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Logline Clinic

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

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In this quick session, we cover what to include in your logline, 3 common missteps to avoid, and my super simple method for writing loglines.

A logline is just a one- or two-sentence description of the story in your screenplay. It really is the first iteration of your entire story, and it will give you a nice, focused North Star to keep the story idea clear in your mind and help you navigate other decisions along the way.

Logline lesson recap

A good logline tells enough to convey a solid sense of the movie, but is succinct enough that the reader or listener doesn’t get bored or confused.

There can be slight differences in loglines you use to pitch a project, and loglines you use just for your own internal use when you’re developing an idea and getting ready to write your screenplay.

But either way — almost all loglines still need a few essential pieces, so that is a good place to start.

The logline tells the story in your screenplay. And at its most basic, a story is: “who wants what and what’s stopping them from getting it.”

So the essential elements are:

1. Hero or main character – that’s the “who.”
2. Goal – that’s the “what do they want” part – what are they trying to achieve by the end of this movie.
3. Antagonist or main conflict – that’s the “what’s stopping them” part.

And there’s a fourth element that’s optional, but often very helpful when trying to convey your story. That is:

4. Stakes – that’s what’s hanging in the balance, what will happen if the hero fails to achieve the goal.

A logline example

For THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS the logline is…

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.

That gives us:

  1. The main character – the young female FBI trainee
  2. The goal – stop an active serial killer
  3. The antagonist – which is that killer she’s trying to stop
  4. And what’s at stake is the life of the latest victim.

You might also notice this logline includes the method the hero is going to use to achieve the goal. That’s the, “befriend a notorious incarcerated psychopath and use his knowledge” part.

Remember, in the logline we really want to give a clear sense of the story. Sometimes just including the story goal isn’t enough. Sometimes we need to include the method the protagonist will use in order to show what’s really happening on screen for most of the movie. In a lot of cases, that’s one of the main entertainment hooks of the screenplay or movie.

Three common logline mistakes

1. Stopping at the setup

Remember earlier I said that a story very basically is: “Someone wants something and goes after it against great opposition.”

So that’s the protagonist, the goal, and the antagonist or conflict.

But we want to make sure we don’t overlook the “goes after it” part of that sentence in our loglines.

What does “goes after it” give us? That is Act 2 of your screenplay.

Act 2 is the main action. The adventure. It’s really what people come to the theater to see.

  • In a horror movie, it’s the characters trying to escape the monster.
  • In a mystery, it’s solving the puzzle.
  • In a romance, it’s falling in love.
  • In a rom-com, it’s probably trying not to fall in love!

Remember, if we think about a logline as conveying a real sense of the movie we’re watching, we want to make sure we’re conveying what’s happening in the biggest chunk of the movie – which is Act 2.

Often writers think a logline is more enticing if it’s mysterious – and that can be the case. It doesn’t have to give away the ending, but it also shouldn’t stop after the Set-Up. We should have an idea what we’ll be watching on screen for the bulk of our time in the theater.

2. No Act 2

This logline problem is usually a symptom of a bigger story problem.

If Act 2 is all about pursuing the story goal, then that goal must be something that’s difficult to achieve in order for the pursuit of it to sustain an entire screenplay. Forces of antagonism and other obstacles get in the way, but the goal itself should have an intrinsic degree of difficulty relative to the circumstances of your story.

Goals that can be achieved very quickly or easily are not going to be enough to write 100 pages about. And this is the problem we see in some loglines.

Loglines that hinge on a main action of “decide,” or “choose,” or “realize,” or sometimes even “discover,” just might have a “No Act 2” problem. Not always, but often enough to double-check your work.

These are things that sound dramatic in a logline, but when you think about what they really mean – what they really look like on screen – you can see that they don’t bring much story stuff to the table.

A decision takes a second to make. And sure, you might be able to draw out the process of coming to a very difficult decision, maybe even enough for a whole movie. It’s possible. But that’s something you’ll want to identify and begin to plan for early on, so you can find ways to dramatize it – and justify why the character isn’t just flipping a coin so we can all go home.

So keep an eye on your logline for those sneaky phrases that seem more dramatic than they are. If the goal is something that can be done in a moment, you may find yourself running out of scenes to write.

3. Detail Overload

It’s an understandable instinct. You want to put ALL your movie’s cool stuff in, and for good reason. You love the details of your story, and you’re sure other people will too. Why wouldn’t you include every last one in the logline?

When it comes to loglines, brevity and clarity are your friends. A logline’s first priority is to present the essential core of the story. Loglines can often support a few additional details, but not many. More than either of the first two things I’ve pointed out, this is the primary challenge when writing your logline.

Because the truth is, when you’re still developing a story it’s often not completely solid in your mind – and that can make it tough to identify the essential core. And when you’ve written an entire screenplay, you know everything about your story – again making it tough to narrow in on the core amidst all the cool details.

But aiming for clarity and brevity will serve you well. When you’re developing an idea, writing a clear, straightforward logline can help you gain that solid grasp of the story that you need in order to flesh it out. And when you’re pitching, a logline that’s too full of non-essential details hints at a writer who may not have a good grasp on his or her own story, when we always want to feel like the storyteller is in command of the story.

My super simple method for writing loglines

Spoiler: there’s nothing exciting about my method, but I think it’s so simple that it’s very easy to skip this step. If you’re having trouble writing your logline, give this method a shot. I can practically guarantee it will help. Ready? Here it is:

List the essential elements. The main character, the story goal, the main antagonist or conflict. The stakes are helpful, so write the main thing that’s at stake down too. And then if there’s a special or unique method the character is going to use, especially if it’s different from the goal itself, write that down too.

You have all of those pieces at the ready. Now start rearranging them into a sentence. Write 10 or 20 different versions. That’s it. You’ll find some versions that just work better than others.

Tweak as needed until you get one that really conveys the story in your screenplay. Make it clear first… and pretty later.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

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