by Angela Bourassa
We’re in the midst of our fourth monthly Logline Competition, and I feel like I’ve already seen just about every type of logline imaginable. There have been some amazing submissions – high concept ideas presented with clear sentence structure and compelling language – but there have been a lot more submissions riddled with common logline mistakes.
I serve as the judge of the competition, so I’ve read every single logline that’s come in and provided every person with feedback. What has amazed me so far is how often I find myself giving the same advice.
In the hope of nipping these problems in the bud, I’d like to lay out the six most common logline mistakes. Some of these are broad and some are nitty-gritty, but all are important. In no particular order, they are:
1. Naming your characters.
Do not name your main character or any other characters in your logline. Names are useless information. They don’t reveal anything about your characters. You only have a few words to tell the reader who your character is, so don’t waste any time on names. Instead, come up with a brief, telling description of your character.
The only exception to this rule is if your script is about a real person. If you’re writing a movie about George Washington, then you can say that directly.
2. Only getting across the setup.
In a perfect world, your logline would get across a sense of your entire script. In practice, it should cover up to the midpoint at the very least. If your logline only gets across the first ten to fifteen pages of your script, you’re in trouble. A character and a catalyst are not a movie, therefore they are not enough for a logline. You need to tell the reader what happens next.
3. Not giving your main character anything to do.
This is a big one. Probably the biggest one. And it goes hand in hand with the previous problem. If you’ve only included the setup of your story in your logline, then you haven’t told us what action your main character takes, and that action should make up the meat of your script.
So the agent got double-crossed by his partner… What’s he going to do about it?
In terms of grammar, your logline should primarily use the active voice, not the passive. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, check out this overview of active versus passive voice, because this is an extremely important concept not just for your logline, but for your script (and really all writing).
Basically, you don’t want your character simply to be acted on (e.g. “the agent is kidnapped”) but to take action him or herself (e.g. “the agent kidnaps”). The quick and easy test for this is to look for every place in your logline where you use the words “is” and “are.” Wherever you can, get these words out of your logline.
4. Being too vague.
This one is a doozy. It manifests in a few different ways. Sometimes I read loglines that have all of the elements that they’re supposed to – setting, character, catalyst, action, and consequence – but these elements are so vaguely defined that I still don’t have any idea what the story is about.
For example, “When his enemy kidnaps his daughter, a man must search the globe to find his daughter before she’s killed.” All of the elements are in place, but this is a pretty terrible logline. We don’t know anything about the main character or his enemy or the daughter or really anything specific about the action of the story. This is the skeleton of a logline. Without fleshing it out, it has no real value.
The other big problem I see is writers creating detailed character descriptions and setups, then closing out the logline with an incredibly vague overview of the plot.
For example, “An eccentric young scientist falls in love with his creation, an artificially intelligent droid, but various twists and turns keep them apart.” Strong setup, terrible pay off. “Twists and turns”? No.
I see this all the time – phrases that imply action or plot without actually revealing what the plot is. Phrases like these are placeholders for your actual story, and they all need to be taken out and replaced with the details of your plot.
Some examples of placeholder words and phrases include “society,” “raising the stakes,” “a series of events,” “complications,” “the catalyst,” “the plot thickens.” These are pretty extreme examples, but placeholders can take a lot of different forms. Check your logline for any words or phrases that are standing in for the actual details of your script.
5. Typos and grammatical mistakes.
This one should be a no-brainer, but you’d be amazed how many loglines I’ve read with at least one mistake. There’s no excuse for typos. None at all. Grammar issues can be a matter of style, so I give a little more leeway there, but not much.
Commas have rules. You can’t just place them wherever you feel like it. Yes, there are some situations where you have a choice on your comma usage, such as the Oxford comma or when deciding between a comma and a dash. But for the most part, you need to know and follow the rules. Here’s a good overview of when and how to use commas. (Ok, I’m done with my comma rant. I promise.)
It’s also important to make the structure of your logline as easy to read as possible. Your logline is a good time to emulate Hemingway, not Faulkner. If your reader has to go back and reread your logline a few times to make sure they’re reading it correctly, you’re in trouble.
6. Loglines that are more than one sentence long.
In 99.5% of cases, your logline should be one sentence and one sentence only. I’m willing to concede that there may be a rare circumstance in which a script concept is complicated enough to merit two sentences, but the vast majority of the time, your logline should only be one sentence.
If your logline doesn’t fit in one sentence, that means it isn’t high concept. Of course, there are some great movies out there that aren’t high concept, but if you’re an aspiring writer trying to sell a script, you’re only going to make the challenge ahead of you that much harder if your script isn’t high concept.
Where to Start
If you’re having trouble piecing together your logline in one concise sentence, start with the plug-in method: “When MAIN CHARACTER in SETTING CATALYST, he/she must ACTION before CONSEQUENCE.” Once you have all of your elements laid out, start structuring and restructuring your logline until your story is written in the most compelling and intriguing way possible.
After you’ve done away with all of these common logline mistakes, take your logline for a test drive by entering the LA Screenwriter Logline Competition. We’ll give you feedback on your logline in five days or less, plus you’ll have the chance to win great prizes from Script Pipeline, Virtual Pitch Fest, and Talentville. Check out the full prize details and all of the past winning loglines here.