The Power and Purpose of a Great Logline

How could one single sentence be such a big deal? After all, a logline is basically just a one sentence synopsis, right? How hard could that be? There’s no way a simple sentence is going to make or break my shot at getting my screenplay read or making a sale, right?

Wrong. It can. And chances are, it will.

There will always be exceptions of course, but betting on your logline NOT affecting someone’s opinion of both you and your work is just plain reckless. Maybe they won’t care if you don’t have a great logline. It might happen. But more than likely, they will. So why would you risk it?

Your logline can either encourage people to read your script or give them the excuse they’re looking for to toss it in the bin, so my advice to you is to take it seriously. Your logline is, in fact, very important and for a number of reasons. But before we get into the “why”, let’s talk about the “what”.  

What exactly is a logline?

A logline (sometimes referred to as a “pitch line”) is a story and/or concept condensed into one or two sentences that are used to evaluate the strength of a film premise and its marketability. Here’s a classic example:

“After being falsely convicted of the murder of his wife, a once prominent surgeon escapes to find the real murderer and clear his name.”

- The Fugitive (1993), embryo-films.com

From that single sentence, any interested parties (which should include YOU at the very conception of your screenplay idea as you decide whether or not your idea is something worth writing) can get a very good picture of what your film is about and how the general public may respond to it.

Clearly there will be much more to your story than you could ever hope to fit into one or two sentences, but a logline is a perfect opportunity for a producer or executive or agent to determine two very important things:

THING ONE:

The first thing a logline can determine is If your screenplay is one that a buyer or hire would like to pursue (because the logline proves you have a high concept idea that will be easy to market and capable of drawing a wider audience). It’s been proven over and over and for many decades that films need to be “high concept” to attract a wide audience.

High Concept:
an intriguing idea that can be stated in just a few words and is easily understood by all.

Without a strong audience that can pull from all four quadrants (young, old, male, female) there is little hope for a healthy ROI (return on investment). Movies need to make money. If they don’t show some promise of making a good return, why would anyone want to risk their money and their job making them?

With that in mind, if people are confused about your film, and don’t understand what it’s about or what the experience of watching it will be like, they will typically avoid it, preferring to invest their time and money in something either immediately familiar (reboots, remakes, adaptations etc.) or at the very least, something easily understood.

I need to point out that just because a concept is simple enough to be understood by all in one short sentence, doesn’t mean it needs to be dumbed down. The entire point is to boil down your wonderful concept into one powerful and compelling sentence without losing any of its uniqueness or creative spark. It’s tough, but it can absolutely be done. And if you can’t figure it out, then consider that your concept might not be the kind of story that will make a successful film.

Alternatively, just because something is “high concept” is in no way supposed to suggest it’s excellent. High concept is not an indication of quality. Snakes on a Plane (2006) was a very high concept premise, but also a very bad film.

THING TWO:

A logline will also help any interested party determine if your screenplay is likely to be written at a level that is ready for either production or further development by the interested party (based on your skill in crafting the logline).

Whether we like it or not, your logline is often the very first thing a potential buyer or hire will read and should be considered an important sample of your work. It’s your first opportunity to prove to any interested parties that not only can you write, but that you understand what makes a screenplay work as a marketable commodity. This is show business after all and you need to have a healthy grasp of the business side of things as well. And, if you don’t want to be burdened by having to learn all of the ins and outs of the business of screenwriting, then here’s the only thing you need to remember:

It is very bad business to spend any amount of time and/or money producing a product that no-one wants to buy.

Spelling, grammar, punctuation and crystal clear, communicative writing all count when you are writing a logline because if you choose to make a weak, confused logline the first sample of your work that you share with a professional, why would they want to suffer through 120 more pages of what could be equally low-quality writing?

Of course, you can try to circulate a screenplay without one, but that would mean you’ve decided NOT to leverage the most powerful selling tool and enticement to read your work that you have available. A very strong logline will draw interest. It can also help your screenplay stand out from the thousands and thousands out there trying desperately to get someone’s attention.

If you can’t make your idea into a great logline, that should be a red flag to consider carefully and honestly. If your idea is a dud, wouldn’t you rather find that out now than after you’ve spent months writing the first draft?

“I am a firm believer that you should write a logline before you start writing a script. This draft logline doesn’t have to be perfect, but even a draft logline can serve as a proof of concept. Whether or not your idea translates into a clear, concise, compelling logline will tell you a few things:

·      Whether your idea is high concept

·      Whether your idea is original / commercial

·      Whether your idea is well structured

·      Whether your idea is complete”

-  Angela Bourassa, la-screenwriter.com

You also need a logline when you’ve finished your script. While query letters have become much less common than they were ten years ago, your logline has several other important uses.

First, if you submit to screenwriting competitions, most ask for a logline. Why? Often, it’s so that the contest’s readers can look at the loglines in combination with the title, page count, and genre, and decide which scripts they want to accept into competition. Readers don’t always get to see loglines, but when they do, they’ll inevitably read the logline first, and the logline will inform their reading of the script.

Contests aside, a solid logline is a valuable tool when pitching. And I don’t just mean in meetings with agents or producers (though you’ll need loglines for that, too). When you’re at a networking event or chatting with a writer friend who just got repped and they ask, “What’s your script about?” your logline will help you answer that question clearly and concisely, which will make a much better impression than an off-the-cuff rambling description.

“In the beginning, [a logline] is a powerful seed that can help you both create and sell your story. At the end of the process, it is the face you put on the story when you try to market it. And here again, your mission has to be accomplished in very few words.”

-James Bonnet for thewritersstore.com

There is really only one logline law: convey your story in a visceral, engaging way that makes us want to read your script. If your logline doesn’t do that, no sale.

THE MAIN INGREDIENTS OF A LOGLINE:

(* edited and altered from Angela Bourassa’s la-screenwriter.com article “10 Steps to a Compelling Logline”)

Loglines are for the bare essentials only, carefully composed in dramatic fashion identifying the following FIVE ATTRIBUTES that are UNIQUE TO YOUR CONCEPT:

1.     THE MAIN CHARACTER

You need to clearly identify your main character or “hero”, but it is tradition that they are not identified by name. Typically, they are identified by their station in life and perhaps a character flaw. Your main character might also be a group of people or a couple. If so, identify the unit, but also pick out the person who is the true main character, the one who leads the group or who has the biggest arc. The reader needs to know who’s story this is and whether or not it’s someone they want to bother investing two hours in.

Example: There are a lot of big, important characters in The Godfather, but the main character is Michael.

2.     THE INCITING INCIDENT

This is the event that happens that takes your main character out of the status quo and sends them on their story journey. It could be something that the character does, like quitting her job, or something that happens to the character, like the death of a spouse.

Example: In The Godfather, the inciting incident is the assassination attempt on Michael’s father. A lot of story and intrigue is set up before that point, including the introduction of the B story (Michael’s relationship with Kay), but the assassination attempt is what throws the family into upheaval and forces Michael to act.

3.     THE MAIN ACTION

This is the main character’s physical, active response to the inciting incident. It is the overarching thing they do to solve their problem or achieve their goal. The main character will take a lot of different steps along the path to their goal, but the same big external goal will be behind every action. For example, in The 40 Year Old Virgin, the main action is all about trying to have sex for the first time.

Example: In The Godfather, the main action is becoming the new godfather. Michael doesn’t want to do that, but he takes his first step toward that goal when he kills the men in the restaurant. He tries to escape and have his own life, but after that first action he’s trapped on a path which he cements on an external level when he has his sister’s husband killed and on an internal level when he lies about it to his wife.

4.     THE MAIN OBSTACLE(S)

I like the term “obstacle” over “antagonist,” because I think it’s easier for most people to wrap their head around. Basically, you need to identify the thing or person standing in the way of your character completing their goal.

Example: In The Godfather, there are antagonists around every corner, but as this story is all about loss of innocence, the main obstacle that Michael has to overcome is his own desire to leave the family business behind.

5.     THE STAKES

This is what will be lost if the main character doesn’t succeed at their main action. With each of these pieces, we’re talking about the external. What will physically happen on screen if the character fails? In most cases, a ticking time bomb of some kind will be built into the stakes.

Example: In The Godfather, Michael’s family is at stake. Some or all of them could die and/or lose everything they have if he doesn’t step up.

  • Your logline should also make clear the era this story takes place in, (unless it is current day in which it does not matter and does not need mentioning) and the primary setting.

  • It could also mention secondary characters and situations, but most everything else should NOT appear.

  • DON’T Think you’ll be clever and put a question in your logline thinking it will draw people in with a compelling mystery. It won’t.

Example: “Where’s the perfect place to bury a dead body? In the past.”

Like the PREMISE, the LOGLINE seems like a relatively simple thing to create, but don’t be fooled. Creating a PREMISE can be difficult because of its deceiving simplicity, but the LOGLINE will challenge you because of its incredible complexity. Strong, effective loglines are deceptively hard to write. There are a lot of important details working together in a successful LOGLINE like this one:

“A young and idealistic son of the most powerful Mafia boss in New York returns home a war hero determined to live his own life, but tragic circumstances force him to face the brutal legacy of his family and become the next Godfather.”

And there you have it. I hope I’ve made a strong case as to why loglines are so important. Use the above information to create your best logline for each of the screenplays you happen to be working on and pay particularly close attention to the VERBS you use. I’m always surprised when loglines come to me that sound ... boring. Loglines are supposed to sell! To excite! By choosing unique and dynamic, active verbs, you can inject a lot of energy in an otherwise lacklustre logline.

And here’s another great article from Angela Bourassa, this time over at talentville.com. This one is titled “The Six Most Common Logline Mistakes”.

Study and consider all you can about loglines and then give it your best shot. I promise you loglines really are worth the effort.

Cheers!


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