This guest post is by Miranda Sajdak. Miranda is the co-founder of Script Chix, a company dedicated to providing screenwriting notes and informative events for entertainment professionals in Los Angeles. If you want to improve your screenwriting, you can check out their website, scriptchix.com. Also, make sure to check them out on Facebook and Twitter (@ScriptChix).

What Is a Logline? Defined simply, the logline is a single sentence (sometimes two) that answers the basic question “what is your story about?” In everyday life, you might encounter a logline most frequently in a TV guide or on your DVR. It seems simple, but the art of writing a compelling logline can elude even the most established writer.

Screenplay Photo by Matt-Richards (Creative Commons)

What’s the Difference Between a Logline and a Tagline?

At some point, you’ve probably heard a pitch similar to “It’s like Die Hard meets Bridesmaids!” There are times when film or television executives want to hear what other films your project resembles. But, be aware, these analogies are not loglines.

Keep in mind: a tagline is also not a logline. So, for instance, the classic “In space, no one can hear you scream,” from Alien, or even “One man’s struggle to take it easy,” from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are not loglines.

Can analogies and taglines be useful? Sure! But, when you submit your work for notes or in a query letter, executives need something more informative about the plot. However, loglines should not spoil the entire plot of a show, film, or book.

No Spoilers, Please!

How many times have you read the description for a TV episode on your DVR and realized the plot’s been spoiled before it’s even aired? We recently watched an episode of Pretty Little Liars, and this was part of the logline: “Ashley is involved in a hit-and-run accident.”

A little bit of context: Ashley is the mother of one of the show’s leads. The hit and run incident ends up being a major plotline in the following episodes. It was meant to be a shock, but the shock was lost when the viewer read that logline. They should have left the detail out or worded it differently (i.e. “An encounter with the law leaves Ashley worried.”). This minor adjustment would allow the scene to have its impact and still get the message across.

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Our friend Jennifer has the hardest time pitching a story. Whenever we ask about her latest script, she will talk for hours, explaining how — for instance — a mailman delivers a letter, which tells the secondary character that she didn’t get in to college, while the lead character is busy stuck in a jail cell in Tijuana.

Now, clearly, the lead’s storyline is more life-or-death, but Jennifer gets sidetracked with the details of the secondary characters, because she’s so rooted in the intricacies of the story. The minor details don’t matter; keep the focus on the main plot to write a strong logline.

The Nitty-Gritty

Final tips for creating an effective and intriguing logline:

  1. Start with your protagonist. Who or what leads the action of the story? In Star Wars, that’s obvious: Luke Skywalker. But what about an ensemble film like Pulp Fiction? IMDB has a great logline for Tarantino’s film: “The lives of two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption.”
  2. With a logline, you really need to think about your verb. Steer clear of the infinitive “to be.” Look at the Lion King example above: tricked—flees—abandons. All verbs that get you thinking more about the how and the why within the main plot.
  3. Finally, that brings us to the basic “what happens” of the plot. What happens in Star Wars? “Luke Skywalker, a spirited farm boy, joins rebel forces to save Princess Leia from the evil Darth Vader, and the galaxy from the Empire’s planet-destroying Death Star.”

Simplified further: “A spirited farm boy joins rebel forces to save a princess from evil forces, and the galaxy from a planet-destroying starship.”

Here are some other great examples of loglines (credit: IMDB):

A troubled child summons the courage to help a friendly alien escape Earth and return to his home-world. (E.T.)

Following the Normandy Landings, a group of U.S. soldiers go behind enemy lines to retrieve a paratrooper whose brothers have been killed in action. (Saving Private Ryan)

Two women troubled with guy-problems swap homes in each other’s countries, where they each meet a local guy and fall in love. (The Holiday)

While loglines are primarily used in the film and television industries, creating one is a useful exercise for novelists or short story writers. Not only will preparing loglines strengthen your writing skills, but it can also help you discover the essence of your story, if you’re struggling to find it.

How about you? Do you find it helpful to use loglines in your writing?

PRACTICE

Now that we’ve explored the basic elements of a logline, take some time to write your own. Start by writing three loglines:

  1. One from your favorite movie
  2. One from a television show
  3. One from a novel or short story

Then, write a logline for whatever piece of writing you’re working on now (or your most recently finished, if you’re between projects)!

When you’re finished, post your four loglines below in the comments section. If you post, be sure to leave feedback for a few other logline experts!