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.