Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Category: Craft (page 1 of 2)

Foundations of Storytelling, Part 1: The Logline

This is the first post in an occasional series.

With the Second World War looming, a daring archaeologist-adventurer is tasked by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant—a Biblical artifact of invincible power, lost for millennia in the desert sands of Egypt—before it can be acquired by the Nazis.

On Christmas Eve, an off-duty police officer is inadvertently ensnared in a life-or-death game of cat-and-mouse in an L.A. skyscraper when his wife’s office party is taken hostage by a dozen armed terrorists.

Over the Fourth of July holiday, a resort-island sheriff finds himself in deep water—literally—when his beach is stalked by an aggressive great white shark that won’t go away.

All of the above story concepts should sound familiar—that’s why I chose them.  Yes, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, and Jaws are all popular—now classic—works of commercial cinema.  But they are also excellent exemplars of storytelling at their most basic, macrostructural levels, as demonstrated by the catchy summaries above, known in Hollywood as “the logline.”

When a single image, let alone a single sentence, imparts the essence of a story, the underlying concept is a powerful, primal one

 

THE LOGLINE AS A SELLING TOOL

The logline is a sales pitch:  In a single compact sentence, it conveys the protagonist (respectively:  the adventurous archaeologist; the off-duty cop; the beach-resort sheriff), the antagonist (the Nazis; the terrorists; the shark), the conflict and stakes (possession of the Ark for control of the world; the confined life-and-death struggle; the destruction of a man-eating leviathan), the setting (1930s Egypt; an L.A. skyscraper at Christmas; a summer resort), and the tone/genre (action/adventure; action-thriller; adventure/horror).  You can even reasonably glean the Save the Cat! category of each:

  • Raiders as Golden Fleece (Subgenre:  “Epic Fleece”)
  • Die Hard as Dude with a Problem (“Law Enforcement Problem”)
  • Jaws as Monster in the House (“Pure Monster”)

A cogent synopsis like any of the above allows a prospective buyer to “see” the creative vision for the movie, ideally triggering the three-word response every screenwriter longs to hear:  “Tell me more.”

Note what isn’t included in the logline:  The names of any of the characters.  Thematic concerns.  Emotional arcs.  Subplots.  Descriptions of particular set pieces.  That’s the “tell me more” stuff, and none of it is necessary—it is, in fact, needlessly extraneous—for the “elevator pitch,” so called for the brief window one has to hook to an exec before he steps off onto his floor (read:  loses interest).  The point of a logline is to communicate the story’s most fundamental aspects, and to capture what’s viscerally exciting about the premise.

I mean, if you’d never seen Raiders, Die Hard, or Jaws—if you knew nothing else about them other than the information contained in those loglines—you’d already have a sense of why these are, or could at least make for, gripping stories.  Pitch any one of them to a movie executive, and he can immediately envision the scenes—or at least the potential for them—suggested by the central premise.  Each one piques curiosity and, one step further, inspires the imagination.

The Raiders logline is so compelling because it takes (what was at the time) an arcane scholarly discipline, archaeology, and credibly applies it to an action-film archetype, typically the province of superspies like 007.  It also features historical elements that don’t seem like they should belong together—Nazis and Biblical relics—to envision something simultaneously smart and thrilling.

The Die Hard and Jaws loglines are exciting because they take their police-officer protagonists and essentially reduce them to “everyman” status (unlike Raiders, which features a specialist as its hero) by putting them in overwhelmingly harrowing situations that play to some of our most primal fears:  terrorism and sharks.  In short, they have that compelling What if? factor.

That’s how those stories got sold, and how the movies themselves got made.  We don’t need any information beyond what we get in those loglines to want to see the finished product.  As such, condensing a story to its logline is an absolutely essential skill for any screenwriter.

Let me amend that:  It is an essential skill for all storytellers, novelists included—perhaps especially.  And its applications are far broader than simply marketing.

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Writing as Fast as I Can: On Time Management and Working More Efficiently

For the better part of the past decade, my wife and I have both worked out of our home.  This is a great setup if you can get it, especially in Los Angeles, where the perpetually logjammed freeways have been known to erode the sanity of many a daily commuter.  During business hours, we essentially treat one another like cubicle mates, pausing to chat every so often over coffee, but basically respecting one another’s need to prioritize work—something made easier owed to the positioning of our desks at opposite ends of the apartment.

After her company was recently acquired, however, the wife started working out of a central office again.  It’s a reasonably short subway ride away, so at least it isn’t a “killer commute,” though it has been an adjustment—for both of us.  Speaking strictly for myself, I discovered in short order that many of the domestic duties we’d shared—be it walking the dog, making the bed, running laundry, buying groceries—were now falling, to a necessarily greater extent, on me.  This isn’t a complaint, mind you—I still had the better end of the deal in that I continued to work from home, with all the freedom and flexibility that entails.  But there’s no doubt I found myself in the throes of a time-management crisis, as days and sometimes weeks would pass without any appreciable progress—or any progress at all—on my manuscript.  I was overwhelmed by all the shit that had to get tended to just to keep the household running.

Quick digression (and I promise it’s relevant):  Anyone who’s followed this blog for any amount of time knows I’m a guy’s guy.  I’ve written odes to 24, Rambo, Heat, the Dark Knight trilogy, Rush (the Canadian prog-rock band that, by its own admission, doesn’t inspire overwhelming female devotion), mob movies, and the cinema of horror maestros Wes Craven and John Carpenter, the latter of whom trades in tough guys like Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken and James Woods’ Jack Crow.  For that matter, my forthcoming novel, Escape from Rikers Island, is populated almost entirely with alpha males, inspired in part by the crime fiction of Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, and Richard Price.  Hell, at my last checkup, my doctor informed me I have the testosterone of an eighteen-year-old.  Like I said:  guy’s guy—now medically validated.

James Woods as monster hunter Jack Crow in John Carpenter’s “Vampires”

I’m secure enough, then, to confess I have a softer side, too.  I’ve waxed analytical about Katniss Everdeen and Jane the Virgin and the addictive melodramas of Shonda Rhimes, as well as professed my undying love for Dirty Dancing on more than one occasion (like here and here).  I’m hooked on Fixer Upper and the interior-design wizardry of Joanna Gaines.  And my favorite show of all time—seventeen years and running—is Gilmore Girls, and it doesn’t get more girly than Gilmore—“Girls” is right there in the title!  Last year, the long-awaited return of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo didn’t hold a candle, in my view, to the overdue encore of Lorelai and Rory; I would willingly and happily trade every future Star Wars movie for more Gilmore.

So it was for that reason I picked up a copy of Lauren Graham’s new memoir Talking as Fast as I Can a few months ago.  I’d hoped to get insight into the development and production of the Gilmore revival A Year in the Lifeand the book doesn’t disappoint in that regard—but the last thing I expected was a practical, step-by-step solution to my time-management problems… though that’s exactly what I found.

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Saving the Cat from Itself: On Deconstructing “Game of Thrones” and a Troubling Pattern of Misanalysis

The folks over at Save the Cat!, which does not include the program’s late innovator Blake Snyder, offered an object lesson last week on the misapplication of craft.

It’s common practice for Save the Cat! to break down a current or classic movie and illustrate how it conforms to a story’s fifteen major narrative “beats” as Snyder identified them (Blake himself published an entire book dedicated to this skill-building exercise, which I recommend—certainly over any of the recent analyses on the STC! blog).  This is what a sample “beat sheet” (of my own authorship) would look like (click on it for a closer look):

Raiders of the Lost Ark beatsheet

Simple enough, right?  The entire story summarized at its most basic, macrostructural level.  That’s the kind of plot overview I’ll painstakingly compose before I begin Word One of my screenplay or novel, so I know the plot is always tracking in the right direction.  It’s an indispensable application to help a writer “break the back” of his story, as well as an excellent learning tool:  By reverse-engineering well-regarded movies, you can teach yourself the fundamentals of mythic structure.  That is ostensibly the reason Save the Cat! offers sample deconstructions on a near-weekly basis.

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Pop-Culture Digest: Musings on Annalise Keating, Postnarrativity, and “Twilight”

Readers of this blog (I trust I’m not being quixotically presumptuous by my use of the plural form) have come to expect in-depth, long-form essays here, but today I’d like to try something different:  I thought I’d offer brief commentary on three unrelated pop-cultural developments that are directly relevant to articles I posted this past summer.

 

MURDER!

In my analysis of the first season of How to Get Away with Murder, I concluded by asserting that series creator Peter Nowalk left himself little choice but to reconfigure protagonist Annalise Keating’s psychological profile (yet again) on account of how carelessly he exhausted her backstory in the initial fifteen-episode run.  And, boy, he did not waste any time proving me correct.

Right in the season premiere, we learned (via one of several clunky pieces of exposition) that Annalise has a “wild-child” side (who knew?), and later we saw her partying the night away under the strobe lights of a dance club—with her students, no less!

No, sorry—that doesn’t play.  Here’s why:  It is a complete violation of one of her core traits (and a defense mechanism, at that)—“publicly composed and guarded.”

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“Grace” Notes: How Novelist J. Edward Ritchie Rediscovered a Fertile Lost Paradise

Last month, prolific television producer Greg Berlanti (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl) secured a pilot commitment from NBC for a dramatic series about the brides of Dracula.

Intrigued yet?  I sure am!  You can already picture it:  Without knowing thing one about Berlanti’s take—based strictly on that eight-word rundown at the end of the previous paragraph—visions of something sexy, Gothic, atmospheric swirl like mist through the imagination.  Bedsheets and bloodshed.  Seduction and the supernatural.  It’s the kind of pitch in which the creative possibilities are so self-evident, a network exec—and, ultimately, an audience—is sold on the project without a further word of elaboration.

Why?

Because we all know the brides of Dracula—from Stoker to Lugosi to Coppola—but what do we know about them, really?  The pitch hooks us because it capitalizes on something about which we’re already aware… only to make us consider how much of it we’re probably (and inexcusably) unaware, and how curious we’d be—now that you point it out!—to get some of those blanks filled in.  (And that Dracula is in the public domain is all the more appealing, because no one has to shell out big bucks to secure the rights to the property; in that sense, it is almost like a natural resource waiting to be exploited by those with the wherewithal to dig it out of the ground.)

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Journey’s End: Rushkoff and the Collapse of Narrative

And now for something completely different:  How about a magic trick?

Think of your favorite story—book or movie.  (Hell, say it aloud, if you’re inclined—I can’t hear you.)  If you’ve got several candidates, just pick one quickly, at random.

Got one firmly in mind?

Betcha I can tell you how the plot unfolds.

Here goes:  The protagonist is faced with an unforeseen crisis that upends the status quo, and, after some initial resistance, accepts the call to adventure.  Through a series of trials and setbacks in which both allies and enemies are made, our hero finds the strength to rise to the challenge and, in doing so, achieves personal catharsis (what we in Hollywood call the “character arc”), returning once again to an ordinary state of affairs… a little bit wiser for his troubles.  The End.

How’d I do?

It’s a little general, I’ll grant you—I probably wouldn’t wow them in Vegas with that act—but, at your story’s most basic structural level, that pretty much sums it up, no?

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Imaginations on Fire: Rush’s Geddy Lee on Artistic Originality

“When I feel the powerful visions/Their fire has made alive/I wish I had that instinct—/I wish I had that drive”

—“Mission” from Hold Your Fire (1987); lyrics by Neil Peart

Two things have grown considerably in the fifteen or so years that I’ve been a screenwriter:  the volume of material in my portfolio, and, correspondingly, my confidence in my creative skills.

With so many screenplays under my belt (I’ve lost count at this point), as well as two novels I’m readying for publication next year, I can look over my body of work and see the influences from—the echoes of—artists that inspired me in my formative years.  I was in high school when I realized that the same wondrous mind was responsible for both Star Wars and Indiana Jones—who the hell was blessed with that kind of imagination?!—and spent a considerable portion of my adolescence studying the screenplays and biographies of George Lucas (those resources, mind you, were not easily available online at that time).  One of my early stories during that period, long before fan fiction found a thriving forum on the Internet, was titled “Indiana Jones and the River Styx.”  When my novels are published, I’ll cite specific influences that helped shape them here on the blog.

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Thoughts on “Ghostbusters II”: The Sequel

My analysis of Ghostbusters II provoked some healthy debate when it was posted on Proton Charging’s Facebook page yesterday.  It is a testament to Ghostbusters—the movie, the franchise, and the sequel—that it continues to inspire such a passionate following over twenty-five years after the last installment was released.

Speaking of which, I suspect the development of Ghostbusters II went something like this:  Someone on the creative team—probably Dan Aykroyd—became taken with the notion of a river of slime as a key element of the sequel (I believe I’ve even seen drafts of the script in which “River of Slime” was suggested as the movie’s subtitle).  It probably didn’t take long to realize, however, that a river of slime is a noncorporeal entity—flowing ectoplasm has no agenda beyond existing, no antagonistic impulses whatsoever—and this Monster in the House movie was clearly in need of a monster—i.e., someone the Ghostbusters could actually fight.  Hence, Vigo the Carpathian was conceived.

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Fallacies of Storytelling: More on Goals

It turns out the subject of character goals was in the air this week.

This morning, the “Cats” over at Save the Cat! (which does not include the innovator of the techniques they practice, Blake Snyder, as he regrettably passed away in 2009 quite unexpectedly and prematurely) posted a podcast in which they advocate for the requirement of a tangible, external goal on the part of a story’s protagonist, citing, among other examples, Academy Award Best Picture winner American Beauty (1999) as a case study.  If you read yesterday’s post, you know how I feel about this, but I elaborated my position in the comments section of the Save the Cat! website, which I am also making available here:

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Fallacies of Storytelling: The Protagonist’s Goal

Back to the FutureEscape from New YorkRaiders of the Lost ArkSaving Private Ryan.  Even in a cultural media vacuum, what narrative fundamental do the titles to those movies tell you about their respective plots?

They are goal-driven.

Goals can be an invaluable tool to establish suspense, propel a plot, and create an active protagonist.  But, like any storytelling appliance, they are an elective, not a mandate.  In the movie business, insecure creative execs will insist on their inclusion in every screenplay—a silver bullet for any plot that fails to effectively engross (which relates to an industry-wide problem I addressed in my first post:  the misapplication of craft).

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