Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Tag: Dude with a Problem

Foundations of Storytelling, Part 1: The Logline

This is the first post in an occasional series.

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE LOGLINE AS A SELLING TOOL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Classifying the “Star Trek” Movies by Their “Save the Cat!” Genre Categories

Star Trek turned fifty this year (something older than me, mercifully), but you needn’t be a fan to appreciate some of the lessons writers of fiction can take from its successes and failures during its five-decade voyage.  I mean, I probably wouldn’t myself qualify as a “Trekkie”—I simply don’t get caught up in the minutiae.  What I’ve always responded to in Trek is its thoughtful storytelling and philosophical profundity.  “Even the original series, for all its chintziness,” someone told me when I was thirteen, “it was still the thinking man’s show.”

I recall watching The Original Series in syndication, and being swept away by the classic time-travel episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”; finally I understood that Trek was about ideas, and those could be just as thrilling—more so, in fact—than set pieces.  Anyone who was around for it certainly remembers the excitement when The Next Generation premiered, unknowingly kicking off perhaps the first major-media “shared fictional universe” two decades before Marvel got there.  I watched the pilot with my father—which was a big deal, since television wasn’t his thing (the nightly news excepting)—and I haven’t forgotten his lovely, two-word appraisal of the first episode when it was over:  “It’s kind,” he said, with no further elaboration.

It took some years to fully appreciate that assessment.  Having grown up on the adventures of James T. Kirk, the original captain’s renegade spirit and cowboy diplomacy appealed to my juvenile worldview; Picard, on the other hand, seemed like a high-school principal in comparison.  But over time, I came to identify with Picard’s genteel, introspective mindset, and every line he uttered—even the technobabble—sounded like poetry from the mouth of Patrick Stewart, who endowed his performance with such dignity and conviction.  For me, the best part of Star Trek was getting Picard’s closing takeaway on the issue du jour.

The franchise continued to grow as I did, and my wife, whom I started dating at nineteen, was as much a fan as I was, it turned out, and we looked forward every few years to the next feature film, until the series finally, against all expectation, sputtered out with Nemesis (2002) and Enterprise (2001–2005).  Among other reasons for that, Trek had been eclipsed by a new sci-fi franchise—The Matrix—that spoke to the ethos of our new Digital Age.  Perhaps more than any other genre, science fiction needs to reflect its times, and times change; finality is something to be accepted—embraced, even—not feared.  The Enterprise, thusly, had been decommissioned.

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Going Fishing: Classic Movies for the Summer Season

It’s the dog days of August here in L.A., and I thought it might be fun to share some of my favorite summer flicks—the ones set in or somehow about the sunny season.  Like my St. Patrick’s Day compilation, this only reflects my personal preferences, not the Best Summer Movies Ever.  As a bonus, I’ve included each film’s Save the Cat! genre classification.

 

The ‘Burbs (1989)

Genre:  Whydunit (“Personal Whydunit”)

Burbs

It didn’t get a particularly warm critical or box-office reception upon initial release, but time has bestowed much-deserved cult status upon Joe Dante’s stylish, quotable horror-comedy, starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Carrie Fisher.  Hanks is a Middle American suburbanite who begins to suspect, over the Memorial Day holiday, that the peculiar new neighbors on the block may in fact be satanic murderers.  Dante managed quite a tonal balancing act here in a movie that’s aged remarkably well, and the chemistry and comedic interplay among the cast is aces.  It’s the perfect movie to cozy up to with “a couple hundred beers” when, like Hanks’ hapless protagonist, you’ve opted for a holiday-weekend staycation.  The ‘Burbs is in some respects about the trouble we get into when we have too much free time on our hands—one of three movies on this list to tackle that subject, and all, oddly enough, co-starring Corey Feldman.

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Solitary Consignment: A Christmas Story

Movies, it should come as no surprise to learn, were an absolutely critical part of my formative experience.  It wasn’t merely that my first exposure to them was during the wondrous Lucas/Spielberg heyday of the early eighties; no, we didn’t have a VCR in the household till the very end of that decade (like color TV, they were deemed by my parents to be “just a fad”), so seeing a movie meant going to the movies.  To this day, the very whiff of butter-steeped popcorn time-shifts me back to those magical days, like one that occurred precisely twenty-five years ago, when a little Christmas-themed film with absolutely no brand awareness or marquee stars whatsoever created an unforeseen sensation—it was the must-see movie of the season, and I was eager to oblige.

The perfect occasion to do so arose on one of those barren Saturday afternoons in New York—too cold to be outside for any length of time, too hard to hear yourself think over the hiss of the monolithic prewar radiator.  Well, it would’ve been perfect, anyway, if not for one small hiccup:  Nobody was around to join me.  I called everyone in the Rolodex (and that isn’t just an archaic figure of speech—these were the days of actual Rolodexes), but came up empty.  Where the hell was everybody?

There was no real precedent for this scenario.  There’d always been someone around to meet on short notice—that was the benefit of living in a building full of young families, after all.  Hell, my best friend, Chip, lived one flight below us, and was always available to team up to save the world with me by way of a spirited (read:  profane), two-player game of Contra.  But, not that afternoon.

My problems, it seemed, were rapidly compounding:  What was I going to do for the rest of the day?  Go to the movies by myself?  It was really only through pure desperation, having exhausted every other avenue, that I finally asked, “Why not?”

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To Survive and Thrive: Strategic Genre Switches in “The Hunger Games”

You sensed it right from the start:  The familiar plot machinations of The Hunger Games series weren’t there to comfort us (in their perversely dystopian way) in the latest theatrical entry, Mockingjay, Part 1.  The world and characters were the same, sure, yet we found ourselves, like the protagonist herself, immediately disoriented in this third go-round; nothing about this adventure, for us or for her, could be deemed business as usual.

So, what changed?

I’ve written a great deal about how indispensable I find Blake Snyder’s ten story models, but have offered little thus far in the way of illustration.  The Hunger Games series, a powerhouse big-studio franchise if ever there was one, provides an object lesson in two distinct types of Save the Cat! genres.

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A Survivalist’s Guide: The Continuing Relevance and Reinterpretation of Rambo

Here I am—intrepid screenwriter—gearing up to embark on a dizzying new adventure in my writing career:  my first full-length novel—a work of historical fiction (with supernatural twist, of course—the change in venue isn’t indicative of revamped storytelling sensibilities on my part!).  In a plot convenience straight out of a first-draft screenplay, Writer’s Digest recently hosted a novel-writing conference here in Los Angeles; among the seminars offered was a “Historical Fiction Boot Camp”—taught by no less than bestselling author David Morrell, who introduced the world to Rambo in his inaugural novel, First Blood (1972).  I’d have likely attended the workshop regardless, but given that on my most recent vacation I lazed on the beach and read three Morrell novels in a row, the happenstance of it all seemed too providential to dismiss.

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