A great logline might just be the most important part of your script. In fact, this one sentence can determine who options, produces, or even reads your screenplay. And the truth is, loglines have always been important in Hollywood. But before we breakdown the three questions every great logline needs to answer, let’s take a quick look at the history of loglines in Hollywood and why they’re (still) one of the most important parts of getting your script read, optioned, and produced.
Where did the term “logline” come from?
During the Golden Age of cinema — long before the advent of digital technology, the internet, and the cloud — scripts were stored in massive studio vaults. Stack upon stacks of scripts. (Picture Scrooge McDuck, but with spec scripts instead of gold coins). In order to keep track of this massive script-library, studio executives would write the title and a one-sentence summary along the spine or “log” of the script. These “log-lines” were so useful to studio heads and decision-makers that loglines quickly became an indispensable part of screenwriting.
The goal of a logline — both then and now — is to express as much information about a screenplay in the shortest amount of time. Remember, loglines literally had to fit on the spine of a script. A logline that could hook a reader in a single glance went a long way. In a lot of cases, the strength of the logline would decide if studio execs wanted to unstack the scripts and make the film.
Fast forward to today, and loglines are still king. A great logline can spark interest, open the right doors, and get the wheels turning on your project. And even though the system has evolved from vaults to online screenwriting profiles, a great logline is still essential if you want your screenplay to get made. Here’s how to write a great logline and the three questions things every logline needs to answer.
3 essential elements of a great logline
Every logline should strive to answer these three questions:
- Who is this story about (and why is this person interesting)?
- What does this character want (and why should we care)?
- What is the main obstacle keeping them from achieving their goal?
If your logline can answer those questions — in 30 words or less — you’re much more likely to generate interest in your script and increase the chances that studio execs and decision-makers will open your screenplay up and take a peek. Let’s examine the logline for BREAKING BAD to see if these elements exist and how well they summarize the screenplay and generate interest in the reader.
Here’s the original BREAKING BAD logline:
A chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal lung cancer teams up with his former student to cook and sell crystal meth in order to provide for his family, his wife, disabled son, and newborn.
You can easily see that this logline answers the three essential questions with compelling story elements.
- Who is the hero? A chemistry teacher with terminal cancer.
- What does your hero want? To provide for his wife, disabled son, and newborn before he dies.
- What is the main obstacle keeping him from achieving his goal? Terminal cancer, and the unknown perils of making and selling crystal meth for the first time
This logline works. It’s clear, compelling, and unique. In fact, this logline establishes not just a hero, but an anti-hero in just a few words with motivations that everyone can understand (mortality, family, and money). The interesting thing about this logline is that it might seem like it omits the obstacles — the logline doesn’t mention the Krazy-8, Tuco Salamanca, or Gus Fring — but that’s because they aren’t the real obstacles for Walter.
The real obstacle (and inciting incident) of this story is a terminal cancer diagnosis. That’s what the protagonist has to overcome. A ticking clock. And it creates an instantly compelling character. Here are a few quick tips to help you write an effective logline.
Great loglines are driven by characters. So one of the best ways to write an effective logline is to keep the focus on the hero. A good logline should first and foremost define the story’s protagonist by answering these simple questions:
- Who is your hero?
- Why do we believe in your hero?
- What makes your hero memorable?
You only have one sentence to accomplish all of this, so be concise. If you can remove even one word from your logline, do it. Keep it tight!
Great loglines focus on conflict
After you’ve established your protagonist, give us the conflict. This is more often than not the antagonist or villain, but your hero can also be up against a powerful force (like racism, poverty, or a sharknado). To help establish the conflict of your logline, answer these two questions:
- Who is the antagonist?
- How is the antagonist standing in the way of your hero achieving their goal?
In BREAKING BAD the antagonist is literally the looming spectre of imminent death. The bigger and badder your antagonist, the better! Entice readers in with a seemingly impossible conflict.
How to write an original logline
When you boil your entire story down to just one sentence you run the risk of seeming like a lot of other scripts. There are only so many ways to tell the same hero’s journey after all. However, your logline still needs to make your script sound unique. Every story has something that no one else has. Highlight that individuality because development executives will ask you to give them the “same but different.” And your “different” is what will sell.
In the BREAKING BAD logline, the unique part of the story is how the show tackles themes of “how far will someone go to protect and provide for their family.” Launching a high school chemistry teacher into the underbelly of the crystal meth world is definitely unique and full of great storytelling moments. It’s the old fish-out-of-water story with a new spin. Find your unique spin.
Loglines set the scene
Finally, your logline should tell the reader about the world of your screenplay. Where and when is your story taking place and more importantly, what does the world look like? This doesn’t have to be a specific location, but should definitely hint or establish the setting of the story. In BREAKING BAD, the “world” is the world of crystal meth complete with addicts, dealers, and users.
How to write a great logline
Creating a great logline is all about clarity. If you can highlight your hero, their wants and needs, and their unique struggle in one sentence you will take a big step toward getting your screenplay read and eventually produced. Hone your logline until it can answer those three questions in 30 words or less and remember, the strength of your logline can mean the difference between a sale or not. Good luck and happy writing!
Justin Trevor Winters has nearly two decades of experience as a screenwriter, lecturer, producer, and development executive. He began his career working in the Literary Department at Innovative Artists Talent and Literary Agency where he worked in collaboration with established directors, screenwriters, and authors. He later joined Creative Artists Agency, and after assisting in launching numerous projects, began focusing on his own screenwriting career. His feature film debut, Killing Winston Jones, a dark-comedy, starred Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Glover, Danny Masterson, and Jon Heder. His TV debut, Sports, starred Jessimae Peluso and was produced by Comedy Central. He is currently a screenwriting lecturer at the School of Film & Television at Loyola Marymount University. He’s also taught at Arizona State University, where he was nominated for an Outstanding Teacher Award, and at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. He has lectured at universities and conferences both nationally and internationally, and regularly contributes to TheScriptLab.com, ScreenCraft.org and FilmCourage.com, websites dedicated to encouraging young writers and filmmakers to study and pursue their goals and aspirations. He’s also the founder of Sixty Second Script School, an educational website that teaches the craft and business of screenwriting through sixty-second daily lectures.