, so let’s get to those “4 easy steps” for writing a kick-ass logline.
Make absolutely sure you write the logline before you write your screenplay. Some screenwriters do this without knowing they are doing it – the same way some screenwriters intuitively understand structure (or at least get to that point after years of missteps). If you come up with a strong, clear concept that contains all the key elements in a logline, then that’s the equivalent of writing a logline before you write a screenplay. However, actually placing your concept in the logline format is a great way to test it before you start writing, and I think literally writing out the logline tends to be much more precise and reliable than just thinking of a “strong, clear concept that contains all the key elements.”
Remember, there are few worse fates than ending up as Writer #3. So, my advice is that you shouldn’t even think about writing your screenplay before your logline from now on.
If you do insist on writing your screenplay first – maybe because you’ve always wanted to write about the passionate love affair you had while studying painting in Copenhagen during your semester abroad, and you figure you can sort out all the “marketing stuff” later – chances are way below betting-on-red-17-and-losing-at-roulette-level that you will get screwed in a way very, very different from your European fling. People usually skip writing the logline first either because they are unaware of the method or because they think it is less inherently “artistic.” Now you’re aware of it – and I’m not sure why it would be any less artistic, unless you’re using “artistic” as an excuse/stand-in for “doesn’t contain some key dramatic elements.”
The logline starts with a brief description of the protagonist. (The reason for this is that, at its most fundamental level, the logline is about the protagonist pursuing a clear external goal, and we need to know who he or she is straight away.) Don’t use an actual name (unless your protagonist is a real person, such as Nelson Mandela, Alexander the Great, or Miley Cyrus) – use a description. For example, the logline for ROCKY would begin with the words, “a journeyman boxer” or something very similar.
You should describe the protagonist by his or her occupation or defining characteristic – and you should only use the defining characteristic if it is more important than the occupation. For example, you might write “a pregnant teen” if that’s your protagonist’s defining characteristic, even if she works as a babysitter on the side, because, if – (let’s say) – your story is about the pregnant teen struggling to find her absentee baby daddy and give him the news, who really cares about the babysitting element compared to the pregnancy element? However, defining the character by his or her job, often preceded by an adjective, is definitely the best way to go for most concepts.
Keep this simple.
You start your logline by mentioning your protagonist, and so you write something along the lines of: “A famous talk-show host” or “a drug-addicted pilot” or “a wealthy plastic surgeon” or “a Sudanese child soldier” or “a schizophrenic ballerina.” Don’t use an ensemble or a duo to begin your logline unless you are positive nobody stands out as a main character who truly drives the narrative, and, no matter what, never claim that something esoteric like “the spirit of communism,” “the city of Paris,” or “the source of existence” is the protagonist. First off, that’s bullshit, and, second, even if you disagree with me that it’s bullshit, it will lead to all of your queries and pitches being rejected (and often mocked, if the rejecter has time).
As far as representing a duo or a group in your logline – usually, if you look closely, you will find that one character drives the narrative and is the protagonist. However, if you truly do have a duo or ensemble-based screenplay – (which is considerably more difficult to pull off for all sorts of reasons beyond the scope of this article, just so you know) – then go with it. There are some very successful movies that are about a duo (BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, LETHAL WEAPON, THELMA & LOUISE) or an ensemble (THE BIG CHILL, THE BREAKFAST CLUB, THE SEVEN SAMURAI/THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN). If you’re going with a concept for this sort of movie, just adjust the logline-writing “rules” slightly, and utilize the same basic template. For example, “A ragtag group of orphans,” “Two best friends since childhood,” or “A military unit trapped behind enemy lines” are all acceptable ways to begin your logline.
If you are writing a logline for a multi-story (such as GO! or PULP FICTION), it’s going to be a harder sell, and, as with duo or ensemble screenplays, tougher to write well. However, the logline process isn’t that hard – you just describe more characters. Start with something like “Two undercover cops, a minister struggling with his faith, and a meth-addicted math genius” or “a single mom who moonlights as a stripper, a mafia boss, and three local teens out for a joyride” – you get the idea. Just describe, in a concise but intriguing manner, the three or four most important people in your multi-story and we’ll go from there.
What is the protagonist(s)’s clear, external goal? In other words, what does the protagonist struggle to accomplish? This may sound simple, but, in my experience, the vast majority of screenwriters screw this particular part up worse than Rachel in that FRIENDS episode where the cookbook pages stick together and she mixes ground beef into a fancy English dessert. (This analogy assumes you’re not Joey Tribbiani.)
The following are not clear external goals: “struggles to get her confidence back,” “learns to love again,” or “discovers what his heritage truly means to him.” Those could all be effective themes, but even the most moving, deepest themes belong within the framework of the protagonist pursuing a clear, external goal that the audience can easily understand and root for (or occasionally even root against).
AMERICAN BEAUTY includes deeply moving themes about the importance of being true to oneself, the beauty and wonder of everyday life that we so often ignore, and how we can miss what is truly meaningful while pursuing shallow, temporary things such as popularity and money. I love that movie, and I find it deeply moving. Yet, the protagonist’s clear external goal in AMERICAN BEAUTY is to seduce his daughter’s teenage friend. That’s what Lester wants and pursues; that’s what drives the entire narrative and creates the dramatic framework that allows the deep, moving themes in the movie to truly shine.
Whether your protagonist wants to go the distance in a title fight, rob a bank, or seduce a vapid cheerleader, it must be clear what his or her goal is, and that clear external goal should follow the character description in the logline. “Struggles” is a great word to use here; it almost always applies and hits the right note. “Pursues” can also be effective, but whatever word you use, make sure it implies a clear intention, a determination, and some difficulties along the way.
If relevant, you can also include a very brief explanation of why the character is driven to pursue this goal. This is often unnecessary. (For example, we tend to naturally understand why athletes want to win championships, why people want to steal or earn large amounts of money, why missionaries want to convert people, why businesspeople want promotions, and so on). If you do feel the need to describe why your protagonist pursues his or her goal, make sure to be concise. Remember, your entire logline is limited to a single sentence, with a special allowance made for a semi-colon or maybe even a second sentence only on very rare occasions.
And if there is nothing else that sticks with you from “Step 3,” please remember that “clear” actually means “clear” and that “external” actually means “external,” and that both are fundamental necessities for a successful logline.
Your logline will usually benefit from including the antagonist or the antagonizing force. I say “usually” because some concepts are either so much about the protagonist’s journey and/or make the antagonist so obvious that it just clutters things to include the antagonist or antagonizing force in the logline. For example if, as a logline for ROCKY, we write “A journeyman boxer struggles to go the distance in a heavyweight title fight” it’s pretty clear the antagonist is the guy the protagonist is fighting (i.e. the current boxing champion) and that the movie is, in a more internal sense, about what it means for this “journeyman” to last the distance against the champ. It wouldn’t be awful to add something at the end of this logline so that the complete logline reads, “A journeyman boxer struggles to go the distance in a heavyweight title fight against an undefeated champion famous for brutally knocking out his opponents.” Both versions are acceptable, but I have a slight preference for the simpler, more concise version, as I think the extra information in the longer version is basically intuitive.
It’s also worth noting that the antagonist is not always somebody with a figurative “villain” sign hanging on his or her chest, like Dr. Evil in the AUSTIN POWERS movies. In fact, sometimes, the antagonist is actually a positive antagonizing force that is at odds with the protagonist’s ill-conceived goal. For example, the antagonizing force in AMERICAN BEAUTY is, ironically, the protagonist’s own personal growth. As Lester struggles to seduce Angela, he grows enough as a person to understand that it would be an ugly, negative choice for him to have sex with a troubled underage girl, leading up to the climactic scene in which Lester declines the offer he had spent the entire movie struggling to entice from Angela, and instead provides her with the compassion and encouragement she truly needs.
You could write the logline for AMERICAN BEAUTY as, “a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis quits his job and struggles to seduce his teen daughter’s best friend, only to discover his “crisis” is actually a life-changing revelation that causes him to reevaluate his values, lifestyle, and choices.” That’s about as complex as you want to get with a logline, but it’s still one sentence, clarifies the protagonist, his goal, and the antagonizing force. I also threw in the (very brief) part about Lester quitting his job because it emphasized the “mid-life crisis” element, and, probably even more importantly, because not mentioning what the protagonist did for a living felt rather odd for a story about a middle-aged man, so a quick explanation made sense.
My logline for AMERICAN BEAUTY is a fairly complex example, and while similar loglines will be appropriate for some complex, character-centered concepts, the simplicity of the ROCKY logline example is more fitting for most concepts. In a general sense, this process will become almost second nature to you and will feel rather straightforward once you really understand it.
However you slice the process of turning a concept into an effective logline, you are essentially filling in a series of blanks. Of course, how well you fill in those blanks makes a big difference, but the core of it is still: A(n) adjectiveoccupation or defining characteristic struggles (or similar word) to accomplish clear external goalbut (or “only to find that” or “however”) antagonist or antagonizing force presents itself/himself/herself as a formidable obstacle. Let’s fill this in almost randomly: “A neurotic social worker struggles to revitalize a poor, urban area, only to find that the people she is so determined to “save” are the ones actually teaching her how to enjoy life.” Or another one: “A regular guy decides to climb Mt. Everest, but after the rest of his group is killed in a freak avalanche, he must make the perilous journey back to civilization alone.”
That’s how you write a logline. And just sitting there thinking of ideas, filling in those blanks, (which, as you gain more experience with loglines, will change from “blanks” that you “fill in” into an intuitive process that naturally fits together), and brainstorming loglines, can be a great way to come up with a marketable screenplay idea.
Of course, structuring your screenplay properly, writing believable characters and memorable dialogue, plotting effectively, and providing thematic resonance and emotionally moving moments isn’t exactly a piece of cake… and you have to do that stuff to really succeed.
However, the logline is simply not the part of screenwriting that should trip you up.
Not after reading this article, and then, if you haven’t already, reading the article that is the absolute gold-standard of logline-writing advice, from Christopher Lockhart, at http://www.twoadverbs.com/logline.pdf Chris’s twitter (@c_lockhart) also contains plenty of logline (and general screenwriting) gems if you want to follow him on there. While I haven’t used social networking for screenwriting advice much (yet, anyway), I will be writing a series of articles similar to this one, but on other screenwriting-related topics right here for script-fix.com, so if you enjoyed this one, please keep an eye out.
Article by Gideon C., Script-Fix reader.