Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Tag: fiction writing

Foundations of Storytelling, Part 1: The Logline

This is the first post in an occasional series.

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE LOGLINE AS A SELLING TOOL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ghosts of October

I can sometimes still remember, even all these years later, what autumn smells like.

I’m not talking, mind you, about the artificial fragrances manufactured and sold to us by Starbucks and Yankee Candle.  No, I mean that sweet decay of wet leaves clumped into a strangled quilt in the gutter, carried along by a chilly gust from the Hudson River that would sweep across my Bronx neighborhood, rattling single-paned windows of prewar houses and apartment buildings and hurrying us home before the overcast skies ruptured.  That was my favorite time to be out—when the wind was blowing but not raging, the thunderheads gathering though not yet sobbing.  Such moments were when you could enjoy the stormy sense of danger autumn provoked precisely because you knew, with unshakable certainty, you could beat it home.  I would quite literally venture into the woods, despite Mother Nature’s ominous admonitions, because it felt so good, after thirty of forty minutes of taking in the scented air and golden hues, to finally come in from the cold.  For as far back as my memory extends, I have loved the fall season.

But I barely recollect what the cold feels like any more than I do the perfume of dead leaves.  Real cold, that is—not the regulated airstream that pumps out of the A/C all day and night and lets me pretend, in concert with the aroma of Pumpkin Spice Latte, I’m someplace else.

This is my sixteenth autumn, such as it is, in seasonless Southern California, and now more than ever I miss the changing weather and weeping skies this time of year used to bring; I miss the drives we’d to take up to Sleepy Hollow (the actual one) and Bear Mountain, with its panoply of colored foliage, and riding the Bx9 bus past the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage on the Grand Concourse at East Kingsbridge Road.  I’ve always missed those things—since the day I moved to L.A.  It’s just become more pronounced in recent years.  When I was young and immortal, I was entirely reassured by the infinite number of autumns ahead of me, confident I would get back to them… somedayBut I turned forty earlier this year, a rite of passage which inspires no small degree of existential introspection, and now I wonder how many more I’ll miss out on here in the Land of Sunshine and Strip Malls, with its palm trees that remain as reliably green throughout the year as the weather stays hot and dry.  These days, my favorite holiday, Halloween, mostly just reminds me of the particular autumnal delights even Hollywood, for all its world-building artifice (those signature palm trees aren’t indigenous), can’t credibly reproduce.

A photo I took on December 22, 2013 of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, built 1697

A photo I took on December 22, 2013 of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, built 1697

Someone asked me, quite recently, why I love the spooky season so much, and I found myself, as I answered, really thinking through the issue for the first time in my life.  Why do I love Halloween?  Why do l love monster movies?  Why do I love these things that, ostensibly, inspire such fear and dread—that represent death instead of life, dark instead of light, cold instead of warmth?

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“I Heard You Were Dead”: What the Career of John Carpenter Demonstrates about the Nature of Legacy

I write all my fiction to movie soundtracks.  Instrumentals only—lyrics in my ear are too distracting while I’m trying to compose words, and I usually wind up tuning that noise out entirely, in which case:  What’s the point?  At the beginning of a project, I’ll choose a good mix of selections from movies that represent the tone or theme I’m going for, then compile a playlist that cycles in the background—turned up just enough to register but not actively listen to—for as long as it takes to complete the manuscript; that playlist serves as an aural compass, or “temp track,” keeping me in touch with what the world I’m creating should look and sound like at all times.

Just the other week, I finished the first draft of what will be my debut novel, Escape from Rikers Island.  The influences on EFRI are too numerous to quantify, but include novelists Richard Price and Elmore Leonard, as well as filmmaker John Carpenter.  In both title and premise, Escape from Rikers Island owes a great creative debt to Carpenter’s exploitation thrillers Escape from New York and Assault on Precinct 13.  His movies, love ‘em or otherwise, have a look and feel all their own, owed in part to his eerie, synth-driven soundtracks; he is one of very few directors who’s scored most of his own movies, so writing EFRI to his music seemed like a no-brainer.

As fate would have it, right around the time I began the draft, Carpenter released his first album of original material, Lost Themes, so EFRI got a soundtrack of its very own, with music I now almost exclusively associate with my work of fiction rather than any specific film of his.  One of the cuts, “Vortex,” even became, to my mind, the novel’s unofficial theme song:

John Carpenter is touring this summer to promote Lost Themes and its just-released follow-up, Lost Themes II, and I went to see him perform last month at the Orpheum Theatre here in Los Angeles with my friend and fellow horror enthusiast Adam Aresty.  Adam is a burgeoning master of horror himself, having written the literal bee movie Stung (now streaming on Netflix), the chilling short story “Recovery” (which evokes—and I mean this as the highest compliment—Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 literary classic “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”), and the brand-new sci-fi novella The Communication Room.  Don’t take my word for it, though:  Sample for yourself some of the free fiction on his Web site, including one of my favorites, the James M. Cain–style noir tale “Wrought Iron”.  If you like what you read and you live in the Los Angeles area, perhaps consider coming out to Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard on Tuesday, August 2nd at 7:00 p.m. to hear Adam read from The Communication Room.

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

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

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

Raiders of the Lost Ark beatsheet

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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Journey’s End: Rushkoff and the Collapse of Narrative

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

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

Got one firmly in mind?

Betcha I can tell you how the plot unfolds.

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

How’d I do?

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

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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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The Case for Craft

Welcome to the blog!

Though I hold bachelor’s degrees in both film and English, most of what I learned about screenwriting—and fiction writing in general—came in the form of a decade-long “crash course” at the School of Hard Knocks (admission is easy; tuition’s a killer).  Reading and writing screenplays was the first critical step—I consciously studied formatting and unconsciously absorbed form—but gazing at a painting no more demystifies the esoteric art of illustration than listening repeatedly to a song uncloaks the “magic” of musical composition.  Command of craft in any art form, writing included, demands discipline—the skilled use of tools that can be summoned at will—and for that, I turned to the many, many screenwriting how-to books that seem to have flooded the marketplace since the Nineties.

But, why spend time reading about writing when the best way to improve is “practice, practice, practice,” right?  After all, many folks—including, in no small numbers, pro screenwriters—have dismissed the merits of so-called “screenwriting bibles” and “gurus,” and, indeed, few of them bring any new insights to the conversation.  But, the practice of deconstructing the principles of literature and drama goes at least as far back as 335 BCE with Poetics—a respected and lasting treatise on literary theory by any metric—and, as Aristotle seems to have suspected, the meticulous study of narrative patterns and mythic archetypes offers a foundation for the codification of techniques—the building blocks of craft.
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