Screenwriting: How to write a killer logline
If you write an effective logline, your screenplay is way more likely to succeed. Not only does a great one-liner entice people to watch your film, but it actually improves the quality of your storytelling.
What is a logline?
A logline is a snappy one-sentence description of what your screenplay is about. Sounds simple, but like most simplicity in art, it isn’t as easy to achieve as it sounds.
Yet we must persist, because lack of a clear, creative logline is a sure sign the finished article will lack clarity and creativity. There’s a reason why companies have vision and mission statements, after all. They inspire, they hook employees and entice customers, they keep strategies on track, keep minds aligned and prevent us from losing the plot as we steer the course.
Writing a logline before you start writing your script is no different. It sets the scene, answering the big question we ask our friends on a Saturday night as they browse through movies we might want to watch: ‘So what is it about?’
Storytelling is an exercise in economy. The masters typically use as few words as possible to communicate the greatest dynamics of emotion. Your logline is where the discipline of ruthless economy begins. It’s your stake in the ground, to which every sentence will be a slave; expressing, reinforcing and adding richness to the Big Idea, without any fat or frills.
Filmmakers and writers often get caught up in exciting ideas for scenes and characters, then struggle to nail their logline. If your attempts to come up with a logline result in something meandering and vague, chances are you still don’t have a story. In that sense, loglines are testing tools that indicate whether you’ve distilled your thinking to the barest of bones, or whether there’s still a load of excess ingredients in there, messing up the clean, natural flavours of emotion we can all relate to.
“I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.”
– Blaise Pascal
The four ingredients of a perfect logline
Blake Synder, screenwriter and author of Save the Cat, says there are four components to a winning logline:
Irony provides the ‘hook’ that grabs the audience’s attention. It provides emotional intrigue that’s so irresistible you can’t wait to see what’s inside. For example: ‘A cop comes to L.A. To visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists’ (Die Hard), or ‘A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend’ (Pretty Woman). Ironic loglines are unexpected, turning events or characters on their head.
2. A compelling mental picture
A good logline should spark your imagination, generating a bunch of mental images so you can almost see the full movie in your mind when you read it. For example ‘She’s the perfect woman – until she has a drink’ (Blind Date), enables you to picture all sorts of possible shenanigans.
3. Audience and cost
A logline should have an inbuilt sense of who the movie is for and what it’s likely to cost. For example ‘A newly married couple must spend Christmas Day at each of their four divorced parent’s homes’ (4 Christmases). It’s clear from this movie that it’s a relatively cheap block comedy that takes place ‘on the block’, as opposed to a wide range of tricky locations; and it’s a four-quadrant picture that’ll appeal to all four major demographics, covered by the young couple and their older parents: male, female, over 25s and under 25s.
4. A killer title
The title and logline are inseparable. One of Snyder’s favourite titles is Legally Blonde. He says, ‘When I think about all the bad titles it could have been – Barbie Goes to Harvard, Totally Law School, Airhead Apparent – to come up with one that nails the concept, without being so on the nose that it’s stupid, is an art unto itself.’ He points out that a title like For Love or Money is so generic and vague it could apply to any movie, whereas an effective title will say exactly what the movie is, for example ’Nuclear Family: A dysfunctional family goes camping on a nuclear dumpsite and wakes up the next morning with super powers.’
Filmmaker Noam Kroll says the three most important components of a logline are:
1. The protagonist
This is where irony can come in, e.g. An alcoholic kindergarten teacher, or a rebellious priest.
2. The goal of the protagonist
As Kroll points out, this is usually in line with your Act II turin point, e.g. ‘An alcoholic surgeon must fight for his job’
3. The antagonist
This is where the obstacle and source of conflict is introduced, e.g. ‘An alcoholic surgeon must fight for his job after a disgruntled patient accuses him of malpractice’
Kroll suggests using this structure as a starting point:
When [inciting incident occurs], a [specific protagonist] must [objective], or else [stakes].
Logline spotting & creative suffering
Try browsing through loglines on Netflix, or IMDb, noting what draws you in and what leaves you cold. This one caught my attention lately:
“Hysteria: In 1880s London, forward-thinking young doctor Mortimer Granville has a difficult time keeping a job until he and an inventor friend concoct an electrifying solution to the rampant “hysteria” affecting England’s sexually and socially repressed women.”
I don’t know about you, but I find it surprising and compelling – I can’t wait to watch it!
Whereas this one is pretty lame: “Afterglow: Two unhappy couples cross paths’. So what? I still have no idea what it’s about and don’t really care.
Imagine you’re browsing the airport book store. You approach the display of books. Firstly, the cover catches your eye. Second, the title, Third, the subtitle. Then you pick it up, turn it over and read the back cover blurb. If you’re still interested, you open the cover, look at the contents. This process of hooking your target market and drawing them in – the stuff of marketing, which in essence is the art of emotional resonance – is precisely what your logline needs to achieve.
We all judge books by their covers; and your cover needs to offer a high expectation that will be fulfilled, and then some.
So picture your movie poster, emblazoned with your title and logline. Imagine your viewers scanning the ‘shelves’, waiting for something to jump out. Imagine them reading it out to their friends, who’ll either say ‘are you kidding?’ or ‘hell yes!’. Remember we only take seconds, or milliseconds, to decide whether something it worth our attention.
The discipline of wrestling with and suffering over your logline is part of the screenwriter’s deal. It’ll drive you crazy, it’ll often take ages and you’ll typically have to revisit it a zillion times before you land on something that truly resonates. You’ll probably have to re-think your story because lack of resonance in your logline betrays some deeper structural problems, missing links or tangents that water down its meaning. When in doubt, pitch it to anyone you can find who’ll listen. Watch their faces. If they don’t light up, you still have work to do.
The beauty of simplicity
What can I remove and this still make sense? This is a fundamental question in art and design. Consider editing, copywriting, workflows, poetry, costs, mathematics, gourmet food, architecture… they all seek to remove extraneous parts in order to arrive at the most elegant solution. Relentless pursuit of simplicity nearly always results in improvement. Screenwriters, as artists, must suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous procrastination and discipline when they attempt to write their loglines. However at odds these constraints seem with the messiness of creativity, they are in fact its fuel, pushing us to do better, to think more clearly, to think harder, to distill something purer.
An elegant logline lays both a solid foundation and presents a compelling facade at the same time, while keeping you on track while you’re thick in the weeds. So if you have a niggling feeling that you haven’t cracked it yet, chances are you haven’t and there is still work to be done. If we didn’t have these obstacles to conquer, we’d never become heroic writers. The harder the journey, the more heroic we become. Such is storytelling. Such is life.
Feel free to share the best/worst loglines you’ve come across, or any you’re working on, in the comments section below!
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