by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
Loglines suck. Even for optioned writers, writing a compelling logline can be a daunting challenge. I know this because I’ve personally given written feedback on over 1,400 loglines, and in that group, I came across maybe ten that were flawlessly written.
Of course, “flawless” is a matter of opinion, but in my experience, I’ve found that great loglines tend to share certain characteristics. They are concise, creative, carefully constructed, story specific, and clear. I’ll get into what I mean by all of that below, but first, let’s address the elephant in the room…
Do I Really Need a Logline?
Yeah, you do. Here’s why.
I’m 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
If you can’t make your idea into a good logline, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad idea, but it is a warning sign that you should consider carefully and honestly. If your idea is a dud, wouldn’t you rather find that out now than after you’ve finished the first draft?
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 read. Readers don’t always get to see loglines, but when they do, they’ll inevitably read the logline first, and the logline will color their reading of the script.
Is this fair? Yes and no. It sucks that a single sentence could ruin your chances of winning a competition, but it’s also reasonable that if your logline is vague, long-winded, or has typos, the reader will expect the same from your screenplay.
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.
(Mind you, you shouldn’t spit out a memorized sentence, but the process of writing your logline and gaining an understanding of your story at a bird’s eye level will help you share the idea with others more effectively.)
So let’s get to it, shall we?
How to Write a Logline
To help illustrate this process, I’ll use a well-known film as an example: The Godfather.
1. Identify your core story elements.
In most cases, your core story elements will consist of:
a. Your main character – This may or may not be the hero of the story. Your main character might be a group of people or a couple. 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.
There are a lot of big, important characters in The Godfather, but the main character is Michael.
b. The inciting incident – This is the thing 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.
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.
c. 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 trying to get laid.
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.
d. 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 main action.
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.
e. 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 will be built into the stakes.
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.
Note: In many stories, the setting is also an important element, but not always.
2. Plug your elements in and write the long, crappy version of your logline.
Before you try to write a great logline, write a bad one. Make sure you have all of the core story elements by plugging your logline together:
When INCITING INCIDENT, CHARACTER must ACTION, overcoming OBSTACLES or else STAKES.
Your plug-and-play sentence could look a bit different depending on the specifics of your story. You might prefer:
CHARACTER must ACTION when INCITING INCIDENT, but OBSTACLES threaten STAKES.
You get the idea. Basically, put all of your core pieces into one big, fat, ugly sentence.
For The Godfather, the ugly plugged together logline might look like this:
When Michael Corleone’s father almost gets assassinated by a rival mob family, he must set aside his desire to start a new life outside of the family business and become the new Godfather or else his family will be torn apart.
3. Replace any character names with character descriptions.
Names are useless in loglines unless they are the names of famous people. Telling you that the main character is “Michael” doesn’t tell you anything about his personality, what he does, his demographic – nothing. So instead, try to use one adjective to describe the character’s personality and one more to describe their most clearly defining trait in relation to the story, such as their job. In character driven stories, two words might not be enough. In some cases a phrase will work best.
You want to describe your character as they are at the start of the story before the inciting incident. This sets the baseline for the character transformation that’s to come.
Thus, Michael from The Godfather can be described as a “promising war hero.”
4. Take out any references to the title or genre.
The reader will always have the title and genre in addition to your logline, so don’t include those in your logline. It looks unprofessional. I wouldn’t even use the term “Godfather” in our Godfather logline, if possible.
5. Restructure for maximum impact.
If your story is a horror, it probably makes sense to introduce the antagonist first to set the tone. If you’re writing a mystery, save your big twist for the end of the sentence. Use sentence structure as a tool for creating suspense.
You also need to make sure that you don’t jar the reader with any unexpected developments at the end of your logline. (If your friendly neighborhood crossing guard kills someone in the last words of your logline, you should probably establish up front that he has homicidal tendencies.)
Just remember that the character who is the subject of your sentence will be interpreted by the reader as the main character. Likewise, if your story is a rom-com or buddy movie, whichever half of the pair you describe first will be interpreted as the true main character.
6. Replace vague words with story-specific words.
If you describe a character as a “young woman” or their main action as “going on a journey,” you need to take out those vague phrases and replace them with the actual core details of your specific story.
Now, some people hear that and then write a long description of their character’s quest. That’s not the answer. You can be specific about your character and your plot while still being concise. The trick is getting down to the heart of the matter. In The Godfather, for example, we could say that Michael must “change his path,” but we don’t know what he’s changing his path to or from. We could also say that Michael must kill two men in a restaurant, flee to Italy to start a new life only to see his wife get murdered and finally come back to America to kill his brother-in-law and cement his role as the new Godfather… but that’s too specific. We need to find the middle ground.
7. Trim, trim, trim.
Ultimately, you want your logline to be about 30-35 words. A little bit shorter or longer is fine, and the ideal length will depend upon the specific story. But as a general principal, 30-35 words and just one sentence is a great length to shoot for. Much longer, and you’re probably going into too much detail. Much shorter, and you’re probably being too vague.
Strive for just one sentence. It isn’t always possible, but you’ll usually be better off if you can make it work.
8. Pick your words carefully.
You could write a logline that perfectly encapsulates your story but is interpreted by readers as the opposite genre. Make sure that the language you use accurately reflects the tone of your script. For example, you might use the term “murders” in a thriller logline but “offs” in a comedy logline.
Likewise, use language that the everyday 20-something reader will understand. Avoid jargon and unfamiliar acronyms, and steer clear of fancy words that most people would have to look up.
This one is huge. A logline with typos is a disaster. And commas have rules! Yes, there are times when you can choose whether to use a comma or a dash or no punctuation at all based on style, but in most cases, COMMAS HAVE RULES. Obey them. Thank you.
Likewise, even if your sentence is grammatically correct, you NEED to make sure that it reads clearly. I’ve come to believe that this is the most important element of a good logline. It doesn’t matter how unique and exciting your idea is if the reader can’t make sense of it.
Read your logline out loud. Set it aside for a day or more, then read it out loud again. Ask other people to read it. Whatever works for you, just make sure it’s clear.
10. Go back to step two and do the whole thing again.
Don’t settle for the first logline you write. It might be good, but there’s probably a better version you haven’t stumbled on yet. Try different wording. Try different descriptions. Try rearranging the order. Don’t stop until you have a logline that is clear, concise, and compelling.
That covers the basics of writing a logline. If you use this process, you should end up with a solid, well-crafted logline.
Here’s what I came up with, using this basic process, for The Godfather:
A promising war hero eager to escape the family business must pick up his gun and become the new Don when assassins come after his father.
What I ended up with was CHARACTER OBSTACLE must ACTION when INCITING INCIDENT. That’s not an intuitive way to start plugging, but by putting the elements together and restructuring in a way that made sense for this particular story, this is what I came to.
Is this the best possible logline for The Godfather? Probably not. It’s layered and nuanced (for example, the fact that he “must pick up his gun” underscores the fact that he’s probably already killed people in battle) without being overly descriptive, but it certainly leaves a lot out.
What would you do differently? Write your versions of a logline for The Godfather in the comments. Then get to work on your own loglines.
Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the co-founder of Write/LA, a screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.