by Angela Bourassa
Contrary to popular belief, screenwriting is one of the most complex forms of writing. The task of the screenwriter is to write a script so good that a handful of people will invest real money in it, hundreds of people will dedicate months of their lives to it, and thousands — maybe millions — of people will take time out of their lives to sit down and watch it.
Unfortunately, once you’ve put in the years of work that it takes to become a masterful screenwriter, there’s one more writing form you’ll have to master before you can join the ranks of professional screenwriters: the logline.
A Whole World Wrapped Up in One Sentence
A logline is a one-sentence description of your screenplay. Opinions vary on the maximum word count and whether it’s sometimes alright to break a logline into two sentences, but we can all agree that the purpose of a logline is to convince people to read your script.
There are plenty of formulas you can follow in order to plug a logline together, equations like “When Hero with Flaw in Setting encounters Problem, he/she/they must Action before Consequence.” Starting your logline by plugging your elements into an equation like that can be a helpful way to start the process. But the plug-in method can only ever be a first draft. Like your script, your logline will require the willingness to go through as many drafts as it takes to get it right.
The Six Cs of Professional Loglines
When you think you’ve written a logline that is worthy of your script, judge it against the six Cs of professional loglines: is the logline clear, creative, complete, concise, compelling, and commercial? Let’s break each of these components down into their respective pieces:
Clear – simple to read, easily understood, and grammatically correct
The biggest problem with the plug-in method of logline writing is that it invariably leaves you with a clunky sentence that’s impossible to follow. It is essential that your logline be simple enough to understand in one readthrough. If the reader says, “Wait, what?” after one read, you’re in trouble.
One of the hardest parts of making your logline clear is figuring out how to distill complicated characters and their complicated problems down into one sentence. Obviously, you’re not going to be able to fit everything about your script into your logline. The key is getting down to the essence of your idea by including only the most pertinent information.
Once you think your logline reads clearly, quadruple-check it AND have a friend check it for grammatical errors. If you make a typo in your logline, you’re sunk.
There’s a sentiment in Hollywood that coming up with script ideas is easy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Coming up with ideas is easy, sure, but great ideas? Ideas that studios will spend millions on? Great ideas are incredibly hard to generate. They require a stroke of genius, and most amateur screenwriters don’t spend nearly enough time seeking out genius ideas before they start writing. The result is a lot of semi-autobiographical screenplays about an uninteresting hero overcoming uninteresting obstacles.
A great movie idea must either be something truly original, an idea that breaks the mold like Memento or Fight Club did, or it needs to be a fresh take on an established story type. The vast majority of movie ideas fall into the latter category. All stories are built on the same archetypes — that’s what makes them work, and screenwriters don’t need to fight against their predecessors. However, your idea needs to bring something new to the table. In a perfect world, your idea will feel original AND familiar — the kind of idea that makes people say, “I can’t believe no one has made this yet.”
Complete – it gets across all of the most important elements of the idea
One of the most common logline mistakes is setting up the first act and leaving the rest out. A character and a crisis alone do not a movie make. Your logline should include a description of your main character (or characters if you have a few leads), the world, the problem, and the stakes. It should encapsulate the whole film, not just the setup. If you have a great twist, put it in there. Your script logline isn’t the right time to be withholding. It’s the time to give away all of your juiciest secrets.
The term “high concept” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot without much understanding. A high concept idea doesn’t mean a highbrow idea. High concept ideas are ideas that can be expressed in one sentence.
A 40-year-old man struggles to lose his virginity. Boom — high concept. Now, that’s not a logline, or at least it’s not a good one. But from those ten words we’ve already got a pretty strong sense of what this movie could be. That’s the hallmark of a high concept idea.
Ideally, a logline should be between 30 and 45 words, and it should only be one sentence. Two sentences are ok in some cases, but some readers will hold that divisive period against you no matter what. If your logline is over 50 words, you’re in trouble.
Compelling – attention-grabbing and full of emotionally charged language
By “emotionally charged language” I don’t mean melodramatic language or descriptions of feelings. Rather, your logline should utilize words that carry gripping emotional undertones, words that elicit strong emotional reactions in your reader. For example, what’s more intriguing: a scary dog or a bloodthirsty hound?
This is where you need to think like a poet. What words will carry the most weight? What words will accurately convey your script’s tone? And, most importantly, what words will draw readers in and make them want to read more?
Commercial – likely to draw the attention of producers, agents, or managers
Whether you want to sell your script to Paramount or produce it yourself, you’ll need a logline that has commercial appeal. Unless you’re making a film with your own money purely as an art piece, you’re hoping that people will pay money to watch it. That means it’s commercial, so it better appeal to audiences. It’s fine to have an idea that targets a specific demographic, but know that the more that you limit your audience, the fewer people will be interested in producing your script.
Ideally, the idea expressed by your logline should appeal to all four quadrants. A “four quadrant film” is a film that appeals to the four broad categories of people who go to movies (as defined by the film industry): men over the age of 25, men under 25, women over 25, and women under 25. If your idea is unlikely to appeal to women, you’re missing two quadrants. If it’s also unlikely to appeal to anyone born after 1970, you’re missing another quadrant.
A movie that hits all four quadrants is considered a family film (in the broadest sense). It’s probably going to get a rating of PG or PG-13. Four quadrant films include the likes of Interstellar, The Hunger Games, Toy Story, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Once you believe your logline is clear, creative, complete, concise, compelling, and commercial, consider taking it for a test drive with the LA Screenwriter Logline Competition. The Logline Competition is a new monthly contest that provides every entrant with professional feedback on their logline. Entrants get their loglines graded on the six Cs and are given written analysis of their logline’s strengths and weaknesses.
You can enter as many loglines as you’d like every month for the chance to win great prizes from our sponsors, Talentville and Script Pipeline. Each month, our winner and two finalists will also be promoted on LA Screenwriter.
If you’d rather keep your logline private, you can opt out of the contest and just enter your logline for the feedback. Check out our sample feedback to get a sense of what to expect. Learn more and enter today at our Logline Competition website.
This month’s deadline is midnight on the 25th, so hurry up!