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.”
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.
THE LOGLINE AS A WRITING TOOL
More than a mere sales pitch, the logline is the conceptual nucleus of your story, around which all the “particles”—characters, dialogue, scenes, subplots, and themes—organize. The “small details” are malleable—those can (and will) change from draft to draft, from iteration (source novel) to iteration (movie adaptation)—but the logline remains sacrosanct, from the point of conception to the date of release.
Now, a badly worded logline can simply be its own problem—the product of an inexperienced editor supplying back-cover copy, or a zealous Hollywood manager/agent without a lick of story sense (which would be all of them in my experience)—but it’s very often indicative of a conceptual deficiency in the narrative itself. Which is why the logline isn’t something that’s reverse-engineered post factum, but rather conceived, developed, pitched, and revised to perfection before Word One of your screenplay/manuscript is written. If you can’t reduce a narrative to its essentials—if you can’t pitch it in a logline of one concise sentence, two max—you haven’t “broken the back” of your story to begin with.
The first three stages of developing a story are as follows: You conceive an idea (the first and only part of the process that relies on intuition, not craft), you choose a genre (from one of the ten Save the Cat! narrative models), and then you devise a logline that delivers on the conventions of that genre (because you’ve studied cinematic/literary antecedents) and the “promise of your premise.” It’s your North Star as you develop your project; if it’s conceptually sound (like the examples above), screwing up the screenplay or manuscript itself is infinitely less likely. But if the logline doesn’t play—if it doesn’t relate the premise clearly and intriguingly—no amount of witty dialogue, clever characterization, or thrilling set pieces can sufficiently compensate for that.
Let me reiterate: If you can’t make your story work in a logline, it won’t work as a full-length narrative—period. It is the ultimate acid test.
THE DOS AND DON’TS OF LOGLINING
Try this on for size: “Chase Jericho is a burnt-out cop whose alcohol addiction, which has only gotten worse since the death of his son ten years earlier, ended his marriage and now threatens to end his career. With a serial killer stalking the city, Jericho finally has a chance at redemption if only he can face his inner demons in order to stop the rash of murders.”
Consider for a moment how many loglines you’ve read like that one on author blogs and self-published book blurbs. ‘Cause I’ve seen a lot. (And most of them aren’t even that pithy—they go on and on for three, four sentences, sometimes longer.) What’s wrong with it?
Well, aside from the laughably clichéd elements—the “burnt-out cop,” the generic serial killer, the alcoholism, the dead son, the search for redemption (whatever that means), and the ludicrously superheroic name “Chase Jericho”—what the hell does any of that information tell you about the story?
Nothing. Certainly nothing interesting or ironic. It manages to be both too specific and too general. It weighs us down in all that bullshit backstory yet tells us nothing about what makes the central conflict so compelling (the ooh! factor), what makes the antagonist—the serial killer—sufficiently different from the million we’ve seen before, or why he’s going to be the greatest challenge of this particular cop’s career like the Nazis were for the archaeologist in Raiders, or the terrorists for the cop in Die Hard, or the shark for the sheriff in Jaws. It tells us all the things we don’t need to know and none of what we’d like to know.
For instance: Did I mention Indiana Jones’ name, cool as it is, in the Raiders logline? Did I include John McClane’s marital strife in the Die Hard synopsis? Did I tell you that Chief Brody in Jaws has only recently become a small-town sheriff after a morale-crushing career as a New York City detective?
As important as all of that is, it’s supplemental—it isn’t essential to the core conceptual premise. (As proof of that assertion, both McClane and Brody have vastly different backstories in the novels upon which those movies are based, yet the core loglines apply to both the cinematic and literary versions of their respective stories.) A logline is concerned with the central dramatic concept—and only the central concept—which it relates by defining the protagonist, the source of antagonism, the conflict/stakes, the setting, and the tone/genre. That’s it. If there’s an aspect of your story in the logline that isn’t one of those five criteria, you’ve included too much.
TELL US WHAT HAPPENS, NOT WHAT IT’S “ABOUT”
When you’re trying to sell someone—be it a producer, publisher, editor, agent, or audience—on your story, remember that no one coming to it cold gives a crap what your protagonist’s name is. Or what his backstory is. Or who he falls in love with on the adventure (unless, of course, it’s very specifically a Buddy Love tale). They only want to know the basics. Details are important, but those are seasoning, not the steak itself.
Once I hook you with my elevator pitch for Raiders, you’ll be receptive to all the cool minutiae—like the hero’s name is “Indiana Jones,” he’s a professor at Princeton by day, he weapon of choice is a bullwhip, and his love interest is the spurned daughter of his estranged mentor whom he deflowered when she was still a teenager—but all that comes later. The logline itself only imparts the potential for the concept, not the granulars that will fill out the story and give it its personality.
One of the biggest problems I see in blurbs for books from first-time and/or indie authors is that they emphasize the emotional arc over the narrative hook. They tell you who the character is and what he needs to overcome emotionally, but they don’t frame it in set of conceptual circumstances that gets us excited to experience the story itself. Heed this advice: Don’t include anything about the hero’s transformational arc in your logline. If a protagonist has a “fatal flaw” that’s germane to the story’s main conflict, you may weave that into the logline through the artful use of a well-chosen adjective or descriptive clause, but don’t incorporate an explicit overview of what he needs to learn on his journey.
Take Clint Eastwood’s thriller masterpiece In the Line of Fire as an example: “An aging Secret Service agent, guilt-ridden over having narrowly failed to prevent the JFK assassination in Dallas thirty years earlier, meets his match in a vengeful former CIA operative determined to kill the sitting president” (Genre: Superhero—“People’s Superhero”).
In this particular case, Eastwood’s age and guilt are crucial to understanding what’s so intriguing about the premise of the story: The guy who couldn’t save Kennedy—who’s spent a lifetime beating himself up over it—now finds himself in the same epic dilemma all over again. So, far from a by-the-numbers thriller about a would-be presidential assassin, this logline promises a story that draws from an emotionally traumatic episode of American folklore—one still in living memory, at that. That’s what makes it different—what makes it so compulsory. If the hero had been a young, hotshot Secret Service agent (and—true story—In the Line of Fire screenwriter Jeff Maguire once told me that Paramount agreed to make the picture if the script would’ve been rewritten to accommodate the casting of Tom Cruise), everything about the movie that makes it so special, so resonant, would have been stripped out.
Or consider Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood: “A troubled Vietnam vet—combat proficient and prone to violence—finds himself at war with the police department of a remote mountain town when a vindictive sheriff makes him the target of a lethal manhunt” (Genre: Dude with a Problem—“Law Enforcement Problem”).
Like In the Line of Fire’s invoking of JFK, establishing that Rambo has PTSD from his experiences in Vietnam gives the story a cultural context that hints at theme and subtext and character arc, but puts the emphasis on what happens over what it’s about. If you were to pull the Vietnam qualifier out of the logline, the pitch becomes too general; but if you cover Rambo’s precise experiences as a POW, and how getting arrested by the sheriff triggers flashbacks to the torture he endured thereby setting him off, you’ve told us too much. That’s the art of the logline: telling us just enough. But there’s an easy, effective exercise available to help with this—and it won’t cost you a dime.
THE ART OF THE LOGLINE
Like any aspect of writing, mastering the art of the logline requires practice—and a lot of it. The best way to develop this skill is to reverse-engineer loglines out of your favorite movies and novels. And while not strictly an exercise in logline generation, look at the way I was able to boil down each Star Trek movie to its narrative and emotional essence. I did the same for some of my favorite summertime stories and St. Patrick’s Day–themed films, which even includes “soft” movies like The Quiet Man (Buddy Love—“Rom-com Love”) and Brooklyn (Institutionalized—“Family Institution”), since we’ve only been discussing high-concept action thrillers up till this point. That’s a proficiency I honed by spending years in the offices of creative execs around Hollywood peddling my wares. I am a better writer for it.
Because I won’t commence work on a manuscript until my logline is rock-solid, and until I’ve pitched it to friends and colleagues to a suitably—and authentically—enthusiastic response. (Yet another thing years spent pitching scripts teaches you: how to read a room.) That gives me the confidence to forge ahead with the project, and keeps me going through the months-long work of drafting it. And when self-doubt creeps in, I remind myself the logline is fundamentally sound—and well-liked—and as long as I haven’t deviated from that, which I never do, the manuscript itself should be equally favorably received. The logline gives me a foundation to develop my story, to sustain my confidence in it, and, yes, to eventually sell it. It’s the compass you keep with you as you venture into the wide-open world of your fiction.
WHY THE LOGLINE IS AN ESSENTIAL PRACTICE, NOT A SUGGESTED PRINCIPLE
Why do I bring all this up? Though this site has, from its inception, served as a forum to celebrate and study storytelling craft, I’ve never felt compelled to offer “writing tips”; there are too many blogs out there doing that as it is. I’ve always promoted the idea of practicing a customized, codified methodology; as such, I recommend studying Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey for structure, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! for genre, and David Freeman’s Beyond Structure for characterization. And I stand by that assertion: Don’t pick up random “tips” that may or may not apply to the type of story you’re writing; that’s a recipe for a muddled narrative.
But all stories start with a premise that honors the conventions of a specific genre (or story model), as demonstrated by the logline. You must have that logline down pat from the get-go or face the consequences later, which could mean either major revisions or, even less preferably, an unsalvageable manuscript. It’s far easier to spot and fix story issues at a macrostructural level, which is why we begin with the logline before moving on to the beat sheet, which I’ll cover in the second part of this series.
In the meantime, feel free to practice constructing loglines—from your own stories or your favorite books/movies—in the comments below.