Writing Effective Loglines


Here is more advice by Christopher Lockhart, Story Analyst at William Morris Endeavor Agency. It’s a lengthy article packed with useful information on constructing loglines, so take the time to read it thoroughly.

A common tool utilized by both writers and executives is the LOGLINE.

A logline conveys the dramatic story of a screenplay in the most abbreviated manner possible. It presents the major throughline of the dramatic narrative without character intricacies and sub-plots.  It is the story boiled down to its base. A good logline is one sentence. More complicated screenplays may need a two sentence logline.

As simple as this seems, it can be difficult for a writer to extract the center of his story to create a logline. Crafting a logline takes a great deal of practice and an understanding of basic dramatic structure.

A LOGLINE must present:

who the story is about (protagonist)
what he strives for (goal)
what stands in his way (antagonist).

Sometimes a logline must include a brief set-up.  A logline does not tell the entire story.  It merely uses these three major story elements to depict the dramatic narrative in an orderly and lucid manner.  For instance, a logline for THE WIZARD OF OZ may read:

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.

PROTAGONIST

When referring to the protagonist in a logline, do not use a character name.  Character names are meaningless to the reader and can crowd and confuse the logline.  The one exception would be if the character were a famous person (like George Washington).  Instead of using a name, use an occupation or life-status like politician or teenager, brain surgeon or homeless man.

Use a well-chosen adjective to bring greater clarity to the character like a “liberal” politician or an “angst ridden” teenager.  The adjective should be accurate in describing who the character is.  For instance, the farm girl heroine in THE WIZARD OF OZ (Dorothy) could be considered “lonely” or “neglected.”  These words will resonant with greater significance (like irony) when juxtaposed to her goal (to get back home).

GOAL

The character’s major goal is the engine of a screenplay, and it must be present in the logline.  In THE WIZARD OF OZ, Dorothy has many goals. She must protect the ruby slippers; she must meet the wizard; she must retrieve the broomstick of the wicked witch. But her major goal is to return to Kansas. It is this goal that the entire dramatic story hinges upon. This is the heart of the dramatic narrative. A screenplay’s major goal is most often found at the end of the FIRST ACT.  This is the turning point in classically structured screenplays.  The character’s goal, whether it is physical or psychological, should be established by the end of the first stanza. The climax is the moment where the protagonist achieves or fails her goal.)

Often, writers introduce the character goal late in the screenplay. This is a fatal flaw. If Dorothy landed in Oz at the end of act two (or even at mid-point), one could not legitimately state the story is about her desire to return to Kansas. If more than half the story sets up the character goal, then the dramatic narrative is about the set-up itself and not the goal. To say that UNFAITHFUL or GOSFORD PARK are stories about murder would be inaccurate, because the homicides occur deep in act two.

ACCURATE PORTRAIT

For example, many would construct a logline for IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE like this:

A suicidal family man is given the opportunity to see what the world would be like if he had never been born.

However, this is disingenuous, because this story element is not introduced until the final third of the film.  Hence, this is not what the story is about.  IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is the story of a small town man who yearns to escape his mundane piece of Americana for success in the big city. His goal, which is internal, is to find success. Sadly, the script’s third act hook is more intriguing than the throughline of the story.  But it would be death for a writer to use the logline above because an executive would expect this hook early in the screenplay and could be disappointed to find it introduced on page ninety instead of page thirty.

A logline cannot simply ignore the first two thirds of the story.   However, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE has such a memorable third act, one must include it in the logline, which could go like this:

A family man struggles to escape small town America for a more successful life in the big city.  When his constant efforts fail, he contemplates suicide but his guardian angel visits and the man experiences what the world would be like if he had never been born.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is a screenplay that would be severely rewritten today, because modern story executives would insist that the intriguing hook be introduced at the end of the first act and not the beginning of the third. Regardless, this new and improved logline is a more accurate portrait of the actual story boiled down to its base.

ANTAGONISTIC FORCE AND STAKES

The logline must present the antagonistic force – the story element that prevents the protagonist from reaching his goal. The writer needs to be careful here and not weigh down the logline with too many details. In the logline example for THE WIZARD OF OZ, the phrase “dangerous journey” intimates the antagonism.

However, mentioning another character in the logline can crowd it.  The trick is to create a logline that is succinct but not sparse. When crafting the first draft of the logline, a writer may want to throw in everything (including the wicked witch) and then whittle and winnow until it reads smoothly and effectively. In the IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE example, there is no mention of misanthropic Mr. Potter. One could certainly use him as the antagonistic force in the logline. However, here the family man’s constant failure (as he sees it) serves as the antagonistic force.  It must be clear that the antagonist is an obstacle to the major goal.  It must imply that something is at stake; it must suggest that something can be lost. The reader must get the sense that death (literal or figurative) is a risk.

SET-UP

Another element that may be necessary in the logline is a set-up.  For instance, some screenplays have complicated worlds (like sci-fi), and it may be necessary to describe that world.  In some cases, the hero could have a “past” – like a secret or a scar – that must be included in order for the logline to work.   For instance, it is imperative to include the concept of “precrime” in a logline for MINORITY REPORT.

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.

Without the brief set-up, the logline would read like:

A despondent cop struggles on the lam to prove his innocence for a murder he has not yet committed.

To someone who knows nothing of the story, this would make little sense.  Notice that the first logline does not go into the detail of “precrime,” nor does it mention it by name.  For the purposes of the logline, we only need to understand “precrime’s” most basic function.

CONCISE LOGLINE

A logline is not a screenplay. It is merely a representation of the screenplay’s dramatic story. The information needed to understand the screenplay – as a whole – is not necessary to understand the logline. A logline does not require the same information and details in order for it to be cogent. A logline is its own little story, and it only needs certain information in order for it to make sense.  THE WIZARD OF OZ and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE loglines introduce the protagonists and their goals with a minimal amount of additional information.

A logline consists of three major elements:

the character
his goal
the antagonistic force

When necessary, the logline will include information to establish a world or pertinent character facts.  Try to present the logline in a linear fashion – even if the screenplay is presented in a non-linear manner.  Linear fashion would introduce the set-up first, then the protagonist and his goal, and the antagonistic force.  Of course, there can be variations of this.

DRAMATIC QUESTIONS

Screenplays ask dramatic questions throughout the course of the story.  These questions create tension and motivate the reader to turn to the next page.  A logline does the same thing in miniature: it raises questions that evoke curiosity and stir up potentiality. In THE WIZARD OF OZ logline, one may be curious about the “mysterious land” or wonder what the “dangerous journey” entails.  Perhaps, an executive will be motivated to know if the lonely farm girl meets “the wizard” and wonder what he may be like.  Hopefully, the executive will want to learn whether or not the girl finds her way back to Kansas.  For this reason, a logline should avoid revealing the script’s conclusion. This should remain part of the intrigue.

Writers often claim the best part of their screenplay is the “surprise” ending, and they feel the need to include it in the logline.  A well-known screenplay with a surprise ending is THE SIXTH SENSE.  An effective logline for this story may go:

A psychologist struggles to cure a troubled boy who is haunted by a bizarre affliction – he sees dead people.

David Benioff’s STAY also has a surprise ending.  The logline could read like:

As a psychiatrist races against time to prevent the suicide of a patient, he unexpectedly finds himself trapped in a surreal and frightening world.

In these examples, the “surprise” ending is not included.  A good logline (like the screenplay itself) should boast a story that is not dependent on its ending.  Providing too much information in a logline can backfire by giving the executive more information in which to find fault. A brief but well constructed logline should tease and raise many questions to successfully pique the interest of the executive.

ACTIVELY STRUGGLE WITH THE LOGLINE

A logline must convey the action of the story and carefully chosen words must be used to give the logline momentum.  The most useful word in writing a logline is “struggle,” because it presents the goal (and scope) of the story and conveys drama.  Conflict (the basis of drama) is inherent in the word “struggle.”

JAWS:

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.

ORDINARY PEOPLE:

After being institutionalized for a suicide attempt, a teen struggles for sanity and closure but must overcome his greatest adversary first – his mother.

CHICAGO:

After murdering her lover, an aspiring singer struggles for stardom by using her crime as a stepping-stone to fame and fortune.

Always keep the protagonist active in the forefront of the logline.  The protagonist must be responsible for the thrust of the story.  In the logline for JAWS, it is clear that the sheriff has a goal, and this goal is the thrust of the narrative.  In the ORDINARY PEOPLE logline, the struggle of the suicidal teen moves the story forward.

FOREGROUND VERSUS BACKGROUND

Keeping the protagonist on the logline’s front burner is an important point.  Aside from it demonstrating the dramatic engine of the story, it allows the executive to envision the lead role (hopefully a “star vehicle”), which increases the possibilities of solicitation and even a sale. Putting the protagonist in the background of a logline would look like this:

A disturbed boy seeks the help of a psychologist as he struggles to free himself of a bizarre affliction – he sees dead people.

Although the most intriguing element in THE SIXTH SENSE is the boy’s dilemma, the story does not belong to him, and this logline would be an inaccurate portrait of the dramatic narrative.  It is necessary for the logline to demonstrate that the protagonist is doing the struggling.  In this example, it is the boy’s struggle.  The earlier (and more accurate) logline for THE SIXTH SENSE puts the onus of the struggle onto the psychologist (where it belongs), because he is the protagonist.

EXTERNAL VERSUS INTERNAL

Since a screenplay provides the story for a motion picture – a visual medium – it is important that the logline convey visual/external aesthetics. For example, words like “decides,” “realizes,” “learns” should be avoided when constructing a logline – especially when presenting the major conflict of the story. These words connote an internal process that is not wholly appealing to the cinema (or story executives). If the crux of the screenplay is based on an internal process, the logline must present the conflict in an external and dramatic manner.

HAMLET, perhaps the greatest drama ever written, is based on a decision.  As a play, it uses soliloquies to externalize the thoughts of the protagonist – a devise that is theatrical and not cinematic.  However, films use the voice-over.  Regardless, a writer should present this internal process in an active manner.  A logline for HAMLET could go:

After learning his father was murdered, a brooding prince struggles with whether or not to kill the culprit, his uncle – the new king.

Ultimately, a writer who conceives a story for film may want to concoct a concept that is inherently external/visual in nature.  It seems a sure thing that Hollywood powerbrokers would force William Shakespeare to reinvent HAMLET if the Bard were a modern day neophyte peddling his story as a spec script.

OFFENSIVE VERSUS DEFENSIVE

Be sure the logline presents the character as initiating the essential action of the story.  In THE FUGITIVE, it appears as if the title character is on the run.  One might create a logline like:

A doctor falsely accused of murder flees a relentless federal agent who is in hot pursuit.

This problematic logline puts the protagonist on the defense and not the offense. He flees – which is a defensive maneuver. A closer look at the story reminds one that the falsely accused hero is in search of his wife’s killer.  It is this goal that keeps him active and on the offensive.  A healthier logline for THE FUGITIVE would read:

A doctor – falsely accused of murdering his wife – struggles on the lam as he desperately searches for the killer with a relentless federal agent hot on his trail.

ENSEMBLE AS PROTAGONIST

If the screenplay features an ensemble as its protagonist (like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN), the group can be presented as the protagonist.

A group of gunslingers struggles to save a Mexican town from a murderous posse of banditos.

A logline for THE WARRIORS could read like:

After they are wrongfully accused of murder, a street gang struggles to get back to their home turf – as every rival gang in the city pursues them.

THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE could go:

After a luxury liner is capsized by a tidal wave, a group of survivors struggles to escape through the bow before the ship sinks.

However, ensemble pieces often have one central character and the logline could be presented from his point-of-view. If one considers Yul Brenner the central character in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, the logline could read:

A professional gunslinger organizes a unique posse that struggles to save a Mexican town from a murderous group of banditos.

If Michael Beck were considered the central character in THE WARRIORS, the logline could read:

After being accused of murder, a gang leader struggles to get his crew back to their home turf – as every rival gang in the city pursues them.

If Gene Hackman is considered the central character in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, the logline could go:

After a luxury liner is capsized by a tidal wave, a radical priest struggles to lead a group of survivors to escape through the bow before the ship sinks.

Although both examples (featuring the group as protagonist or focusing on a central character) present accurate portraits of these stories, it is smarter to concentrate the logline on the central character.  Again, this allows the executive to know that there is a star role at the forefront of the story, which always increases the overall worthiness of the project and whets the appetites of producers, agents, executives, and actors.

SLICE-OF-LIFE AND THEMATIC LOGLINES

Slice-of-life screenplays are stories that employ a psychological goal as the dramatic engine instead of a physical goal. Physical goals (which create the “hero archetype”) are the preferred screenwriting modus operandi in Hollywood. Slice-of-life screenplays eschew Hollywood’s comfortable mode of structure and always depend on the quality of writing versus the actual concept. For aspiring pros, writing these kinds of screenplays makes breaking into the business even more difficult.

The commercial appeal for slice-of-life stories is limited, and the basic concept is usually insignificant and fails to thrill when presented in a logline. Since most new writers need to capture the attention of an agent or producer via the logline, the slice-of-life scribe is in a difficult and unenviable position.  Although the writing may be worthy of an Oscar, the award will be given to another if the logline/pitch fails to impress.

Sadly, an aspiring pro is better off having written a mediocre script with a strong premise rather than a strong script with a mediocre premise, because a strong premise (by means of the logline) could capture the attention of an executive. The executive’s search for scripts is like a mating ritual. As human beings, we are superficially attracted to someone based on the package, without knowing anything about who the person is.

A compelling logline lures in the executive. Stories that feature a hero archetype are like the super models of screenplays (in Hollywood) while a slice-of-life story is like a homely person.  The plain Jane may be the greatest girl on Earth, but she’ll probably sit home alone on Saturday night. Of course, the homely person can find popularity and love, but he may have to stag it for several years at the winter formal. As an aspiring pro, a writer wants his concept to be as attractive as possible. Despite this reality, spec slice-of-life screenplays are acquired and produced.

Often, a slice-of-life script may present several different storylines – all circling around a theme or a place (like NASHVILLE). Richard Curtis’s LOVE ACTUALLY features many characters in several different stories depicting variations of love.  There is no particular story in Curtis’s script that takes precedence over another, so it is impossible to focus the logline on one specific storyline or character. Instead, the logline must present the theme of the piece – which in this case (simplistically speaking) is love.  The logline could go like:

A varied group of individuals struggles with the pleasures, pain, and power of love.

This logline may fail to thrill many, but it is an accurate representation of the screenplay.  For a neophyte trying to push this logline, success could be elusive.  However, for Richard Curtis (FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, NOTTING HILL, BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY), who doesn’t need a logline to attract attention, it is no trouble at all.  The logline for the Oscar winning GOSFORD PARK could read:

During a weekend jaunt at a British country house, servants – who must keep order and protocol – struggle to please their aristocratic employers until a murder threatens to disrupt the balance.

When writing a thematic based logline, avoid presenting the theme in a didactic manner. When crafting a logline for a hero based story, avoid using theme at all. Audiences do not go to the movies to learn “there’s no place like home.” First and foremost, they go to the movies to be excited and moved by Dorothy’s journey in Oz. In other words, one should avoid this:

After a twister transports a lonely farm girl to a magical land, she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard with the power to send her home.  After killing a wicked witch, she returns to her farm in Kansas happily observing that there is no place like home.

In general, a writer may want to steer away from interpreting the deeper meaning of his drama for audiences. Allow audiences to experience it for themselves. Allow audiences to find their own meaning to the drama.

LOGLINE VERSUS HIGH CONCEPT

Often writers develop a “high concept” to pitch.  A high concept is a premise that immediately conveys a movie (with a great deal of conflict) in fewer words than it takes to write a logline. A high concept often uses extremes to engender the drama and scope of a movie.  The high concept for LIAR, LIAR is a “lawyer that cannot tell a lie.”  The high concept for O is OTHELLO in high school.  A lawyer that cannot lie demonstrates an extreme situation.  The same is true for OTHELLO in high school.  The concept of setting the Shakespearean tragedy in school demonstrates extremes.

However, a “high concept” idea is not a logline.  “A lawyer that cannot tell a lie” does not offer much in the way of the three (sometimes four) story elements.  A proper logline for LIAR, LIAR could go:

When his son wishes he will only tell the truth, an attorney, and pathological liar, is magically compelled to be honest for one day and struggles to win the biggest case of his career – without telling a lie.

Also, do not confuse a movie poster tagline with a logline.  A tagline is a catch phrase used in advertising.  One of the most famous was created for JAWS II: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water….”  This is amusing and gimmicky and great for a one-sheet.  However, a tagline does not demonstrate the necessary story elements to allow the reader to see the dramatic narrative.  A tagline fails to educate the reader on the story essentials.

DIAGNOSIS AND PROGNOSIS

Skilled story executives can read a logline like a doctor reads a CAT scan. Based on one sentence, they can predict strengths and weaknesses in the screenplay. Often executives hear the writer say, “I’m not good at loglines, but my script is great.”  A logline is merely a byproduct of the screenplay. If the screenplay has systemic flaws, these flaws will appear as symptoms within the logline.   For instance, if a logline presents a passive protagonist, it seems certain that the screenplay will be slow and uneventful due to an inactive hero.  If the logline fails to present a clear cut goal for the protagonist, the screenplay will often ramble with tedium.  One reason writers grapple with loglines is because their stories are not well constructed.  A writer who clearly understands his character, the goal, and the antagonist should be able to craft a logline with ease.

However, aspiring pros are often unclear of these basic dramatic elements; they do not include them in their narrative and, as a result, struggle with constructing the logline after the screenplay is finished. To avoid this problem, a writer should craft his logline before he writes his screenplay.  A logline is a good place to start when brainstorming story ideas and it provides a simplistic map, insuring that the scribe has all the basic elements in place before he begins his screenwriting journey.

A logline is most often used in written pitches.  For instance, when a producer sends a letter to an actor with the hopes of enticing him to attach to the project, he will provide a logline in the cover letter.  Agents do the same when they send screenplays to their clients. In verbal pitching, a logline is very useful.  It is a good place to start the pitch. The logline orients the listener in the basic elements of the story, which then allows the writer to expand on the story. Often, without the orientation of a logline in a verbal pitch, the listener will tune out because the story becomes too confusing or complicated. If one were to pitch THE WIZARD OF OZ, it would be smart to begin with the logline and then embellish with the details of the yellow brick road, the Scarecrow, the Wicked Witch’s broomstick, the phony wizard, and so on.

It seems farcical that so many words can be devoted to crafting a logline. This isn’t nuclear physics or the deconstruction of John Donne or Shakespeare, all of which could inspire volumes.  However, in the scheme of things, loglines play a vital role in the life of a screenplay.  A logline can be used to form the dramatic narrative before the words “fade in” are written.  It can be used to keep the scribe on track during the writing process.  When the script is finished, the logline will be a tool used to market the screenplay.  It will be used in query letters, release forms, applications for screenwriting contests.  An agent or manager will use the logline to pitch the story to others in the agency.  Story analysts will read the script and create a logline.  After the screenplay is acquired, the logline will be used in e-mails, casting minutes, cover letters to investors and financiers. Loglines will be used to lure talent. Upon release of the film, loglines will be used in press packages, and will eventually be seen on DVD boxes and in the TV Guide.

A writer needs to conquer the unnecessary intimidation involved with loglines. Writers must practice crafting loglines for recent films and should write them after reading screenplays.  Until Hollywood comes up with another alternative, loglines will remain an integral part of the process, and the screenwriter must learn to successfully construct loglines that will represent his screenplay in the most accurate and effective way possible.

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10 Comments Add yours

  1. Manina says:

    Great breakdown on a complex theme. The best I’ve read on loglines. Thanks! One question: we hear all the time that if your script isn’t High Concept, chances of getting it read by Hollywood execs are almost nil. Would you recommend to include the High Concept version of a logline in a query? Like the Dramatic logline AND the HC logline?

    1. JG Sarantinos says:

      Very good question. It’s true that many executives prefer high concept loglines because they are easier to pitch and be able to visualize a movie. Loglines are meant to create an element of dramatic conflict, in terms of the main character’s goal, so you don’t need two loglines. Stick with the high concept logline if it fits your script.

  2. Daveronius says:

    Great article, Gideon, thx! I’d love to hear what you think about the loglines I’ve posted here: http://www.harebrained.com/screenplays.htm

  3. Laura Gordon says:

    What a gem of a resource; super useful/helpful. Thanks Gideon.
    PS> Reading Manina’s comments; I am unclear on what a high concept log line is, any pointers?

  4. Pingback: Words on a page

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