If the Logline Is the First Step, What Do You Do Next?


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As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in pre-writing, screenwriting

You’ve probably heard before that a logline can be a great first step in developing your story. A first iteration. You’ve probably heard me say this before. And I stand by it:

Loglines let you quickly and easily sketch out stories. So you can get a sense of whether they work without a big investment of time or energy.

But if that’s the first iteration, the first step, where do you go next? Loglines contain the DNA of your story, so how do you leverage that concentrated story capsule and build on what’s there?

There are a million different ways to approach the process, of course, so consider this one option. Here’s what I would do:

1. Extrapolate the organic structure

You know that stories have an organic structure, a beginning-middle-end. And since a logline tells the story, it will (or should, usually!) indicate that beginning, middle, and end.

So from your logline you can extrapolate out the three big chunks of your story.

  • The beginning is when the story goal is formed. (Setup)
  • The middle is when the story goal is pursued. (Escalation)
  • And the end is when the story goal is achieved or not. (Resolution)

It’s very basic. And this might sound like one of those steps that’s so simple, it’s silly to even take the time to do. But you know where I stand: baby steps are progress all the same, help you maintain clarity as you’re navigating the forest of story development, and keep you from getting stuck. So don’t knock ‘em.

Examples of developing organic story structure from the logline

Let’s use one familiar example and one unfamiliar example to look at how this works.

First, The Silence of the Lambs:

A young, female FBI trainee must befriend a notorious incarcerated psychopath and use his knowledge to track and stop an active serial killer before his latest victim is murdered.

  • Beginning: FBI trainee Clarice receives the assignment to stop serial killer Buffalo Bill.
  • Middle: Clarice pursues Buffalo Bill, and must befriend notorious incarcerated psychopath Hannibal Lecter to get his help.
  • End: Clarice finally identifies and catches serial killer Buffalo Bill.

In case it’s not clear, I’m drawing directly from what’s in the logline and mapping it to the function of each of the three parts – establishing, pursuing, and resolving the story goal (which you figured out when you wrote your logline).

Now, because I don’t want you to think this is some reverse-engineering trick I can do only because The Silence of the Lambs is a finished movie…

Next let’s look at the hypothetical project I’m developing, My Hero:

An overwhelmed single dad’s life is thrown into utter chaos when the bullied kid he used to stick up for shows up as an unhinged, adrenaline-junkie adult and insists on repaying the favor.

  • Beginning: An overwhelmed single dad who used to stick up for a bullied kid, has that kid suddenly reappear in his life – now an unhinged, adrenaline-junkie who feels indebted to our protagonist.
  • Middle: Single dad tries desperately to maintain control of his life while old friend tries to help but causes chaos, conflict, and upheaval at every turn.
  • End: Single dad manages to regain control of his life, and help old friend move on as well.

I know this sounds simple. But it actually gets you quite a bit.

You now have a mission statement for each act of your screenplay. You know the broad strokes of what you need to establish, and what the protagonist is doing in each part.

A small step forward, but one you can build on. These are broad strokes, but from here you can get more and more granular. Simply break the bigger parts and the broader strokes into smaller ones.

2. Develop meaning early

The next step I’d take might surprise you. Instead of pushing forward and figuring out more of the plot right now, I’d sideways step over to thinking about character arc.

Character arc and theme are intertwined, as you know. Much of the meaning of the story is going to come from what we see happening in the character arc and the thematic takeaway message it sends.

So, I’d again extrapolate from what I already have, and think about:

  • Why does my protagonist need this particular experience?
  • What lesson or realization could these events/experiences logically and organically teach or impart?

For My Hero, being out of control (what I already have in the logline and organic structure paragraphs) might teach him that…

  • There’s nothing to fear about it; you don’t have to have (and perhaps can’t have) total control over your family’s life.
  • Or, maybe seeing himself through his old friend’s eyes would remind our protagonist of who he used to be and he’d get back a little of that brave playground savior in his adult life.
  • Or, maybe this overwhelmed single dad would realize he doesn’t have to do everything himself and he can ask for help and rely on friends when he needs them.
  • Or something else entirely!

The meaning of the story (and with that, the character and character arc) is a sometimes-overlooked area of the story where your unique perspective and voice can really come through.

If it seems overwhelming to have so many options, think of it less as trying to find the right answer, and more as finding the direction that clicks for you personally. That means something to you.

3. Find the Major Plot Points to shape the story

The next step I’d do would be to look at what I have in the logline, the character arc, and the organic structure paragraphs and pull out the obvious Major Plot Points, and then figure out the less-obvious ones.

The Major Plot Points are the big turning points or milestones along the throughline of your screenplay. And the throughline is basically the whole journey of the protagonist’s pursuit of his goal. And you know the beginning-middle-end all relate to the story goal as well. So…. we can glean some of the Major Plot Points from what we’ve already figured out. No need to reinvent the wheel at every step – build on what you have.

If you’re working with a story idea you’re still developing (as opposed to analyzing an existing movie), you’ll see that this process helps you figure out more and more about how your particular story works.

I’d start with the Break into Act 2, since that plot point has a pretty clear and obvious function. The Break into Act 2 is where the protagonist begins to pursue the story goal, or the start of the Act 2 Adventure.

For The Silence of the Lambs:

We know the story goal is to “stop serial killer Buffalo Bill.” We can see this in both the logline and in the “beginning” paragraph. So the Break into Act 2 will be when Clarice starts trying to catch Buffalo Bill.

For My Hero:

The goal is to regain control of his life. (This might be a good time to rewrite that logline to make that more clear.) The force of opposition is the old friend, who is trying to repay the childhood debt. So another way to say it is the Break into Act 2 is when the protagonist decides he must stop the old friend from trying to repay him for the past.

I’m figuring out the story, getting more and more specific, and the wheels are starting to turn as I think about the many different strategies and tactics the protagonist can use to pursue his story goal: he can hide from the old friend, he can try to keep him out of his life, he can lie and try to convince the old friend that the debt’s been repaid so he will go away, he can go along with the old friend’s methods and reap the possible benefits, etc.

Next steps in story development

And from there, I’d continue to work out the overall shape of the story by figuring out the other Major Plot Points.

The Break into Act 3 has a somewhat similar function as the Break into Act 2, only it launches the story into Act 3. It starts the protagonist on the path to the resolution, which you know from the “end” paragraph – so that might be the next logical major plot point to suss out. The Inciting Incident is also a good one to tackle since it has such a clear function. Or you might have an idea for the Climax (the climactic confrontation) so sometimes that’s an early one to plant a flag in.

There isn’t one right way or correct order. You’re just using what you know to fill in the blanks, and doing the story math to figure out the rest. Trial and error. Writing and rewriting. Creating the story as you go, one step at a time.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.