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The Secret to Loglines

Above: A featured fish—it neither swims nor flies!

Yes, there is a secret to loglines, and it is this: have your logline express a single, clear, intriguing concept—and not be a collection of “concept fragments” that suggest confusing, contradictory storylines.

Writers are often surprised to learn how important the logline is within the film business. Their brilliant screenplays that took months are reduced to just a line or two—and that’s fair?

Well, no. But it’s how it works.

Think of being on a dating site. A screenplay without a logline is a profile without a picture. Who will click on that? Nobody!

A profile picture that is mis-framed, out of focus, upside-down, or not even of a human face...? Well, that’s not going to get many clicks, either.

What picture gets the most clicks? The really hot person. Also not fair...but true.

A “really hot person” as a logline is something that is simple, easy to read, and immediately suggestive of a movie that sounds like something people would want to see. It smells like money because you, yourself, instinctively think, “Cool! I wonder how they’ll pull that off?”

Here’s a great logline:

A QUIET PLACE: In a decimated near-future a lone family must try to survive ferocious alien creatures who hunt using acute hearing.

It gives us everything: the setting (post-apocalyptic), the protagonist (a lone family), the antagonist (ferocious alien creatures) and the goal (survival).

And it has that “X factor” we’ve never seen before...a world where if you make a sound, you die.

Ka-ching! Everybody can imagine that.

There is an art and science to crafting a logline, which I’m not particularly good at and can be found all over the Internet. It has to do with distilling the protagonist, antagonist and goal: in other words, the narrative engine.

Who wants what, and who stands in his or her way of getting it (to paraphrase Sorkin)?

Some writers and “script people” (consultants) are dogmatic about perfecting each and every word of a logline—and that is important, true—but to me, it’s more about conveying the concept of the script.

I’d rather have a great concept that’s expressed in an untidy way, than a perfectly honed logline with a weak concept. I’m confident almost all industry professionals will feel the same way, because the wonky logline they can fix in a few minutes—but the lame script, possibly never.

Where do loglines go bad? It’s when they tend to have no concept at all: a man has to save his kidnapped daughter. Okay, then what? It’s like half a logline.

Or, there’s a logline with way too many concepts, jammed together.

By that, I mean, they’re about a grieving widow, a town festival, aliens landing—and oh yeah, the townsfolk are descended from werewolves.

It’s like...what?

The reader does not understand what the movie is about because it’s about four different things at once.

Instead of envisioning a single narrative engine—the widow grieving, the arrival of aliens, or werewolves coming out at night—the reader has to try to put all three into some sort of math equation that hurts the brain.

I will never make fun of another writer’s work—but I’ll gladly make fun of my own. Here is a sci- fi epic that I was toiling on some years back, and shelved when I realized the error of my ways:

GOLIATH: A family of four is thrust into a harrowing space adventure when their interplanetary ferry is attacked by pirates. The family is abducted and anointed as gods in the pirates’ religion—which includes human sacrifices to the space beast “Goliath.”

What’s the problem? Well, first of all, this movie costs $300M. But what’s it about? It has too many elements, each of which suggest its own movie. A family of four suggests a family film—okay, that’s fine.

The space adventure is another kind of film.

An interplanetary ferry—that can be a whole movie unto itself (Titanic in space?).

Space pirates? Okay, that’s yet another movie.

The pirates’ religion—okay, we’re going deep into the pirates’ culture here. But didn’t we say it was about the family?

And, finally, the space beast “Goliath”—yikes!

So what’s the narrative engine? Is it the family getting abducted by pirates? The pirates trying to kill the space beast? The family using the pirates’ own religion against them to win their freedom?

What I recall of the that it’s all of the above.

The problem is that the script moves so fast, you get whiplash. Every 20 pages introduces a whole different premise. There’s a ton of exposition—but even worse, the protagonists (the family) are passive. They don’t drive the action, rather the action happens to them, in a whirlwind of “stuff.”

I remember trying so hard to write it...but it’s a dense, boring read. A classic “feathered fish”: it neither swims nor flies.

So yeah, that was a learning experience.

A logline is a kind of shibboleth for industry professionals: it’s not about using a magic word or two, but having it be clear and coherent so they’ll assume it’s at least a professional script. Then they’ll consider whether it fits their business or personal interest to read it.

But if it doesn’t have the key qualities of a single concept that implies a clear narrative engine— it’s a quick and easy “pass.”

There are just too many scripts—too many people on our imaginary dating site with undistinguished photos—for them to bother with lame ones.

Go and read a bunch of loglines to top scripts at the Black List website or on Coverfly’s Red List. Or read the loglines to contest winners. These are the “good ones”—and yet, you’ll start to enter a fugue state...because most of them simply feel like a chore.

What you learn after a long time of doing this is that the art of writing a great logline is to write a great script.

A great script has a simplicity and elegance to the concept, structure, characters, plot, tone, setting, etc. Everything adds up and aligns. There’s no redundancy, no wasted space—and for “high concept” (the best kind of script to write at the entry level), usually something really novel and cool, that all-important “X factor” (like A Quiet Place’s hunting-by-sound).

The goal is “familiar, with a fresh twist.”

It’s a cowboy love story—but they’re both gay men (Brokeback Mountain).

It’s a murder mystery—but the chronology is reversed (Memento).

The twist comes from the concept and completes it—it’s not a twist on a twist, or a concept plus another concept (let alone a third concept on top of that). You want to put pepperoni on pizza—not pizza on ice cream.

Brokeback Mountain works because of the irony of the cowboy being a macho American archetype. Memento isn’t told in reverse just for the heck of it, but because the protagonist has short-term memory loss and experiences time that way.

And don’t put a hat on top of a hat! A Quiet Place is set in the postapocalyptic future because that’s the only place the story would work—it’s not also a school movie, or a prison movie, or a spaceship movie.

A great script lends itself to a clear, catchy logline without undue effort; whereas the “developmental” script has the misalignments of redundant plotlines, thin characters, fuzzy concept, uncertain tone, etc.

Thus the writer of the developmental script goes through 15 loglines, none of which work (like poor me on Goliath).

But when the script is working, you’ll find the logline—the headshot on our metaphorical dating site—comes together with relative ease and...hey, it’s a person! Maybe even a very attractive one? We can hope.

Fix the script, and the logline will come. Pick the concept that’s most interesting and bring all the elements out of that—don’t try to impose a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work just because you’re impatient.

And if you can’t make a simple, clear logline from your script—stop. Write a new script. Or figure out what radical change you need to make to the current one so it makes a better logline.

In time, the logline will be just another tool, and one you’ll be happy to use. But the real work is in making the great script.

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This is a skill all filmmakers need, not just screenwriters. I have asked many directors what their film is about, only for them to launch into a 5 minute summary, which only gives me time to scan the room for fire exits.

Whether you are a producer, screenwriter or actor, if you can't tell us what your film is "about" in a pithy, intriguing way, why should we spend our time or money on it?

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