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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Writing a Logline/The One-Sentence Pitch

Note from Archetype/Carolyn: Today's post is by fellow writer Michelle McLean. If you've been struggling all week to come up with a one-line elevator pitch, this article is for you!  Now, I'm the sort that likes worksheets to scribble on when I'm tackling something as important as this, so I created a worksheet to go with Michelle's article.  You can find it here in PDF format.  Once you're all finished, feel free to share what you came up with in the comments of Mary's Elevator Pitch post .

Writing a Logline/The One-Sentence Pitch

by Michelle McLean

In this article, we are going to discuss how to create a logline for a novel. It is important to remember that every story is different. Some will need a little more information, and others can get the point across in three words or less. Well…maybe a few more than three words, but you get my drift.

First of all, what is a logline?

A logline is basically a one line summary of a screenplay or script. Since we are creating these for a novel instead of a script, we’ll call them hook lines. They can run two or three lines, but no more than that.

Why do you need one?

Your hook line, like a logline, takes a story full of complex plotlines and high-concept ideas and breaks it down into a simple sentence that can be quickly and easily conveyed to a wide range of people. Your hook line is your first pitch in getting someone interested in your book. It can be used as the first line in your query letter, to help hook the agent into reading the rest of the letter and requesting information. And it is especially useful for those pitch sessions at conferences or lunches. When a prospective agent or editor asks you what your book is about, your hook line is your answer. Because it is a simple line or two, it is also handy for those family dinner parties when Grandma asks what your book is about.

How do you create a hook line?

This is actually easier than it sounds. You do not need to condense your entire book into one sentence. But you do need to give enough information that the agent/editor/curious acquaintance you are addressing gets the gist of your book and is interested enough to want more.

Elements of a Hook Line

  • Characters – Who is the main character? What does that main character want? What is his/her main goal?
  • Conflict – Who is the villain of the story? Or what is the main obstacle to the main character obtaining their goal?
  • Distinction – What makes your book different then all the rest? What is the unique element of your story that makes it stand out? Is your book a romance between a young man and woman? What makes them different?
  • Setting – for a novel, adding a little about the setting, time period, and possibly genre (if it’s not obvious) is a good idea. For example, the hook line for my book, which is an historical romantic suspense, could begin “A young woman in Victorian England…”.
  • Action – Your hook line needs to have action, excitement. For example, which hook line catches your interest more?

    • A woman has an affair and runs off with her new beau.
    • A neglected wife and mother has a torrid affair with an ex-con and kidnaps her children as she flees across the country with her lover.
The difference is the inclusion in the second example of action and description words. The woman becomes a “neglected wife and mother.” She has a “torrid” affair. The beau is an “ex-con,” implying a world of danger and crime. She doesn’t just run off, she “flees,” kidnapping her children in the process.


Here are a few examples of loglines from well known movies. (Yes, I know we are creating hook lines for a book, but the concept is the same, and examples of loglines are easier to find).
  • When a Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by an insane and corrupt prince, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge. (Gladiator)
  • In a future where criminals are arrested before the crime occurs, a cop struggles on the lam to prove his innocence for a murder he has not yet committed. (Minority Report)
  • A 17th Century tale of adventure on the Caribbean Sea where the roguish yet charming Captain Jack Sparrow joins forces with a young blacksmith in a gallant attempt to rescue the Governor of England's daughter and reclaim his ship. (Pirates of the Caribbean)
  • A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love, must outwit her abusive fiancĂ©, and find a way to survive aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea. (Titanic)
  • A comedic portrayal of a young and broke Shakespeare who falls in love with a woman, inspiring him to write "Romeo and Juliet. (Shakespeare in Love)
  • An archeologist is hired by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis. (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
For your own hook line, you need to decide which elements best convey what your story is about. It is interesting to see how adding different elements affects a hook line. For example, take a look at these two movie loglines.
  • After a twister transports a lonely Kansas farm girl to a magical land, she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard with the power to send her home. (logline by Brian A. Klems, found at http://blog.writersdigest.com/qq/What+Is+A+Logline.aspx)
  • Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again. (Log Line attributed to Richard Polito of the Marin Independent Journal, who writes humorously sarcastic briefs for the paper's daily TV listings)
Both of these loglines are for the film Wizard of Oz, but they each give the film a distinctly different tone. Personally I like the second one best :D but the first probably gives a better idea of what the film is about.
It might take a little while to get your hook line perfected, but if you stick to the main elements of your story (the main character, the villain or conflict, what is unique about your story, and spice it up with a little action), your hook line should almost write itself. Just to show you that ANYONE can do this, (because if I can do it, anyone can), the hook line for my book is below.
A young woman in Victorian England is swept into an illicit affair with a reformed thief and must find a legendary necklace to ransom her life and the lives of those she loves from a corrupt lord. 
Can you spot the elements?
  • Characters – a young woman and her love interest who is a reformed thief.
  • Conflict – a corrupt lord (the villain) is threatening her life and the lives of those she loves unless she can find a legendary necklace.
  • Distinction – my story is not just a romance, but has a big dose of suspense and mystery thrown in. The love interest is not a typical man but an ex-thief, and while the romance comes in with the affair, it is an “illicit” affair (implying something out of the ordinary, something forbidden).
  • Setting – Victorian England. And the description of the story gives obvious clues to the genre – Victorian England = historical; illicit affair = romance; a treasure hunt/mystery and lives threatened = suspense….Genre = historical romantic suspense.
  • Action – instead of saying my story is about a girl and guy who fall in love and search for a necklace, I describe the love story as an “illicit affair;” the necklace is “legendary,” the lord is “corrupt,” the love interest is “a reformed thief.” All these little elements help make the hook line more exciting, more interesting. And that is what will help hook the interest of potential agents, publishers, and readers.
About the Author
Born in San Jose, CA, Michelle McLean is the oldest of five children. She has always been an avid reader and began to write at a very early age. She has a passionate love of learning, which led to earning a Bachelor's degree in History and a Master's degree in English. She currently lives in Utah with her husband, two young children, and one very hyper dog. Visit her website at http://authormichellemclean.com/index.html and her blog at http://www.michellemclean.blogspot.com/.


Suzette Saxton said...

Excellent article, Michelle! I learned so much in the last five minutes, I'm actually excited to write hooklines!

Jenn Nixon said...

Great article! I took me about 6 hours over two days to create my log line!

nightsmusic said...

Great article and thanks for the cheat sheet!

However, I've got an awesome query and STILL can't condense it to one line, two at the most.


But, I shall continue to work on it.

Paul W. West, Author said...

Thank you for writing and posting this. It's a great help.

Captain Hook said...

Very informative. Thanks for the article.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

All right, here's my shot at a hookline. It's taken me two days, and I don't even know if it makes any sense. :-0

When two warring post-apocalyptic nations decide a young lawyer is the key to ending all war, she must choose between a tyrant’s megalomaniacal vision and the man who was sent to kill her.