Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

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.

 

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?

John McClane’s marriage isn’t the only thing hanging on by a thread in “Die Hard”

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.

Indy’s trademark idiosyncrasies—the fedora, the whip, the aversion to snakes—grew out of the story’s concept, not the other way around

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”).

“You’re looking at a living legend: the only active agent who ever lost a president”

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.

“In 1951, a young, homesick Irish immigrant in Brooklyn falls in love with an American boy, and must make the wrenching choice between a future with her new husband in the States, or one with her family back in the homeland she longs for”

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.

31 Comments

  1. What a great post, Sean. I appreciate how you broke down the logline into its components. I’m going to go back through my books and do some reverse engineering to see if I can distill my elevator pitches into loglines. Naturally, I find this easier to do with someone else’s work than my own where I get tangled in the details. That’s why the breakdown is so helpful.

    A nice thing about self-publishing is that it’s easy to go back in and make changes/updates to blurbs, which I’m guessing should start with loglines, the bones, and then layer on the flesh. The “book description” word count that Amazon allows is huge, and authors are encouraged not to scrimp. Laying out an intriguing premise without giving away too many details is a tricky balance, and one I’m still working on.

    Thanks so much for the info! Happy Writing. 🙂
    .

    • Thanks, Diana! It’s much easier (relatively speaking) to distill a logline from someone else’s work than one’s own, because we can see very objectively what the fundamentals of a particular story are when we didn’t write it! With our own material, we feel compelled to include all the details that make up the story’s “soul” — like people won’t “get” what’s special about it if we don’t convey all the little flourishes we so painstakingly incorporated. But a logline is a promise; it’s like saying, “Hey, if you think this is compelling, wait’ll you hear the rest…” But you have to make them want to hear more, and the logline is your opening salvo.

      Screenwriting taught me that a narrative is constructed like a building: You lay the foundation (that’s the logline), you build the skeletal framework atop that (that’s the beat sheet, which I’ll cover soon), then you do the sheathing/roofing/window installation (that’s the corkboarding stage where you flesh out the turns of plot on forty index cards), then you do your plumbing/flooring/dry-walling (the first draft), and then, finally, your interior decorating (the revisions). I know there are “pantsers” out there who prefer a more intuitive creative process and have been very successful at it (and God bless ’em for landing on a system that works for them), but I think it behooves most of us to take a methodical approach to putting together a coherent, meaningful, emotionally resonant narrative. So I’m going to talk at length about those stages over a series of related posts in the next few months. (That, by the way, is why I don’t offer “writing tips” on this blog, because the only “mandate” with respect to a creative methodology is finding the one that works, time and again, for you. Your process doesn’t have to look like my process, so long as it’s effective.)

      That said, I kind of lumped book blurbs in with loglines in this post, and they’re not exactly the same thing. A blurb is a lengthier (albeit still brief) synopsis, not unlike what you’d see on the back-cover panel of a DVD case. So, for example, here’s the back-cover description of my Raiders DVD:

      Join the legendary hero Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in one of the greatest screen adventures of all time now on DVD. Accompanied by his feisty, independent ex-flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), the two-fisted archaeologist embarks on a thrilling quest to locate the mystical Ark of the Covenant. Indy must discover the Ark before the Nazis do, and he has to survive poison, traps, snakes and treachery to do so. Explore the darkest jungles of South America, the bustling marketplaces of Cairo, and a top-secret submarine base with Indiana Jones as your guide to adventure. And finally witness the power of the Lost Ark unleashed as Indy stays one step ahead of the Nazis in this classic treasure on DVD.

      So, while still conveying all the basic information contained in the logline, the blurb fleshes things out a bit by offering names, personal backstory (Marion as his “ex-flame”), and set pieces, details you don’t want to include in the one-sentence summary for fear of overcomplicating your sales pitch. I guess in that sense a blurb is like an embellished logline in that its primary job is to convey the hook, but it also peppers in a little of the “tell me more” stuff because the guy in Best Buy reading the back cover isn’t engaging directly with the screenwriter who can tease out information little by tantalizing little.

      For the record, I think the blurb you published on your blog last week for your just-released fantasy novel Catling’s Bane is an excellent example of a back-cover synopsis. In addition to getting all the basics (the protagonist, the antagonist, the conflict, the setting, and the genre), I can even credibly assess its Save the Cat! classification: Superhero (“Fantasy Superhero”). Catling’s Special Power (her metaphysical ability to disrupt the emotion-manipulation tactics of the ruling class) makes her a threat to the Nemesis (the Influencers’ Guild) as well as a potentially weaponized asset to the insurgency (her Curse). In that respect, she’s like Katniss Everdeen in Mockingjay. But you kept things clear and gave us the hook, and you hinted at a hero’s journey for Catling without spelling the stages of it out too explicitly. Like I said: It’s a promise — it’s not the story unto itself.

      Given that it’s a more polished sales tool than a logline (which is a writing instrument, as well), I would say a blurb is something that can be reverse-engineered after the manuscript is complete (or at least revised to more accurately reflect the finished product), but a logline should not be. For me, a logline is always the first formal stage in the creative process, and I go out of my way to protect the story’s conceptual nucleus as I develop it, which was a necessity when I was a screenwriter, and working with managers and producers and “creative” execs whose wrongheaded ideas always threatened to derail a given project. Establishing the conceptual North Star (the logline) and the story model (the Save the Cat! genre) helped me weed out misguided advice and make an intelligent case against it, which is how I came to value these tools as I do.

      Thanks, as always, Diana, for the careful read and thoughtful comment! Happy writing to you!

      Sean

      • The good news, Sean, is that I took your steps and was able to craft loglines for each of my books. It was a great exercise as I’m often tripping over my tongue as I try to describe them. I completely saw how blurbs are different, and thanks for the compliment on the one for Catling’s Bane. I’m getting better at them (a good thing after 13 books! Ha ha.)

        • Well, we could all learn a few things from you, too, Diana! That’s the beauty of this particular discipline: Even when you’re a master of it, you’re still a student, too. The art and craft of writing always present opportunities to be challenged, to learn new “tricks,” to practice and apply them, and to become a stronger writer. Every new project — at least in my view — is nothing more than an attempt to achieve the state of perfection this time I fell just short of last time, you know? When it’s on the page, it never quite matches the vision it was in my head — it becomes impure, for lack of a better word, in the reification. And the motivation to realize a perfect work of art — admittedly quixotic though that is — keeps me writing, keeps me studying, keeps me practicing.

          And I learn from my peers. Since, unlike doctors and lawyers, writers don’t all undergo a uniform curriculum of study, one of the nice things we can do for each other is share our conceptual tools. And that’s how a tool is different from a tip. A “tip” is something like this: “John McClane is put in danger at the beginning of Die Hard, which makes us care about his safety and invest in his plight. Putting a character in danger is a proven way to get the audience on board with your protagonist.”

          Well, yeah, it is — in the right kind of story. It certainly works for Dude with a Problem, but would it work for Brooklyn (“Family Institution”)? Or When Harry Met Sally… (“Rom-com Love”)? Or Forgetting Sarah Marshall (“Separation Passage”)? Maybe, maybe not. That’s the trouble with extracting isolated “lessons” from fiction: It doesn’t account for how that element works in harmony with all the other narrative components (like characterization, theme, genre, etc.). Tips try to take something out of context and repackage it as an all-purpose, ready-to-use appliance.

          A tool, on the other hand — something part of a codified system — is a principle that requires skilled, artful application, and that works in tandem with a host of related precepts. Which is why an “organized toolbox” (that is, a customized program of writing techniques) allows one to easily discern and reach for the right tool for the right job. I very much subscribe to taking a methodical approach to the craft, and I appreciate that other writers like yourself have enlivened the ongoing conversation I host here on this blog. So thank you.

          Have a nice weekend, Diana! And keep us apprised when the second book of the Rose Shield series drops:

          Rose Shield II Oathbreakers Guild DW Peach

      • Lots of thoughts going on here. But at this point, I’ll just solidify one of them; that is, the blurb on the back of your Raiders DVD isn’t great. Why? Because it’s clearly written from “this side” of a time-tested and much loved classic, and so doesn’t have to worry at all about selling the story, keeping a balance of tension, etc. In other words, the current blurb is speaking to people who are already sold (i.e., “Hey, remember all that cool stuff you love? You know you want to buy this DVD and see it all again for the 103rd time” as opposed to “Hey consumer, here’s why you should choose this story over the glut of other adventure stories you’ve never heard of.”) And that difference is not only significant, it’s monumental.

        • Excellent point, Erik! So I went and looked up the original VHS box art online, and here’s what I found:

          Raiders of the Lost Ark VHS box art

          (If the box art is too hard to read, you can pull it up here.)

          You’ll note the summary is in many respects very close to the logline, with the only difference being that Lucas and Spielberg’s names are invoked to help sell the movie (and why not, since they were the biggest filmmakers of their day at the time?), and an addendum to the logline identifies the two main characters by name (along with the actors who played them, who were also box-office draws back in 1981). The whole summary ends with a promotional mention of the first sequel “coming soon…”

          So whereas the DVD was using the movie’s status as a “classic” to help (re-)sell the product, the original VHS capitalized on the name recognition of Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford. But when it comes to describing the plot of the movie itself, both pieces of packaging basically relied on the same governing criteria as the logline: the protagonist, antagonist, conflict, setting, and tone. Which I think only further demonstrates that whether you’re trying to sell an unproduced/unpublished piece of material, a theatrical feature, a home-video release, or a digital re-release, your guiding star is the logline as I’ve defined it. Other selling points, like the particular talent involved in the production or a film’s status as a time-tested classic can (and should) be emphasized, but the story itself — the promise it makes through its conceptual premise — can always be distilled to those five criteria.

          • Yes, that’s a far cry from the current re-sell’s inclusion of “…he has to survive poison, traps, snakes and treachery to do so.” Yuck.

            Yet I also have to point out that what appears on the back of the box you reference here, though the movie was new, still relies on its existing success in the box office (cf. “Indiana Jones is fast becoming the world’s favourite screen hero”). And that — like name-dropping directors and actors — allows something like this a luxury unknowns don’t have; that is, this type of logline or blurb says, “Choose to invest your time and money with this because [so-and-so, who you already know and trust, directed/produced/acted in it]” rather than “Choose to invest your time and money with this because the protagonist, antagonist, plot, setting and stakes are compelling and novel in their own right.”

            Trust me: I’m in 100% agreement with you on the importance of both a solid logline and blurb/synopsis. In fact, my aim here is to point out that, for the average writer without big-name ties, it’s even more important, because those few lines alone must sell a reader/watcher whose inclination is going to be to invest time and money with the “big boys” they’ve psychologically been conditioned to trust as “knowing what they’re doing” (whether they actually do or not).

            I’ll add here that Diana’s current series is a perfect example. It blows away many a book I’ve read by known authors who continued releasing work based on the success of one earlier work; yet she’ll have to work much harder than those writers, many of whom coast on formulaic rehashes of their earlier work, because she can’t (yet) add “Author of the New York Times Bestseller XYZ.”

          • Yeah, I mean, that’s really what it comes down to: Both the successful creative execution and marketing campaign of a book begin with that logline/blurb (with acknowledgment to the small differences between the two). And as tricky as it is to get that right, I think writers should be encouraged to know that the creative development and promotional push of their book starts with the same contained informational unit, and that with practice, revision, and adherence to the prescribed conventions (the criteria we’ve discussed), an effective logline can be crafted to serve as the launch pad for the two most important phases of a book’s lifespan: its inception and release.

            But all of this should underscore how crucial the logline is, especially for writers who’d rather get started on their manuscripts before the conceptual idea itself is fully baked, and for the introverts out there who aren’t comfortable selling their wares (which includes many artistically inclined folks). Speaking from experience, I had spec screenplays go out to the “marketplace” (Hollywood parlance for the studios and prodcos around town that buy original materials) that were submitted under disgracefully ill-conceived loglines, rewritten by my reps without my knowledge or consent. I was deeply upset about that, because I felt the unauthorized loglines misrepresented the material: They teed up a set of expectations that my script didn’t necessarily deliver on, and potentially turned readers off from what they read — or possibly discouraged them from reading it in the first place! I can’t say for a fact that’s the reason those scripts didn’t sell, but I can state with certainty that a bad/misleading logline couldn’t have helped matters.

            Which goes to something Diana blogs so often about: the complete control indie authors enjoy with respect to content, cover art, marketing, and pricing. Yes, indie authors have to do it all themselves, but you know what they say: If you want something done right…

            But doing it right means getting it right — the logline, that is — and I can’t more enthusiastically encourage authors, whether newbie, experienced, indie, or legacy, to cultivate that particular skill. And the fact that Diana nailed her own blurb so flawlessly makes me (as a prospective buyer) confident the book itself is conceptually sound and expertly executed. I can’t wait to read it!

          • Just wanted to take a moment to thank you and Erik for your kind words and wonderful support. It’s an exciting time and it’s fun to have some friends rooting for me as I continue to do what I love.

          • Absolutely my pleasure, Diana! It is an exciting time for you, and we celebrate that. You know, when I was working as a screenwriter, if one of my colleagues scored a win — say they optioned a script, or got staffed on a TV series, or what have you — I scored a win, too; their success was my success. Only other writers can truly and fully appreciate what it means to have finished a project, or sold a script, or published a novel, or have your work produced as a movie, so we have special and intimate appreciation for each others’ travails and hard-won victories. I think, through the blogosphere, we have found — we have made — a very supportive network of colleagues. Of friends. Of family, even. And cheering one another on at the finish line is the reward we all enjoy for having endured the creative process, whether as the artist herself or merely the colleague offering support. Compassion and heightened sensitivity is the great curse and the great gift of the artistic soul, and it is something that should be practiced in our professional associations as much as our works of fiction: When one succeeds, we all succeed. That’s the kind of non-zero-sum worldview I think we need more of in times like these, and I’m glad to have found folks who share it, like yourself and Erik. We’ll all be following the success of The Rose Shield with great personal investment!

  2. Writing for me has never been anything but inexpensive therapy. I have no delusions that my attention span is sufficient enough to do any long form type of prose, but I have a genuine love of words and deep admiration for others’ ability to tell their tales. I have found that I also enjoy reading about writing, and I especially enjoyed this post. Thanks, Sean!

    • Thank you, Wendy, for leaving a comment — and such a complimentary one, at that!

      Obviously, the logline only has application to writers of fiction. But since I know you are a prolific blogger, a novel/movie’s title and logline would probably be analogous to the headline and lede of an article or essay. A lede conveys the “Five Ws” (who, what, when, where, and why), which isn’t at all dissimilar from the function of a logline, which also establishes the who (the archaeologist hero and the Nazis), the what (possession of the Ark), the when (the 1930s), the where (Cairo), and the why (for control of the planet). In that sense, when a writer is crafting his logline, his role switches from author (creator of the fiction) to, effectively, journalist (someone tasked with summarizing the most attention-grabbing elements before delving into the nitty-gritty).

      What I think that demonstrates is that we are hardwired to want to know the most basic units of information first before we can assess whether our curiosity is suitably piqued to learn more. Because human beings are by nature conservative (not in a political sense, mind you), and we won’t waste valuable time on something that doesn’t seem to warrant it. And good storytellers, both journalists and novelists, have figured this out, and essentially follow the same set of precepts to elicit a “tell me more” response from us. Further evidence that the fundamentals of storytelling are universal, regardless of the medium itself.

      Thanks for contributing to the conversation, Wendy!

      Sean

    • I wonder if “never … anything but … ” might be minimizing the importance of writing in your life, Wendy. What we we do without that “therapy”? How different would our lives be without ways to work it out? And if you’re sharing your writing (with few or many), then you’re helping others work things out, as well.

      Your comment has me percolating on the “inexpensive therapies” it seems every human being seems to find. We tend to focus on the grander sounding catharses, like writing or music. And I’ve often wondered how those who can’t write or read or appreciate music survive. But as I think about it in the particular light afforded by this moment, I do think we as humans make a way, albeit different ways, of expressing, creating and generally working out purpose. For some, it may be writing. For others, I think even hours of video game play may work similarly — affording an ability to “solve,” to escape, to get outside our current situation, to process, to exert some sense of control.

      Keep writing!

      • Hear, hear, Erik!

        Your blog, Wendy, has a consistent and identifiable brand, it has value to those who read it (beyond merely the therapeutic benefits it may offer you), and each post is a reflection of your particular experiences, personality, and worldview. Far from “just a journal,” the commitment you’ve made to endowing your blog with an identity, to providing a structural and thematic underpinning to each post, and to cultivating your readership by publishing regularly is an accomplishment that should in no way be belittled. Few people, comparatively speaking, have the stamina to maintain something like that for very long, let alone years on end.

        And it should be noted that your blog very often moves me emotionally, which is why I read it and comment on it so regularly. So beyond just the commitment to doing it, you’re doing it pretty damn well! All a writer can hope for, really, through whatever it is she writes, is to elicit an emotional response from her readership. So take pride in what you’ve built with Greater Than Gravity.

        And on the subject of gravity, leave it to my man Erik to bring a little weight to the proceedings! Thanks, Erik! You always have a kind and wise word to say; your contributions are most welcome.

  3. This is one of those times in life where something I know and practice in what seems an innate way was solidified and packaged in a way that felt like iced lemonade on a parched throat. What I mean is that I think I do this (even though I’m not presently a writer of fiction novels, though one may be forthcoming) and on some level have understood when it’s not happening in others’ work; but this encapsulated it in a way that made me wish it were required reading for every writer.

    It seems to me that the principle applies to more than novels and screenplays, as well. I was just talking this afternoon with my late cousin’s son, Seth (whom I’ve talked about in my own blog in the last year). Of his own accord, he’s chosen a surprising read: Marcus Garvey’s Message to the People: The Course of African Philosophy. I asked why he (and a group of three other friends of 18 or 19 years of age) had chosen to read and discuss this book, and he replied by whipping out his phone and scrolling through all the notes and quotes he’d pulled from one chapter that happened to be on the importance of elocution.

    He read. He knit his brows together sagaciously. He inflected with gravity. But at each pause point, I said again, “Yes, I’m hearing all of that. But why did you choose this book? What value does it hold to your life?”

    He swiped a few times and read some more snippets, looking up at me as if those new pieces of information answered my question.

    The funny thing is, Garvey’s words did answer the question; but Seth’s words didn’t. He was grasping at a heap of cool sounding ideas as if the higher the heap, the more more significance it had. But he was missing the point.

    In fact, Garvey’s central “logline” for the chapter (I know the use is not quite applicable, but go with me here) was this: “Know what you have to say before you say it, live it, and then say it with passion.”

    Seth was repeating it … but missing the point for the volume of words.

    How many writers take this approach? They think the more cool-sounding details they shove into something, the better a story it is. In fact, it’s usually just more words. There is no compelling impetus to the details, so they wind up being cloying, distracting, annoying or some other “-ing” that does not good writing make.

    Likewise, I think too many people approach living (e.g., relating, working, conversing, etc.) with no “logline” driving their efforts. And so life (e.g., relationships, job history, social interactions, etc.) often times seem to lack purpose and, thus, feel generally unfulfilling.

    The day I started my own blog over six years ago, I wrote somewhere (perhaps in my profile?) this: “It’s not so much about writing pages as it is about writing lives.” Likewise, the tagline for both the blog and my first book is this: “Thoughts on living like it matters — because it does.” And (as you yourself are now well aware), the theme of the book itself is this: “You always have a choice.”

    Those crystallized ideas drive the whole of my writing. Speaking. Mentoring. Living.

    Your post (though certainly not your intended goal) caused me to reflect anew on the idea of having “loglines for living,” and hoping I’m offering some to people who may be stumbling through their life stories without a central driving force.

    And, aside from all of that, your post made me want to read all three of your book recommendations (though you’ve talked about each before), as well as to keep my secret novel-in-progress moving!

    • Amazing, thoughtful response, Erik. Thank you for reading the piece so carefully and internalizing it so profoundly. I’ve said this before, but you have such an enviable knack for relating advice or information to a personal experience (and that, if nothing else, is the essence of effective storytelling).

      The notion of a logline, as it pertains to fiction (cinema and literature) is not all that different from the lede in a newspaper article (something I explored a little in my response to Wendy’s comment above, yet another reason I cherish reader participation: It helps me further refine my own understanding of issues I raise here). It’s the idea that any piece of writing can be boiled down to its essential who-what-when-where-why. This is true of articles, essays, nonfiction books (like Message to the People) and even chapters (or subsections) of books. Any unit of narrative or persuasive writing has a point — a takeaway — and the lede or blurb or logline (whatever you want to call it) imparts that basic information. Ideally it compels us to read further, but if we don’t — if all we read of a newspaper article is the title and the opening paragraph (the headline and lede) — at least we got the core message, if not the finer details. We understand what we were supposed to know, and it’s up to us if we wish to explore the topic in greater depth.

      Now, with respect to what you’re saying, as working professionals we ought to have “loglines,” too, though what that’s called in this particular instance is a brand. (On a personal level, I suppose it’s simply known as a reputation.) The Best Advice So Far, as you rightly observe, has a brand. My mentor David Freeman, who innovated the wonderful set of Emotioneering techniques known as Beyond Structure, has also been know to help individuals, companies, and corporations hone their brand. In this 30-minute video, he illustrates why pitching a movie is no different, fundamentally speaking, from selling your brand — conveying to a prospective client why your services are unique and valuable. I think you’d get a lot out of watching it, if you have the time.

      It underscores exactly what we’re discussing here: That a focused “mission statement” makes for a better story, and a better business, and even better living. It’s the foundation upon which we build all the “small details” that inform our unique personalities and perspectives. Think of it like Starbucks: The menu items, whether we’re talking about a Pike Place Roast or a Lemon Ale Fizzio or an Iced Cinnamon Almondmilk Macchiato, are the “small details” that are provisional, but the brand itself is the Rock of Gibraltar. Here’s how Dave Freeman identifies Starbucks’ brand:

      1. Coffee as an art form
      2. Home office away from home
      3. Repeatability of the experience

      That’s what makes Starbucks recognizably Starbucks. Menu items come and go, but those three characteristics are sacrosanct. Dave’s a genius, isn’t he? You can see why I am such a devotee of his methods.

      On that subject, David has never published a book of his teachings; they are only available through his Beyond Structure workshop, which he is sadly offering less frequently nowadays (he’s gotten busier with other things, as I understand it). I’m told there are plans to make the seminar available online as a videotaped course.

      Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey is a distillation of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces — much less densely academic than Campbell and easier to digest and apply to your own fiction writing. The book teaches basic mythic structure. I think it ought to be required reading in introductory fiction-writing classes.

      Blake Snyder’s three Save the Cat! volumes also teach structure (I’ll cover all that in the second part of this series), but more importantly, they teach genre — the ten different types of story models that adhere to Campbell’s “hero’s journey” diagram. Snyder was a screenwriter, so, like Vogler, his examples are pulled from movies, not books, but the fundamental principles apply to either mode of narrative. You definitely need to read all three books, because he refines (and amends) some of his principles as he goes along.

      Freeman teaches characterization, and there’s no one better at it. Again, I wish his stuff was available in published form, but alas. Still, I’ve said this since my first blog post, and will keep repeating it: Everything a fiction writer needs to know about the art of storytelling can be learned from these three resources.

      And a great instructional about the dos and don’ts of writing novels is David Morrell’s The Successful Novelist; I think it’s far more practical than Stephen King’s On Writing, which is a better memoir than manual.

      I recommend these resources because there’s a lot of noise out there, and I believe you can cut through it all by reading this particular stuff; there isn’t much you need to know that isn’t covered in them. I’m very excited to follow the progress of your “secret project,” and if at any point you care to test drive the logline on me (privately, via e-mail), please feel free!

      • I’ll check out those resources, Sean, thanks.

        I don’t know if you ever knew this about me, but I’ve also done full-scale branding consultation, marketing and design work “on the side” (of the side of the side) for a long time now. So I’m with you. It’s surprising just how many people have businesses and do advertising, and don’t start with a clear brand identity (which is, of course, why they flounder and/or fail).

        In my account of Seth, I was pushing even beyond brand to … well, perhaps “personal brand” … but something more akin to purpose. Just as a book needs to start with a solid logline and a business needs a solid brand identity, I believe we as individual people in the world need a reason to get out of bed and a guiding force behind why we do whatever it is we’re doing. Otherwise, years and decades go by, and we run the risk of looking back it only to think, I did a lot of stuff, but I don’t know what good it was or what it accomplished.

        • I hope you find those screenwriting tools helpful, Erik. I certainly have. I know that if I were to teach a “Fundamentals in Storytelling” course, I would teach structure (via Vogler), genre (via Snyder), and characterization (via Freeman), with perhaps a concluding lesson in postnarrativity via Rushkoff. I have a bachelor’s in English composition, and yet everything useful I learned about writing was learned here, in the trenches of Hollywood. I don’t think most fiction-writing classes do an adequate job of imparting the rudimentals of the craft first and foremost; they waste too much time on theory, which serves as little more than an academic exercise with no discernible utilitarian application.

          You know, I characterized the “personal logline” as our reputation, but I think you hit the nail on the head when you expressed it as our purpose. Our reputation is the currency our name carries with others, but our purpose is a very personal, internalized thing. I agree: We ought to each make an effort to define, in specific terms, our purpose. Just like the logline is the compass we carry in the world of our fiction, our purpose serves the same function in the actual world. I don’t think we spend enough time, generally speaking, pondering those matters and elucidating them.

          And, no — I didn’t realize you’d done brand consulting! For that reason, you may find Freeman’s video even more interesting. I’d certainly be interested to get your take on it…

          By the way: I’m the one that slugged in the hyperlink to one of your posts on Seth in your comment above! You’re not self-promoting enough to have done that, so I did it for you! For anyone not following Erik’s blog, you’re missing out on some of the best advice so far…

  4. Why can’t I reblog your posts? This is such a great piece!

    • Hey, Jessica! Thanks so much for the thoughtful compliment!

      You know, I’ve never had anyone request to reblog one of my posts, so I honestly never gave the issue a thought until this morning! After a little online research, I discovered that the reblog feature is evidently only available on sites hosted on WordPress.com, and I’m on WordPress.org. I am so not an authority on tech matters, so I can’t say why such a thing is the case.

      However, Kultivate Magazine published this piece titled “How to Reblog Self Hosted WordPress Site Articles & Pages and More!” The workaround is using the Press This feature on your WordPress.com dashboard.

      That’s just FYI, by the way. Certainly don’t bend over backwards to repost this piece! But I do so appreciate your expressing an interest in it.

      Either way, I’m glad you responded so favorably to the article! In my experience, the logline is one of those fundamentals of storytelling that’s so basic, so elementary, it actually doesn’t get its due academic discourse. It was only after I got to Hollywood I discovered that college fiction-writing and screenwriting classes really don’t provide a foundation in the rudimentals: structure, genre, and characterization. Which is crazy because it is so easy to learn (difficult to master, mind you, but relatively easy to learn!). And for anyone interested in reading the logline to my forthcoming novel Escape from Rikers Island, you can find it in the second paragraph of my bio.

      Thanks again, Jess!

  5. Why can’t I reblog this? Such a great piece!

  6. Sean,
    As usual, a great piece. The logline or elevator pitch is an important part of telling the story. I mentioned once I took a workshop on how to write a 25 word pitch of your book. Tremendously helpful. I can see the importance of having the logline mapped out before you write the entire book. Having written an entire book myself only to scrap the whole thing because there was one giant plot hole after another. Not sure even a logline would’ve helped me that time. But I’ve never been able to create a succinct one until I’ve figured out the entire book. Not necessarily written it, but knowing the turning points and black moment. I think it’s just my way of understanding what’s happening in the story. When I know that, I can boil it down to my twenty-five words.

    Jaws, In The Line of Fire, and First Blood were all books before they were movies. I’d be curious to know if the authors had their “loglines” in place before writing the novels. o

    But you really have me thinking. Have I been going about it all wrong? I’m going to take some time today and try to create a logline for the novel I’m half-way through. If I can’t, maybe I’ll see the flaws in my story.
    Thank you for always making me think and pushing me further to be a better writer!

    • Thanks, Stacey! So appreciate your thorough response/input!

      I would think a 25-word pitch of a book is tantamount to a screenplay logline, because the length of an average sentence is only 20 or 25 words, versus a book blub which is usually two or three paragraphs. So, yeah — that’s the same basic skill the workshop was trying to impart. Just curious: Did the instructor boil the 25-word pitch down to the same five pillars I did (protagonist, antagonist, conflict, setting, and tone)?

      Let me just break things down for a minute. Story encompasses all aspects of narrative: premise, plot, subplot, characterization, theme, subtext, etc. Story is all of those things, and how they work in tandem to create an emotionally engaging narrative experience, right? And part of analyzing the mechanics of narrative is learning to deconstruct all of that to admire the artistry that went into assembling it in the first place, like the engine of a car or the biological anatomy of a living being.

      So the first, most basic structural unit of narrative is the premise, or concept. And the logline, as a developmental tool, is most valuable for allowing you to see the flaws (if any) in your concept. For instance, the logline I made up about Chase Jericho on the trail of a serial killer is, to put it mildly, conceptually nebulous. How could I commence work on that manuscript when I’ve left so much of its conceptual foundation woefully ill-defined?

      Whereas if you gave the Die Hard or Raiders or Jaws loglines to half a dozen professional writers, they’d all turn in a version of the story that adhered to the respective basic through-line of each. Sure, details would differ — just as Benchley’s treatment of Jaws differs from Spielberg’s, or Roderick Thorp’s Nothing Lasts Forever differs from John McTiernan’s Die Hard — but the underlying foundation of the competing versions would still share a recognizable DNA strand. Because in the case of both Jaws and Die Hard, that’s what the movie studios really bought — the loglines, not the books themselves. Hollywood recognized the potential in the loglines, even though they envisioned different stories being developed from those conceptual foundations.

      The beat sheet, which is the next phase of narrative development (and I’ll cover that in a coming post), now that’s the tool that helps you start to see flaws in your plot. That’s the stage where you take your logline — your premise, your hook — and flesh out a beginning, middle, and end, or what screenwriters call the three-act structure. That’s where you figure out the turning points (sometimes known as “plot points”), and the black moment (also called the All Is Lost beat). That’s where you take your concept and “break the back of the story.” The beat sheet (which is just Joseph Campbell’s “heroic journey” by another name) is an incredibly helpful tool, too; but it’s important to understand that the logline and beat sheet are used to develop different structural units of narrative: the concept and the plot, respectively.

      To jump back for a minute to the subject of movies adapted from books, and whether the authors of Jaws and First Blood had loglines in mind beforehand, novelist Peter Benchley addressed the genesis of the project in The Making of Jaws documentary:

      “I had been thinking for years about a story about a shark that attacked people — and what would happen if it came in and wouldn’t go away? — and I hadn’t done anything with it, really. And then in 1964, I read a story about a shark fisherman off Long Island who caught a 4,550-pound great white shark off the beaches of Long Island, and I thought, ‘Wow! What would happen if one of these things came in and wouldn’t go away?’ And again I didn’t do anything about it… until 1970 or ’71 when a publisher finally said, ‘That’s an interesting story. I’ll pay you a couple of dollars if you’ll put it on paper.’ So that’s how the idea began.”

      And in an interview on his website, novelist David Morrell explains the origin of Rambo:

      “I was raised in southern Ontario. In the mid 1960s, I came to the United States to study American literature at Penn State. At that time, Vietnam was hardly mentioned in Canada, so I had no idea what the war was about when I met students recently returned from Vietnam. I learned about their problems adjusting to civilian life: nightmares, insomnia, depression, difficulty in relationships, what’s now called post-traumatic stress disorder. In 1968, the two main stories on the television news were Vietnam and the hundreds of riots that broke out in American cities after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. I got to thinking that the images of the war and the images of the riots weren’t much different. Eventually I decided to write a novel about a returning Vietnam veteran who brings the war to the United States. That’s the short answer.”

      So, even though neither of those qualify as “loglines,” so to speak, you can plainly see both stories were rooted in very strong conceptual What if…? hooks: Benchley wondered what would happen if one of those great white sharks off Long Island that were always being caught became monstrously predatory, and Morrell asked himself what might happen if a vet suffering from PTSD brought the war home with him. So, whether by method or intuition, both authors were inspired by events they were seeing in the news at the time, then asked themselves what might happen if those circumstances were taken to their most extreme permutations. And two cultural icons — Jaws and Rambo — were born.

      Now, as I said, Hollywood essentially only bought the loglines, because the movie adaptations of each differ substantially from the source material (though both Benchley and Morrell are on record for praising the respective adaptations). Because it is only recently — really since Harry Potter — that studios have felt compelled to produce extremely faithful book-to-movie adaptations. I think someone recognized that the Harry Potter fan base just wanted to see the books rendered on-screen, and given how conceptually sound and expertly written those stories are, that was probably a wise decision.

      But it set a precedent by which movies (particularly YA adaptations) then couldn’t depart from the source material at all, and in many cases that was a mistake. Stephenie Meyer has said that Twilight was borne from a dream she had in which an average girl and sparkly vampire were “having an intense conversation in a meadow in the woods.” Now, it should be clear at this point that that is in no way a premise, it’s just a scene — and one might argue it isn’t even a scene so much as a setting for a scene (scenes are built on conflict and value change) — and an entire novel (hell, four novels) got built around that deficient conceptual nucleus.

      And then E. L. James came along and said, “How about an S&M version of Twilight?” So when I read/watch Fifty Shades of Grey, I see a “story” that in no way meets the basic requirements of narrative. There was no structure given to Twilight or Fifty Shadesat least not one that offers an engaging or emotional narrative experience — because the underlying foundations both stories were built upon were conceptually bankrupt to start.

      But I digress. All of that is to say, perhaps it would behoove novelists to ask themselves, “If Hollywood were to come knocking in search of the film rights to my story, what would be the logline they would purchase?” Not the plot, not the protagonist, not the story itself — just the logline. Because ultimately that’s the thing you’re selling — to a movie studio, or a publisher, or an audience. Sell them on the logline, which is nothing more than a bite-sized appetizer, and then you’ll have them on the hook to read the book itself, which is the full-course meal. But don’t try to shove the entrée down their throat before they’ve decided they like what they’ve tasted.

      Anyway, feel free to test drive some of those loglines out on me, either here on the blog or privately via e-mail; I’m always happy to engage further!

      Sean

      • I’m going to be up front here, I wish we were having this conversation via voice and not written. I’m an auditory learning (as well as visual) and I have all kinds of things I’d like to question, talk about, etc, but this isn’t the right venue. Having said that, you have a tremendous amount of information and your readers would benefit from learning from you. I can’t agree more with your analysis of Twilight and 50 Shades. And if all it boiled down to was creating a well thought out logline then maybe one of the gatekeepers would’ve realized the story was lacking. But, the gatekeepers aren’t always concerned about the finished story. (David Morrell has said publicly he’s had nothing to do with the movie sequels to First Blood because they aren’t anywhere as good as the first. I suppose I should provide documentation on that, but you’ll have to take my word for it.)

        Let me answer your question about my workshop. Did the instructor talk about creating the 25 word blurb, if you will, using protagonist, antagonist, tone, etc. Yes. We were instructed not to use the protagonist’s name, but we did need to include the essential question of the book. The What if, if you have that.

        I think What ifs are great for thrillers, mysteries, horror, even some women’s fiction. (Or any subgenre of those.) But sometimes in genres like romance, the what if really boils down to the love component and not necessarily a “real life” situation. Though, we could argue that too. For example, what if an arsonist falls in love with a fire fighter?

        Okay, I could go on forever, and I’m sure your readers, and probably you, have heard enough from me. Ha ha. We will continue this conversation at some point. Let me know if you’re ever visiting Brooklyn. 😉

        • Stacey, you do not want to be having this discussion in person, I assure you, because if you think I’m longwinded in my writing (not that you said that; I did — and there’s no denying it!), wait’ll you have a face-to-face conversation with me! You get me talking shop, and you’ll never hear the end of it!

          You are correct: Gatekeepers are often less concerned with the finished story than they are with the hook, because the hook is what sells. The hook is the sexy part, as opposed to the writing itself, which is laborious (even when it’s enjoyable). Part of the reason you see so many bad movies is because the studio bought a hook, but the movie didn’t deliver on that hook in the execution.

          Case in point: The first Transformers film was sold not as some cosmic battle between sentient robots that can turn into vehicles, but rather as the story of a teenage boy and his first car. That’s how the screenwriters sold it — just like that. Which was brilliant, because they found a relatable emotional inroad into a very commercial (more accurately toyetic) property. Here’s what co-screenwriter Roberto Orci told The New York Times:

          “It’s all the things that a car represents in this country,” Mr. Orci said. “That’s a story of stepping into adulthood, stepping into responsibility, possibly a gateway to sex. That is a story — with or without a giant robot.”

          Like I said: Brilliant, right?

          Except… I didn’t see any of that in the finished film. In the end, the movie was about big, dumb robots having big, dumb battles. What they sold and what they produced turned out to be two very different things. And that happens all the time in Hollywood (something I may write about further at some point soon). But that’s part of the reason I got out of Hollywood: Because I want complete creative control over my own products, free from the tyranny of compromise.

          (Quick side note: I’ve met David Morrell; I even wrote an analysis of Rambo’s characterization across the four Stallone films that he publicly endorsed on Facebook. In addition to First Blood, Morrell wrote excellent novelizations of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III that attempt to reconcile the differences between what he created in his original novel and how Stallone later interpreted the character for the film series; they are probably two of the best movie novelizations I’ve ever read, and well worth reading. There was no novelization commissioned for the belated fourth film, but Morrell is on record as having said the characterization in that one comes closest to reflecting his original conception of Rambo.)

          You are also spot-on when you say that What if…? scenarios make for great high-concept thrillers, but what about “soft” movies? But I think those even apply there, too: What if a young man and woman from different social classes fell in love aboard the Titanic during it’s ill-fated maiden voyage? (Titanic.) What if a homesick Irish immigrant, recently married to an American boy in the States, had the chance to resume the life she left behind in her homeland? (Brooklyn.) Even When Harry Met Sally… asks a philosophical question via its conceptual premise: Can men and women really be friends?

          In Buddy Love stories (which I wrote about at length in this article for Save the Cat!), there’s always a Complication that keeps the lovers apart, and that complication is the hook of your story, whether it’s the ill-fated voyage of the Titanic, or a co-ed friendship that’s jeopardized when the man and woman sleep together (When Harry Met Sally…), or even the fact that one of the lovers is a cursed man beast (Beauty and the Beast). What you’re essentially asking in a love story, going all the way back to Romeo and Juliet, is “Will these lovers somehow beat the odds and find a way to be together in the end?”

          Point is, as long as you have an emotional undercurrent, you can spin it as a compelling What if…? scenario: What if a teenage boy discovered his first car was a sentient robot from another planet? Boom! — now I’m engaged. Then the trick, of course, is fulfilling that promise you’ve made — a promise to explore an emotional thematic through the narrative. And when we’re let down by a story with a compelling hook, it’s often (though not always) because the execution didn’t do justice to the conceptual foundation. Which points to a fairly common problem in screenwriting: Whereas many aspiring/indie novelists don’t give their basic concepts enough consideration before plunging headlong into their manuscripts, sometimes screenwriters are only capable of selling a concept but not actually delivering on it in the final product. All of which only underscores how many facets of storytelling there are to master — just how hard a discipline this really is.

          Well, I could carry on about this all day, too, so maybe it’s better if I just shut my gob now, better late than never! Perhaps someday we will get a chance to chat all this over in person…

  7. I love this. Since I’ve decided to eschew trade publishing for my novels, and the concept of loglines doesn’t come up when I’ve submitted short stories, I’ve mostly decided to ignore this whole idea in the past. You present a compelling argument why I need them anyway, at least for me. 🙂

    • Thank you, Cathleen! I’m a big believer — and this only speaks to my own writing practices; it is by no means a blanket directive — in boiling down the elements of one’s narrative to its fundamentals. You should be able to state your logline — the conceptual hook — in a single sentence. You should be able to do the same for the story’s theme. Even characters can be defined by five distinct traits apiece that govern their actions and dialogue; previously on the blog, I’ve deconstructed Jack Bauer from 24, Frank Underwood from House of Cards, Annalise Keating from How to Get Away with Murder, Rambo, and the Joker.

      Stories are big, unwieldy things with a lot of moving parts; it’s easy to get lost — disoriented, even — in the world of your fiction. That’s why I write the logline first, and keep it handy during the development and drafting of my projects — so I always have a North Star to return to. Similarly, I create trait diagrams — what my mentor David Freeman calls the Character Diamond — and I refer to them often during the writing process, so I can always double-check the dialogue/action of my characters against their corresponding Diamond and make sure their speech/behavior is true to their fundamental nature. For example, the night before, I may have been watching a 007 movie, and now I subconsciously decide I want my hero to do or say something that maybe Daniel Craig might’ve done, but not my protagonist; the Character Diamond allows me to see, at a glance, all five of my hero’s traits and determine on the spot if that is really something he would do or say. By breaking down the story components into manageable chucks, a writer is less likely to let their manuscript spin out into a big, sprawling mess with no narrative or thematic cohesion.

      I say all this, of course, with the stipulation that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the craft. For all I know, Stephen King doesn’t use any of these techniques, and that hasn’t hurt his productivity or acclaim. So you find and use the tools that are right for you. The logline is certainly a good tool to practice, because it is the bare minimal structural unit of narrative — the foundation upon which everything else is built. The best way to get good at arranging loglines is to reverse-engineer old stories you’ve written, or those of your favorite books/movies, and work them over until you can convey the protagonist/antagonist/conflict/setting/theme in one concise, compelling sentence. Good luck! And feel free to try any out on me, if you like, either here on the blog or privately via e-mail (which you can find under the Contact tab).

  8. Extremely helpful and concise article. Thanks for posting. I have always considered myself a pantser since I don’t outline first, but you’ve made me realize I have a very clear direction when I define my concept – which turns out to be the same as creating my logline for each project.
    I still really appreciate methods such as your upcoming beat sheet since I go back after the first draft and apply such structures to make sure the arc and rhythm of the story are sound and then adjust accordingly during revision. Amazingly, the drafts are usually pretty on track for beats, but the refinement still catches a few tangents to remove or points to strengthen or add.
    I definitely can see that my strongest loglines are the books that are getting the most interest and sales. There’s no use having wonderful details if you can’t generate enough interest for a reader to open the cover.
    Thanks for clarifying the difference between a logline and a blurb. At first I thought you were saying they were the same. My blurb had that few more details of name and context which I worried I should strip, but I’m comfortable they are good for a blurb.
    I agree Diana’s blurb for Catling’s Bane is excellent. I bought it right away and I’m enjoying the story.

    • Sheri,

      First off: Thanks so much for reading the piece and leaving such a detailed response! I’m delighted so many found this post useful, or at least thought-provoking, particularly those writers who take a less rigid approach to the development of their material than I do. (Professional screenwriting compels one to adopt a “plotter’s” methodology. Most producers won’t simply take your word for it that you’ll deliver the goods in the finished script; a pitch or treatment that they can rubber-stamp ahead of time tends to put their nerves at ease a bit. It also gives them ample opportunity to meddle in the creative process, but that’s a topic for another post on another day, I suppose.)

      I would think that developing a logline at the beginning of a new project would actually be even more beneficial for pantsers than for plotters, because without a road map (an outline or beat sheet), at least it offers a guiding star to steer by. You can print it out and pin it to a corkboard over your desk, or scrawl it on a whiteboard in your office. Let it serve as a reminder of your conceptual hook. Hell, let it also act as inspiration when fatigue with the project inevitably sets in; you can glance at that logline and be instantaneously reminded as to what got you excited to write this particular story to begin with!

      Many writers take your approach — quite successfully, I might add — in that they put the story down on paper first (because getting it out of your head and onto the page is the hardest part no matter how it’s done!), and then only in revisions do they take a more conscious (dare I say mechanical?) approach to the structural and emotional arc of the story, giving narrative shape and thematic resonance to what they’ve written. In his instructional The Successful Novelist, author David Morrell advises writers to learn the Hero’s Journey (via Campbell and Vogler), but then to let it operate subconsciously rather than impose it deliberately: “Once you internalize the theory, try to forget it,” he advises. “Only if it is second nature can you use it successfully.”

      I think most of us have internalized it, regardless of whether we’ve ever read Campbell or Vogler, simply from exposure to untold stories throughout our lives. It’s probably fair to say most writers know the rhythms of narrative intuitively, and unconsciously rely on that intuition when we create our fictions. However… if one wanted to apply the Hero’s Journey more consciously (a practice, as a plotter, I routinely employ) Blake Snyder’s “beat sheet” is the tool for that — and I will discuss that in further detail in a future post. It’s not the right tool for every writer — or every project — but it’s something all writers should at least be aware of.

      As for the difference between loglines and blurbs: Yes, I’m glad Diana’s comment forced me to clarify that a bit, because the post itself was a little ambiguous as to the distinction. I think a blurb is more strictly a sales tool than a logline is, which, as I hope this piece has demonstrated, has tremendous application as a developmental appliance. A blurb allows for — encourages, even — a little more detail than you might find in a logline, but it is also an art unto itself. I’d be curious to get more insight from someone like Diana as to how heavily she reworked hers before getting it perfect — what she considers the “must-have” elements of a successful blurb.

      I’m currently reading Catling’s Bane myself… and will have plenty to say about it on Goodreads! But, as you’ve probably already surmised, I have plenty to say about damn near everything!

      Thanks for stopping by, Sheri.

      SPC

  9. Wow. Excellent post. Like most authors (indies like myself especially seem to have trouble with it), I’m terrible at distilling the novel down into bite-sized chunks like that. Thanks for the pointers!

    • Thanks, Eric! It is certainly an acquired skill, one many authors (particularly of the indie variety) simply never need to cultivate, since most of their fictions are developed in the privacy of their home offices, as opposed to in the bungalows of production companies on Hollywood backlots! Oftentimes, when a screenwriter hatches an idea for a script, he’ll come up with the basic premise — a loose logline — then have his representation coordinate a series of pitch meetings with various prodcos around town. The idea is to drum up interest in the project, and ideally get a producer (or development exec) to attach himself to it, meaning he’ll take the finished screenplay to the studio where he has a deal, and try to get it set up there.

      But the “couch tour” (as these pitch meetings are informally called) serves a secondary function, as well: It gives the screenwriter a golden opportunity to refine his concept with each successive meeting, taking direct feedback he can use to further flesh out the material. I’ve certainly developed stories in this fashion. You learn in short order to boil down your story to its conceptual hook, because you have a limited window to get the exec interested. But once he is interested, he starts brainstorming with you, which invests him in the project (a great thing should he come on board in an official capacity), and, if nothing else, you walk out with a bunch of ideas to mull over and incorporate at your discretion.

      Being a professional screenwriter certainly has its drawbacks — I much prefer being an author — but it does teach you discipline. You learn to break down a narrative — which is a complex, unwieldy machine with a lot of moving parts — into manageable chunks, starting with a logline, moving on to a beat sheet, and then a corkboard with the entire story laid out on forty index cards. Those tools — those methods — aren’t right for every writer (I can’t stress that enough), but they’ve without question been invaluable assets to me as I have moved from screenwriting to prose; they have made the herculean task of drafting a manuscript a far more tractable undertaking than it likely would have been without them. When my debut novel, Escape from Rikers Island, is published, I’ll illustrate in specific detail how I applied the techniques I promote here on the blog.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Eric! Please come back again…

      SPC

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