What is a logline, and when do we use it?
A logline is a short (usually just one sentence) summary of your story. A good logline will also contain a hook to catch your readers interest. It’s not a tagline (“The truth is out there”), nor is it essentially a synopsis, though this is a matter of some debate. Originally logline was a screenwriting term, and in the writing community the term used was (and in many cases still is) synopsis. For me, the synopsis is a longer text that is the result of my fourteen point outlining document. Really, it’s semantics. Does it say short synopsis of two sentences? Logline it is.
So once you’ve written a short and snappy logline, when will you use it? Well, basically it will be used to pitch your story to potential interested parties, like an agent. Many people think that because of that, a logline should be written last. I think a logline should be the very first thing you write. The starting point of your outline. Why? Because it will help you narrow down the focus of your plot. It will force you to consider who your protagonist is, and what exactly he or she is trying to achieve. These are things you must be clear on when you set out. Without these your story will run the risk of flopping about all over the place.
Now that we know the What and the Why of it, let’s get down to the How.
How to write a logline
There are many guides and examples out there on how to write a logline. Because I tend to think in images, I like the screenplay approach. Keep things visual and with an active protagonist. I also like to keep things simple.
The three basic things a logline must contain are the following:
A few other things can be added:
- Inciting Incident
Let’s look at each of these elements in a little bit more detail.
Decribe your main character, but don’t use their name. Unless it’s someone famous, the name is not helpful. It will only take up some of that precious, limited space. Instead, describe your character, preferrably in terms that relate to the plot.
What is the protagonist trying to achieve? What are they working for? This is the most important point of the whole logline, because it will give you the protagonist’s motivation. This motivation drives the plot forward throughout the whole story. If you’re unclear on the protagonist’s true goal, it will show in your plot. Remember, this is not a description of what they have to do to achieve their goal, this is the actual, end goal.
Describe the antagonist the same way you did the protagonist, but a bit more briefly. If the antagonist is not a person, or otherwise easily definable, you can replace this with the Conflict.
If your story takes place in a complicated setting – like for instance a science fiction story – it might be necessary to include a description of the setting in your logline. This could also be a description of some specific circumstances – like a peculiar past or some special trait – that is imperative for the logline to work.
The conflict is the complicating factor the prevents the protagonist from achieveing their goal.
Sometimes it might be a good idea to further stress what’s at stake, what the protagonist stands to lose if their goal isn’t met. Something that adds a sense of urgency.
This is the turn of events that kicks off your story.
What to avoid
Being vague: State your case in no uncertain terms, and be specific. Don’t let the reader guess who the anatgonist is, or what exactly the protagonist is struggling with.
Leaving out necessities: It must contain at least the three basic elements: protagonist, conflict, and antagonist.
Clichés: Every writer’s nemesis, because it can be hard to know when an expression goes from catchy to cliché. If you’re unsure, get feedback from other people.
Grammar errors and typos: Ok, so for the purpose of outlining this isn’t necessary. But as a writer, it should always be a concern, and if you intend to send it to agents, this point is vital.
Revealing the ending: The best way to sell your story is to leave the reader wanting to know what’s going to happen. If you tell them how it ends, you’re removing the motivation to learn more.
Here are some excellent examples of loglines from J Gideon Sarantinos’ blog.
The Wizard of Oz
After a twister transports a lonely Kansas farm girl to a magical land, she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard with the power to send her home.
Lets’ break it down.
After a twister [inciting incident] transports a lonely Kansas farm girl [protagonist] to a magical land [setting], she sets out on a dangerous journey [conflict] to find a wizard with the power to send her home [goal].
In a future where criminals are arrested before the crime occurs, a despondent cop struggles on the lam to prove his innocence for a murder he has not yet committed.
In a future where criminals are arrested before the crime occurs[setting], a despondent cop [protagonist] struggles on the lam [a rather weak anatagonistic force] to prove his innocence [goal] for a murder he has not yet committed [conflict].
The Sixth Sense
A psychologist struggles to cure a troubled boy who is haunted by a bizarre affliction – he sees dead people.
The way this logline ir written, it breaks down something like this:
A psychologist [protagonist] struggles to cure a troubled boy [goal] who is haunted by a bizarre affliction – he sees dead people [conflict].
However, I feel it is debatable if the protagonist is Dr. Crowe or Cole. The logline on IMDB.com has Cole as the protagonist, reading like this:
A boy who communicates with spirits that don’t know they’re dead seeks the help of a disheartened child psychologist.
I still think the first logline is the stronger one, but I would have put Cole as the protagonist. Either way it’s a great movie.
After a series of grisly shark attacks, a sheriff struggles to protect his small beach community against the bloodthirsty monster, in spite of the greedy chamber of commerce.
The final breakdown.
After a series of grisly shark attacks [setting], a sheriff [protagonist]struggles to protect his small beach community [goal] against the bloodthirsty monster [what’s at stake – people’s lives], in spite of the greedy chamber of commerce [antagonist].
This is one of those cases where it’s easy to think that the antagonist is the shark – which it would be if the goal was to kill it – but really, it’s the chamber of commerce, and the goal is to protect the community. If you nail the actual goal, the protagonist will follow, and so will your story.