Your Story Needs a Logline, and Here Is Why
When we work on our logline, we don’t merely summarize our story in one line. We continue working on our idea, hammer it to make it more compelling and relatable to everyone else.
Learn how to write them well
I have a writer-director friend who has been making an independent documentary film for over ten years. He has shot hundreds of hours of footage, but he is having difficulties editing and finishing his movie. He also had various troubles with producers, funding, etc.
The last time I asked him, he said he was very close to finishing it, but his producer wanted him to write a three-page treatment.
He wasn’t excited to do it, but it wasn’t optional. I naively offered to help because, guess what, I love writing treatments! A treatment is a complete summary of a film’s script that reads like a short story. You get the whole picture without getting lost in details.
We sat down side by side in front of his computer. He opened the list of scenes he had already shot, and their summaries. I read everything but still had no idea what the story was about.
So I turned to him, “Hey, let’s go back to the basics. How would you express your story in one sentence?”
He froze for a second. “Do you mean logline? I don’t have a logline,” he said.
“Well, let’s write one now, so we can be on the same page,” I said.
My friend threw a fit. He hated how everyone insisted on writing a logline! His project was a documentary, not a drama. He had resisted writing a logline from day one because it would restrict him. He wanted to explore his subjects freely when he went shooting.
At that point, I respectfully withdrew my offer to write the treatment. I only had an afternoon or two to spare, not a whole year.
He might be right. Everyone has their creative working style. I am sure his film will be a valuable piece of art when he finishes it. But will he be able to finish it? Three years, four producers, and many thousands of dollars later, he is still shooting new footage.
For me, the logline is indispensable. Not just for the ease of sharing my stories with others but also for my creative process (and sanity).
Logline pitches your work in the most effective way
Publishers, agents, producers, co-writers, readers, moviegoers, and others whom you might want to “sell” your story are all busy people. Even when they have lots of time, their minds will be busy with lots of other stories.
Once you get a chance to talk to someone, you don’t want to waste any second of their attention with too much detail, settings, plots, twists and turns, character arcs, etc. If you can’t get to the heart of your story right away, you will lose them.
A well-written logline quickly and easily conveys your idea to the other person. It also evokes curiosity in them and makes them want to hear more. That’s when you can tell them about our brilliant details, and they will want to read your stories.
Logline helps you test your idea
In Save The Cat!, Blake Snyder suggests that if you are having trouble writing your logline, maybe you have to rethink your whole movie.
A logline is like the DNA of a story. When you hear it, you instantly visualize in your mind what it will be like, and you can guess its potential. You can analyze it, tell people and watch their reaction or ask for their feedback.
If people don’t get curious and don’t want to know more about the story, you might decide that the idea doesn’t work before investing too much time in it. You might revise and tweak it until it does work, make people excited.
But as I said, loglines are not just for communicating the idea with others.
Logline clears the air for yourself
The creative process is often messy, and that’s how it should be. When you let your right brain go wild, you can create so much stuff that it can get overwhelming. You might easily get lost in your ideas and forget why you came up with that idea and what you hoped to create—writing loglines forces you to make decisions.
I am not saying you have to write it before you begin writing the story. You can create freely until you get to that tipping point where things start going out of hand. Then it is a good idea to take a step back, see the big picture, and summarize it in one powerful line.
Once you grasp the essence of your story, the irrelevant bits that weigh your story down become obvious. You can get rid of them and make your story more concise, simple, and understandable.
It gives you direction and depth
The logline anchors you to the core of your story. Even if you haven’t explored every option yet, once you have the logline nailed, you can focus your energy in the right direction.
My friend was, in fact, right when he said a logline would restrict him. But this wouldn’t necessarily be bad for his creativity. Limitations provide you a more focused and deeper range to explore. You stop wandering and concentrate on making the most of the limited options you have.
Creative freedom is an interesting concept. Being free is essential. But the thing is, when you have no limitations; you aren’t really free; you easily get lost in the unknown waters. When you are in a definite domain, you can relax into it, explore it deeply and freely, and make the most of it.
This is a bit like the concept of toddlers playing in a safe, confined space. You can put your child in a playpen with their toys and let them play without any intervention from you. Children will feel safe, and they will completely immerse themselves in their play.
But if you choose to childproof your house and let them play anywhere they want, you will still have to watch their every step and intervene every time they try to climb to the window or find something else that is dangerous. You can’t allow them total freedom like in the playpen.
It gives you confidence and helps you write better
Once you know the essence of your story, get clarity and direction, you can apply your creative energy without hesitation.
You can be more confident about your writing and write better as a result. When you feel stronger, you can ignore the negative self-talk, insecurities, etc. You can connect with your subconscious brain and write from your inner source.
How does a logline do all that? It acts as a guide. Imagine getting lost in the dark sea and being unable to find the shore.
You wouldn’t know which way to swim; you would keep guessing, and as a result, you wouldn’t be able to swim confidently. But if you could see the light on the beach, you would swim in that direction without any worries.
The characteristics of a good logline
According to Snyder, a logline must satisfy four basic elements to be effective:
1. Irony. It must be in some way ironic and emotionally involving — a dramatic situation that is like an itch you have to scratch.
2. A compelling mental picture. It must bloom in your mind when you hear it. A whole movie must be implied, often including a time frame.
3. Audience and cost. It must demarcate the tone, the target audience, and the sense of cost, so buyers will know if it can make a profit.
4. A killer title. The one-two punch of a good logline must include a great title, one that “says what it is” and does so in a clever way.
What exactly is in the logline?
The logline is a sentence that summarizes your story as effectively as possible. There are no strict rules, but you want to state your story’s premise by mentioning your protagonist, their goal, and the main obstacle, or the antagonist force, that will try to stop them reach their goal.
Every story is about a lead character whom the audience experiences the events through. A story works for the audience only if they root for the protagonist and care if they win or not.
When you are writing the logline, ask yourself who the story is about. There is no need to mention their name, but you must carefully choose one or two traits about your protagonist that make the story tick. After all, the main flaw of your protagonist defines the story.
Tootsie is about a “sexist actor” who gets cast for a female character.
Liar Liar is about a “dishonest lawyer” who can’t tell a lie for 24 hours.
The right protagonist for a story is the one who will experience the biggest conflict in the given situation. The bigger room for transformation, the bigger the character arc will be, and the story will have more space for enjoyable drama.
What does your protagonist want to achieve? Each character should want something in a story, “even if it is only a glass of water,” as Kurt Vonnegut said. The main character’s goal and their struggle to reach that goal become the story’s spine.
Even though a character may want many things, their main goal must be clear and understandable. Sometimes writers avoid making a choice and try to incorporate many ideas simultaneously, thinking the story will be more powerful.
On the contrary, multiple goals weaken a story. The audience gets confused and cannot connect with the characters when they can’t understand what they are trying to do.
To have an engaging premise, the main goal must be compelling and relatable. The goal can be anything, but, as Snyder says, the more ‘primal’ it is, such as survival, the more powerful the story becomes.
In Terminator, Sarah Connor’s goal is to survive.
In My Best Friend’s Wedding, Julianne’s goal is to break up a relationship and win the man. Love and sex are primal needs.
Either it is a villain or another adversary force, the antagonist tries to prevent the protagonist reach their goal, creating the central conflict.
To maximize the conflict, the antagonist must be equally or more powerful than the protagonist. In fact, it is the power of the antagonist force that defines the capacity of the protagonist. In other words, what makes a hero powerful is how bad the bad guy is.
In No Country For Old Men (2007), Llewellyn looks like an ordinary guy at first. We don’t know what he is capable of until we meet Chigurh and his relentless pursuit.
If the hero sounds weak or dull, increasing the antagonist force might automatically make them stronger or more interesting. As Rober McKee wrote in Story, “True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure — the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”
How do we write it?
On savethecat.com, Naomi Beaty suggests identifying the essentials first:
Someone (the protagonist) wants something (the story goal) and goes after it against great odds and/or obstacles (the antagonist and the conflict).
Make it clear first… and pretty later.
This is the DNA of your story. When you bring these three ingredients together in a sentence, you express the heart of your story in the most effective way.
Once you do that, ask yourself if the four elements exist too:
- Is it ironic? Is it something that gives you a weird emotion or makes you curious?
- Can you instantly visualize it and start making guesses about the story?
- Can you tell who it is for? Does it sound like a children’s film or a slapstick comedy? Or is it for history lovers? If it is a movie, does it help you guess if it will be a big production or a small indy film?
- Do you also have a clever title that complements the logline?
When we work on our logline, we don’t merely summarize our story in one line. We continue working on our idea, hammer it to make it more compelling and relatable to everyone else. Eric Bork says:
But here’s the point that I think is key about the logline: it’s not about shaping the words of the logline to “sell” your concept. The point is to shape your CONCEPT until it can be expressed clearly in a logline that just works for people, without you having to do any “selling.” The logline is not the place to tease or hype or generalize — it’s a place to clearly and succinctly tell an idea that sells itself.
Writing our logline doesn’t only help us see what we have; it also helps us polish its best form and make it shine.
Turkish copywriter and screenwriter, lover of stories, living in New Zealand