You Need a Logline

Screenwriting Tip #12: If you don’t know your own logline, you probably don’t know what your script is about.

Some writers will tell you they don’t have a logline. Their screenplay is “too complex” or “too character-driven,” or they just didn’t bother to think of one before they started writing. These writers are either idiots or geniuses – and somehow I don’t think there are that many geniuses running around.

You need a logline. After the concept and possibly the title, it’s the first thing you should come up with for your screenplay. The logline is the first bit of real writing you will do for a project – it marks the point where you start translating the wonders and marvels in your head into mundane words on a page. The logline is where you stop dreaming and start working.

What’s a logline, you ask? It’s two sentences that sum up the entire essence of your story, from protagonist to setting to plot. Here’s one I prepared earlier:

Dorothy, a naïve farm girl from Kansas, is carried away by a tornado to the mystical land of Oz. With the help of her new friends, she must defeat the Wicked Witch of the West and find her way back home.

Those two sentences describe the protagonist, her motivations and goal, her allies, the inciting incident, the stakes, the setting, and the antagonist. You could probably cram in more, but keeping the two sentences short and readable helps with clarity and impact. Of course, two sentences is an arbitrary limitation, but like so many good arbitrary limitations (the sonnet, the tweet, etc.), it encourages ruthless creativity. It forces you to think about what really matters – what’s the core of the story and what’s just decoration?

Notice what’s not in the example: anything about Dorothy’s backstory, her life in Kansas before Oz, or the framing narrative of the whole thing being a dream. Anything about the Wizard, Toto, the Munchkins, or other incidental characters she meets along the way. Any mention of plot devices or MacGuffins, like the fact that the Wicked Witch is angry because Dorothy accidentally killed her sister, or the ruby slippers being the key to getting Dorothy home.

You don’t need that stuff in a logline, because you wouldn’t open with that stuff if you were explaining the concept to someone. You know it’ll be there in your outline and screenplay, but for now your job is to focus on the heart of the story.

From the logline, I tend to expand into a complete short pitch. I’ll write it out as if I’m trying to sell the story to someone, starting with an explanatory paragraph (“The Wizard of Oz is a coming-of-age adventure story set in a fantastical world called Oz,” and so on). Then I’ll write a quick summary of what happens in Acts 1, 2, and 3. I might follow this up with a short section on characters, or at the very least the protagonist and antagonist – who they are, what they want, where they’re coming from.

Finally, I’ll cap it off with what might boringly be called a “mission statement” paragraph, but that I prefer to think of as “Why This Is Cool.” It’s literally an explanation of what I think is cool about the story, why I love it, and why it deserves to be a screenplay. This could be about how unique and interesting the protagonist is, how the concept has never been done before, or just a description of the visuals or a spectacular set-piece that I can see happening in the script.

Eventually, the whole thing will probably take up only one or two pages. The point of this exercise is to sell yourself on the concept – to set out, carefully and rationally, the details of the screenplay you’re about to write. By doing this, you will think of new directions you hadn’t considered before, you will find problems that weren’t immediately obvious, and you will be better equipped to decide if this is the project you want to devote the next few months of your life to.

If you hadn’t written a logline and a pitch document, you’d never have discovered those things. And the next time someone asks you what your script’s about, you’ll have a killer logline to give them in response.

Excerpted from Screenwriting Tips, You Hack by Xander Bennett © 2011 Taylor & Francis Group.  All rights Reserved.

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