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Writing Killer Loglines

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Whether you write short stories, novellas, novels, or screenplays, loglines are an important part of the process. If someone asks you what your story is about, you aren’t reduced to the incoherent word ‘um’. Or better yet, you won’t ramble on, leaving the poor listener wishing he hadn’t asked.

If you attend a conference and have the chance to say ‘hi’ to an agent or editor (or if you’ve signed up for a pitch session), you have a quick way to let them know about your book. If the individual is interested, she might ask to see your manuscript (or portion of it). Many blog contests require a logline (psst, look at the side bar for an upcoming contest). 

When you write a logline, you want to keep the following questions in mind:

1.      What genre is the book? If your logline is for a children’s book, the protagonist’s age will indicate this. It isn’t necessary though, as you will see in the following example.
2.      Who is the main character?
3.      What makes her unique?
4.      What is the inciting incident?
5.      What is your main character’s goal?
6.      What is the major conflict your character will face? Unlike in the query, you only have room for one conflict in the logline.
7.      What is the consequence if the main character fails?
This sounds like a lot to get into a single sentence, but it isn’t. At least it isn’t after you rework your logline. 

Example

The Hunger Games (The following is from the logline created for the upcoming movie.)

1.      What genre is the book? Young adult dystopian
2.      Who is the main character? Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen
3.      What makes her unique? She is willing to sacrifice her life to save her young sister, who is selected to participate in The Hunger Games. Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place.
4.      What is the inciting incident? Katniss’s young sister is selected by the Capital to fight to the death on live television. (Even the contestants on Survivor had it easier than this.)
5.      What is your main character’s goal? To survive the fight to death on the reality TV show.
6.      What is the major conflict your character will face? Katniss isn’t the only contestant who wants to win. Only one contestant gets to live.
7.      What is the consequence if the main character fails? Katniss dies. It goes further than that, but this is enough for the logline.

Now rewrite the information into one sentence:

Set in a future where the Capitol selects a boy and girl from the twelve districts to fight to the death on live television, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister's place for the latest match.

Do you notice something else about the logline? It hints at the emotion of the story. This is live television, where the audience gets to watch their loved ones or friends die. And what if the boy and girl from the district are friends or are in love? That ups the stakes and the emotional conflict of the story. You don’t know which is true from reading the logline, though you might be compelled to read the book (or see the movie) to see what happens.

Additional Tips

  • If you’re participating in a contest, check the rules. Some allow for longer loglines. This could be two or three sentences instead of just one. Make sure you follow the rules or else your entry will be disqualified.
  • At a conference, you might have a ten-minute pitch session scheduled. If the pitch is brief, it gives the agent or editor a chance to ask YOU questions. An engaged agent or editor is more likely to request material. A bored agent or editor is more likely to pass.
  • Try out the logline on people who have read the book and those who haven’t. This way you can make sure the important parts of the book are included and that it makes sense to everyone.
  • Avoid writing long, convoluted sentences. Too often writers try to squeeze in as much information as possible while abusing punctuation. The sentence is confusing and doesn’t compel the agent or editor to want to read the book. Worse yet, the agent or editor might believe this is the typical sentence structure in your novel.
  • If you struggle answering the above questions, it might not be the logline that is the issue. It might be your book.

Here are three more loglines from current or upcoming movies for you to analyze. The more you analyze, the easier it will be to create one for your story.

Hugo
Set in 1930s Paris, an orphan who lives in the walls of a train station is wrapped up in a mystery involving his late father and an automaton.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
In the bleak days of the Cold War, espionage veteran George Smiley is forced from semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet agent within MI6's echelons.

The Descendants
A land baron tries to re-connect with his two daughters after his wife suffers a boating accident.

For more movie loglines, check out The Internet Movie Database.


Stina Lindenblatt writes young adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog, Seeing Creative.  

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9 comments:

On December 14, 2011 at 10:40 AM , Lyle Blake Smythers said...

A recurring problem with these succinct summaries: In the interest of keeping it short, the writer takes shortcuts resulting in bad grammar. My pet peeve is the misplaced modifier or dangling participle: "Set in a future where ..., Katniss ..." No, the story is set in the future, not Katniss. Exact same thing with the Hugo example: "Set in 1930s Paris, an orphan who ..." No. The story is set in the 1930s, not the orphan. Bad bad writing.

 
On December 14, 2011 at 10:47 AM , Lyle Blake Smythers said...

This problem is easily fixed by just removing the unnecessary and jarring word "set." So you say, "In 1930s Paris, an orphan ..." N'est-ce pas? 8)

 
On December 14, 2011 at 11:22 AM , Stina Lindenblatt said...

I didn't write these, but you are correct. Obviously even professionals aren't perfect when it comes to loglines. To most people, those errors won't be an issue. They aren't going to analyze the sentence structure and base they decision to see the movie on that. ;)

 
On December 14, 2011 at 11:36 AM , Christina Lee said...

GREAT post, Stina! I need a Hollywood producer to write mine *wink*.

I agree that the general public wouldn't even recognize what Lyle pointed out, but something to consider!

 
On December 14, 2011 at 12:44 PM , Ed said...

What is an Inciting Incident? Answered pretty well here: http://www.clickok.co.uk/Inciting-Incident-versus-Call-To-Adventure-Resolved.html

 
On December 14, 2011 at 12:57 PM , Holly L'Oiseau said...

I'm probably one of the only writers on the planet who loves writing loglines and queries. I always write my logline first before I ever start on my MS. That's how my novel is formed.

 
On December 14, 2011 at 5:27 PM , Lyle Blake Smythers said...

I like to think these are the niceties that separate us from the lower animals but, yes, in most cases the intended meaning is clear.

Then we have punctuation pecadilloes that give rise to such examples as ""Dedicated to my mother and father, The Pope and Mother Theresa."

Gotta love that ambiguity.

Lyle

 
On December 21, 2011 at 9:12 AM , Shakespeare said...

Having a slight grammatical problem is not nearly so troublesome as writing full-page "log line" because one cannot force oneself to limit it to a sentence.

Agents don't have twenty minutes to hear a pitch and get excited about one's book. What can we do in a moment? Learning to pare at this point should also help us chuck out the extraneous stuff in our novels. I see too many rough drafts that include people opening and closing doors constantly, distracting us from the more important actions and dialogue.

 
On February 9, 2012 at 3:31 PM , Jacqueline Corcoran said...

Great information here on writing the logline, which is also important when considering the concept of your story initially. I write about this today, including the link to your post here:
http://downtownya.blogspot.com/2012/02/testing-out-pitch-what-to-write-next.html

Thanks, Jacqui
http://www.jacquelinecorcoran.com/