by Angela Bourassa
As head judge of the LA Screenwriter Logline Competition, I read a lot of loglines. Like, a LOT a lot. And I always come across the same problems. There are the loglines that are way too long, the loglines with typos (it’s just one sentence, people – proofread it), the loglines that sound exactly like a movie or TV show I’ve already seen… But the most frustrating loglines are the ones with no specificity.
A man must find his wife’s killer before it’s too late.
A young woman looks for love in all the wrong places before realizing that her soulmate was right in front of her all along.
When aliens attack, we must find a way to defeat them before they enslave the whole planet.
Ok, those are a bit exaggerated, but only a bit. Hopefully you all see the problems with each of these loglines. These stories are completely generic. I know nothing substantial about any of these main characters, their world, what they’re up against, or what they’re going to do about it.
I think the big problem is that many writers face the challenge of condensing their brilliant script down to one sentence, and it feels impossible. There’s no way to get any real level of plot detail into just one sentence, right?
[What’s so important about loglines, you ask? Read 7 Ways to Put Your Logline to Work to find out.]
It is certainly challenging getting down to the heart of your idea, but that’s your job as a writer. You have to be able to show – in just one sentence – that your idea has a clear main character, a clear challenge, and clear stakes. Because if you can’t, that almost certainly means that your script isn’t at a professional level.
The whole point of a logline is to get the person who reads it or hears it to want to read your script. How do you do that? Here is a simple, three-step process:
(Read all the way to the end for examples of exceptional loglines!)
STEP 1: Highlight your main character.
Some of the loglines I review don’t mention the main character at all. Sci-fis are the biggest offender. Take a look at that third bad example above. Is the movie about the whole planet? How is that story going to work?
Make sure your main character is easily identifiable. The simplest way to do this is to start the logline with the character (i.e. When a maniacal carpenter…), but that’s not always vital. With horrors, for example, it can be a lot more interesting to start things off with the antagonist.
Then make sure that you’re giving the reader a clear picture of your lead. Instead of referring to them as “man” or “woman,” refer to them by their profession or by a defining characteristic. Precede that with one perfectly chosen adjective. This isn’t always necessary, but it’s a good place to start. Show just how creative and well thought-out your characters are by being specific.
An impotent playboy, a conniving dancer, an alcoholic kindergarten teacher… these are all characters that a reader can picture in a movie.
STEP 2: Highlight the action.
Plot is action. If you don’t have any action in your logline, you don’t have any plot in your logline. Quite often I’ll review loglines that read something like this:
A man unexpectedly inherits three million dollars from the father he never knew.
A beat cop on the streets of Chicago discovers that her partner is selling guns to the city’s most violent gangs.
Those are pretty interesting situations, but they aren’t plots. All that these loglines gets across is the catalyst, and the catalyst is not the plot. We need to know what action these main characters are going to take in reaction to the catalyst. That’s the plot.
Now, there are rare circumstances where you can have a great logline without your main character taking any real action. This is sometimes the case with horrors. In horrors, it’s often implied that the main character’s primary action is trying to survive. Horror loglines are often fleshed out by the action of the antagonist rather than the protagonist.
But in 95% of cases, you need to be explicit and specific about the action. If the reader can guess what your character will do in a given situation without you telling them, that almost always means that your story is generic and boring.
Steer clear of internal development and general goals. Yes, your character needs an internal journey for the sake of your screenplay, but not for the sake of your logline. Loglines are about external actions that imply internal change. They are about a specific character on a specific quest. Don’t bore the reader with generalities.
STEP 3: Get to the point.
I have found that the ideal length for a logline is between 30-35 words. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s enough space to get across all of the most important elements and make a strong impression. If your logline is much shorter, it’s probably not detailed enough. If it’s much longer, you’re either being wordy, including details that aren’t vitally important, or your idea isn’t high concept.
So there you have it. Establish the main character, describe their primary action, and make it snappy. That will give you a solid first draft of your logline that is specific. From there, you’ll want to make sure the stakes are high, the setting is clear, the sentence structure is sound, etc. etc.
But this is a good place to start.
My Logline Is Flawless – Now What?
[Note: for the May Logline Competition, we have a special drawing. Ten entrants will win either one of five free entries to the Big Break Screenwriting Contest or one of five free copies of Final Draft 9. Every entry is another chance to win! Enter by 5/25/16]
Or, if you need direct feedback on your logline so it’s the best it can possibly be for pitch meetings (I’m looking at you ScriptFest attendees), consider our Logline Polish service. With this option, I will personally help you rewrite your logline and work with you to get it to a professional level.
Speaking of ScriptFest, I will be in attendance along with the incomparable John Bucher. Together, we will be on a panel about (you guessed it) loglines. I hope to see many of you there. Get 10% off your pass with code LASW10.
4 Amazing Loglines to Emulate
As promised, here are four of my absolute favorite loglines from the LA Screenwriter Logline Competition. Take note of just how much story these writers pack into so little space. Notice the language that’s distinctive and on-tone, yet not jarring or distracting. And note how each of these ideas feels fresh, commercial, and entertaining.
No More Heroes (comedy): In a desperate attempt to win the love of an alluring female supervillain, a lowly henchman sneaks into the annual Cape Convention to vaporize her egotistical superhero ex-boyfriend. –Lawrson Pinson, Finalist, December 2015
Make Easy Money From Home (half-hour pilot): An unemployable college dropout writes a weekly blog on get-rich-quick schemes, drawing inspiration from her misfit friends who will do anything for money (except work). –Jennifer Krukowski, Winner, June 2015
The Eye of Owuo (horror): A desperate mother uses ancient African magic to resurrect her daughter, then realizes that the price for keeping her daughter alive entails taking the lives of others. –Martin Reese, Winner, March 2016
The Muffin Men (comedy): After their struggling breakfast-delivery startup rolls out a sensual “secret menu” for eccentric housewives, four hapless guys scramble to save their suddenly booming business from a puritanical HOA. –Laura Garrison, Winner, April 2015
Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.