Finding Your Log Line

I hated log lines. When you don’t know or understand something you fear it and if you fear it long enough to will begin to hate it and that’s what had happened between me and log lines. I didn’t understand the full purpose of a log line and therefore I never used them. I would just sit down and start writing and often by page 20 I was out of steam because I had no idea where I was going. Those of you who have been following this blog for a while might remember my 12-part series about writing your first screenplay that I created to help me understand the process of writing. I spent a couple of paragraphs talking about creating the log line but I still didn’t understand it. Over the last year I have spent a lot of time reading about log lines and I’d like to share with you what I have learned.

“Save The Cat”, Blake Snyder

I finally read Save the Cat by the late Blake Snyder. I enjoyed the book and I can see why it has become the de facto screenwriting instruction manual. It lives up to its sub-title “The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need”. In Blake’s own words he claimed that the most important thing a log line must include is IRONY. Irony can be defined as “an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected.” He called it the HOOK because it hooks the reader’s interest. “A log line is like the cover of a book; a good one makes you want to open it, right now, to find out what’s inside.” He claimed that unless you could identify the ironic elements of your story then there might be something wrong with your story. Blake cited Die Hard (1988) as a good example of irony in a logline: “A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists.”

“10 Tips for Writing Loglines”, James Burbidge

This was a great article and I recommend you take the time to read the material directly from the source. Within the article Mr. Burbidge provides 10 very important points about writing your log lines. He starts be defining a log line vs. a tag line (as they are very different things). The biggest take away I had from this article was his tenth point, “Don’t tell the story, sell the story”. His own words say it best, “Log lines are like poetry, every word counts.” One of the best parts of this example is Mr. Burbidge’s use of an example throughout the article. Within the first five points he builds a log line a few words at a time to show by example just how easy it is to build a log line. Both are excellent examples and I think the second one (the alcoholic superhero) would make a great one-off movie.

“Writing Good Log Lines”, Dr. Stanley D. Williams

I very much enjoyed this article. Dr. Williams begins the article with the line “This is the last article you’ll ever need to read on log lines.” His article claims that a good log line includes five elements within a single sentence. Protagonist, combat verb, Antagonist, the Goal and the Stakes if the goal is not reached. Dr. Williams explains what is meant by the term combat verb (these are words such as struggle or battle) then he gives his reader a formula.

[protagonist]…[verb]…[antagonist]…[goal]…[stakes]

The important part of writing a log line is rewriting a log line; “As formulistic as all this sounds, expect to rewrite your log line many, many times — not necessarily at first, but over the time that you develop your story and script.” Once all of the research has been completed it’s time to settle down at your desk and write your screenplay’s log line. Reviewing my research I take the time to compile it into five important log line tips that will help me create a more precise log line.

1. Irony Generates the Hook

When you look at some of the greatest movies of all time, their hooks were often ironic. Two single men who have a fear of commitment crash weddings to pickup woman. (Wedding Crashers). Irony brings opposites together to play off each other. When you have opposites together you’re going to get conflict. A log line should introduce the conflict of the story without going into great detail. Tobin also talked about elevating your story into the area of high concept and I think irony is an easy way to do that.

2. Introduce the Who of the Story

The reader of the log line should know who the protagonist and antagonist are right away. Don’t name them but rather describe them. A teenage farm girl (Wizard of Oz), a naïve farm boy a remote planet (Star Wars), the evil step-mother (Cinderella). The reader learns more about the character from their description rather than their name. Leading off with the protagonist is often a great start to a log line so the reader knows who they will be rooting for.

3. Establish the Goals and Stakes

What is your protagonist trying to do and what happens if they were to fail? Indiana Jones had to find the lost ark before the Nazis (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Merida must protect her mother before Merida’s father kills her thinking she’s the bear that took his leg (Brave). This is the core conflict of the story and why it’s so important that they protagonist must succeed.

4. Never Reveal the End

Don’t tell the reader of your log line how your screenplay will end. If they know how it ends, then they’re not going to want to read the screenplay. One of the points of the log line is to make someone interested enough to want to read your screenplay. If your log line ends with “…and they lived happily ever after” no one is going to want to read your script. End on a cliffhanger if you can. Keep them wanting more.

5. Keep it Simple, Screenwriter

One sentence. That’s it. Everything in just one sentence. You need to be able to compress your first two acts and the first half of your third act into just one sentence. Don’t make it run on sentence, or a compound sentence. Faced with an unplanned pregnancy a Minnesota teen uses an unorthodox way to find a good home for her unborn baby, triggering a string of unexpected events (Juno). Build it in small parts and select the best words to say what you mean. Rewriting your log line will refine it, but never get rid of previous versions as you may choose to return to one of them and take it in a different direction.

Bonus Tip. Practice.

When you see a movie take the time and write the log line for the movie. Do you have a couple of finished screenplays in your desk? Write the log lines for each of them. Even better, do you have any unfinished screenplays in your desk, if so write those log lines. You might find that a well crafted log line will breath new life into an old, dead project.

Remember, this isn’t science. There’s no perfect way of writing a log line, but if it helps you sell your screenplay than you know you’ve done something right.

If you’re currently working on a screenplay and you haven’t written a log line you should take some time and write one now. It’s like drawing a map through your story.

Until next week
– Steve

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