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The Power of the Logline

By Patrick Kirkland · May 19, 2011

“What’s it about?” Ever get that question?

What do you say? Do you spout off three or four paragraphs describing the plot of your story or your main character’s inner and outward journey? Or do you give them the one-liner?

Admittedly, in the forefront of my mind at every writing session, I have a pretty good idea of what my story is about. And I know that it will take somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours to tell it. So it’s only natural that I, like many other writers, sit down to write and think “I’m ready.”

It should be enough that I type out somewhere between 90 to 110 pages, introduce 2 to 5 to 50 characters, and end with each one learning something. It should be enough that I go through the scenes, turning points, and really make people cry at the end. And it should really be enough that I spend months writing something, print it out on 3-holed paper, finish it with copper brads, and send it off to be read in Hollywood, and obviously come out on top of the pile with its brilliance.

Seriously, that’s enough. Isn’t it?  

Well… No.

As a script reader, my desk had on it 10-15 scripts on even a light day. Some of them were good. Some of them were bad, and, more to the point, most of them were utterly forgetful, and unless it had a good catch, I read 5 pages and threw it in the “No” pile. And in case you’re wondering, that was the pile that went to the shredder, never to be read by the guy (or gal) on top. The truth is that most screenplays will never get read by the top dogs, because the top dogs (those all important decision makers) simply have no time to read anything, except maybe… one sentence, 25 words. 

And so we have the logline:

With his hand trapped under a boulder in a remote canyon, Aron Ralston, faces the greatest dilemma of his life: cut it off or die. – 127 Hours (2010)

In a future where criminals are arrested before the crime occurs, a despondent cop struggles on the lam to prove his innocence for a murder he has not yet committed. – Minority Report (2002)

A doctor – falsely accused of murdering his wife – struggles as he desperately searches for the killer with a relentless federal agent hot on his trail. – The Fugitive (1993)

Call it your elevator pitch, your one-liner, or anything else you want to call it, but it’s a quick attention grabber of what your film is, how much it’s going to cost, and- oh yeah- which actor could play the lead.

Of course, there’s a problem. Nobody is good at loglines. Out of all the writers I know, not one of them is actually good at telling their story’s inner workings in 25 words. It’s no surprise; they’re not easy. If they were, you wouldn’t have Creative Screenwriting’s Great Loglines contest, or The Script Doctor’s Logline Friday. The point of these contests is just that: they’re not easy.

Of course, you can always learn how. Between any number of screenwriting books and articles like this one, there’s no shortage of opinions on how to write a logline. Google will give you “Writing Loglines that Sell” and “Logline Tips” and “Improve your loglines”, while Wikipedia lists this example:

“Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to do it again." – Humorous Logline for The Wizard of Oz by Richard Polito

Five minutes on “Random Logline Generator” gave me these wonders of storytelling:

A surveyor sends a mailbomb to a two-headed sorceress in a graveyard.

A manipulative poker player goes into business with a psychotic gas station attendant cook dinner in an apartment.

An ornithophobic bartender borrows the clothes of the grandfather of a golf caddy.

And just when you thought you were completely screwed, ehow gives you this piece of amazing advice: “Reveal the movie’s premise in a sentence.”

…Well, thanks ehow. You’ve completely saved my screenplay.

But as difficult as it is, and as much as writers like to dredge on and on, in our heart, we know we still have to narrow everything down into that one golden sentence. Because the truth is, we’re the only ones who really care about our stories. Producers don’t care about your great idea until they hear it, and more than that, as writers, there’s no way we can even know what that idea is until we focus it. That’s because, very simply, the logline is your spine. It’s the idea, the theme, and the goal, all wrapped up into one little sentence.

Oh, and it has to be good. When you know it’s good, you’ll know it’s time to tell people. And when people like it, you’ll know. And when it’s not? You’ll know that, too. I was at a dinner party the other night and someone asked for my logline.  After I delivered my carefully crafted, well thought and exceptionally told line, he cracked an awkward smile and said “Oh.”

No words of greatness, not an ounce of conversation, and a big smile wrapped around his face. There was certainly no way he was going to ask to read it, and he isn’t even in the industry. It took half a second for me to realize, “that logline sucks. Back to work.”

The hard truth is, when it comes pitch time, people would rather be interested in your story from one sentence. Because if you can’t get people on your side in one sentence, then you’re not going to get them in a hundred pages.

There are hundreds of articles on how to write a good logline, and to learn, I suggest starting with some of the well-known routes. TSL’s own Script Tips, for starters. But for the most part, people agree. Keep it short, sweet, and tell the entire story. Like I said, I suck at them, so I have no business telling you how to write them. I can, however, tell you how they’re read.

A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard the ill-fated voyage of the Titanic. – Titanic (1997)

Why’s this work? Well, first off, we see it immediately, and because Romeo and Juliet is so plated in our heads, we immediately know this can be a tortured story. Ill-fated? We know there’s going to be death and destruction. Different social classes? Immediate conflict. And falling in love? There’s room for both an inner and outward emotional journey for the characters. Would I want to read the screenplay? Maybe. Would I want to read the treatment? I’d at least get my assistant on it.

A washed up boxer gets a chance to fight the world champ, but with the help of his lover, must learn to believe in himself before stepping into the ring. – Rocky (1976)

I gotta say, that sounds pretty good. An inner struggle, as well as the excitement of boxing. I see battles, lights, an announcer calling “LADIES AND GENTLEMAN…”, and there’s a love story to boot. Sure, I’ll check out the script.

A comedic portrayal of a young and broke Shakespeare who falls in love with a woman, inspiring him to write Romeo and Juliet. – Shakespeare in Love (1998)

It’s funny? Who says? Aren’t I the one supposed to decide that? A young and broke Shakespeare? Well, Shakespeare’s interesting, but what writer isn’t broke? Falls in love with a woman, okay, but inspiring him to write Romeo and Juliet? Well, first, that play is about more than falling in love. It’s about class warfare, family pride, teenage passion, true love, and pure heartbreak. And this is supposed to be a comedy?  Sorry, not interested. What’s that you say? Shakespeare in Love won the Best Picture AND Best Screenplay Oscar? Huh, from that logline? Surprising.

The best piece of advice I can give you? Stop writing your screenplay. Stop working and reworking your dialogue, and stop trying to put a voice to your slug lines and action sequences. Instead, take your one liner and tell it to as many people as you can think of. If they like it, good. But maybe you can go back and push it a bit. If they love it, great. Get back to your screenplay and make sure it stays on track. If it sparks conversation, let it. But if you get an awkward smile and an “Oh” like I did, back to the drawing board.

Remember, this is the line that keeps you on track, and your audience on board. This is the line that tells you which scenes you can cut, and which to keep. And this is the line that will get you to that first meeting. And isn’t that, after all, the point?

Check out our Library of over 300 Loglines here.