First of all, what is a logline?
At it’s simplest, a logline is a one sentence summary of your script.
I know what you’re thinking. “One sentence? Well that’s easy enough. I’ve written thousands of sentences in my screenplay. Writing just one seems like a piece of cake. I can do that easily. Thanks! I’m outta here.”
Not so fast. Let me put it another way.
A logline is the cover on which your book will be judged.
That get your attention? Good, it should. Loglines will make or break your script.
The cold hard truth is the people who read screenplays for a living, agents, producers, actors, the people who you want reading your screenplay, get hundreds if not thousands of scripts submitted to them weekly. There is no way they could possibly read them all beginning to end. Because of that the powers that be are just looking for the first sign of trouble on your end to bail on your work and save themselves time. Don’t give them an excuse to bail. Your logline is their first impression of your work.
And you only get one chance to make a first impression.
Still refuse to believe that your masterpiece that your worked so hard on will be judged so harshly on just one little line? Well, when most agents ask for submissions all they ask for is an email with your logline. That’s it. If they like it, they’ll reply back and ask for more. Score. If they don’t you’ll never even know if they read your email in the first place. They read them. These people would go out of business if they stopped delivering quality scripts. They are hungry for them. Ravenous. As a writer, it’s your job to feed them. So make your script appetizing. Put as much thought into your logline as you would your second act or inciting incident and they’ll come back for a nibble.
Parts of a logline
Think of a logline as the Japanese haiku version of your screenplay where all of the requirements and restrictions are designed to force your creativity. A good logline is made up of the following parts.
1. The protagonist
2. Their goal
3. Their challenge/antagonist
4. The setting
5. One sentence in length. (Two at most.)
That’s actually a lot to cram into one sentence and still have it flow and make sense so let’s break the parts down further to understand their purpose for being there.
You must introduce and describe your protagonist to the audience in just a few words. Who are they? What are they like? What do they do? What do they want? Why should we care? The easiest way to do this is usually to give their occupation along with an adjective about their character. For example Ripley from Alien could be described as a “resilient female spacetrucker”. Maverick from Top Gun is a “hotshot fighter pilot”. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman from Se7en would be “naive and jaded detectives.”
DO NOT USE CHARACTER NAMES!
Keep in mind that the reader has no idea who these characters are and simply giving their name tells them nothing. Ripley? Maverick (ok ,maybe that says something, great name) Detective Mills and Somerset? What does it tell you? Don’t even use the character name after your description. It adds nothing and will be a red flag to your reader to pass on you and go read somebody who can follow “the rules” and write a proper logline.
What is your movie about? All three acts. All 120 pages. You need to set the film up and create interest and curiosity while also standing out. The best way to do this is to go with, or stay close to, your inciting incident. Not only is this how you try and hook the reader into sticking around for the rest of your screenplay, it’s a good way to hook your logline reader. If you are having trouble coming up with a way of explaining your goal then perhaps you need to take a closer look at your screenplay as what you wrote in your story may be weak or confusing. Again, keep it simple and to the point. Your goal is not to elaborate but only to entice.
The goal in Alien would be for Ripley and crew to survive from an unknown alien organism. Maverick’s goal would be to graduate from the Top Gun fighter school to become the best while the goal in Se7en for our detectives would be to apprehend a biblical serial killer.
DO NOT GIVE AWAY THE ENDING OR ANY TWISTS
You need to keep some of your plot elements close to your vest. Like a magician, if you give away all your secrets at once nobody will come back. So stay away from revealing your surprise ending or your insane plot twist that the movie hinges on. You don’t have the room to get into that much detail and it derails you from the logline’s purpose. To give just a taste of what’s in store. Write the appetizer, not the main course.
Why is your character’s goal going to be hard to achieve? What obstacles are in store for the hero? Stories are about conflict and if you can’t explain your conflict in the logline you don’t have a story. The good news is that in a logline the goal and antagonist often go together side by side. Think about it. Your character’s goal would be instantly achieved if there wasn’t some hurdle in their way of getting it. In my example from Alien above the unknown alien organism is the antagonist. The serial killer in Se7en is the goal and antagonist simultaneously. Graduating from the Top Gun school could be Maverick’s challenge. Or maybe his challenge is a personal one to prove his own self worth which is why I included both in the example.
DO NOT MENTION THE ANTAGONIST BY NAME
Just like with your protagonist, do not mention your antagonist by name. It means nothing at this point since the antagonist is a nobody to the reader. Instead describe them just as your would your main character. An unknown alien organism. The Top Gun fighter school, a biblical serial killer. The only exception I can think to mentioning an antagonist by name would be if your antagonist is already widely known. Somebody like Hannibal Lecter for example or Frankenstein.
This is often overlooked when writing loglines but it’s incredibly important. Remember, your logline is supposed to be a brief one sentence snapshot of what your script is all about. Not mentioning the setting can be a huge oversight, especially if your film takes place in an atypical place. Most often the setting can be implied through descriptions of the protagonist, goal, or antagonist. I said Ripley was a spacetrucker because it not only describes her occupation but mentions the setting. I could have mentioned the detectives in Se7en were from New York before I described them individually. Because Top Gun more or less still takes place close to the present day you can leave the setting out. But if Maverick was a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War or WW2 you better believe the logline should drop a hint about the time.
A logline is not a synopsis nor is it a summary. Those are much longer and detailed descriptions of your movie that most agents will request only after they’ve read and liked your logline. A poorly written synopsis gives them one more excuse to bail on your script before investing an hour or two of their time to actually sit down and read it. One sentence is ideal and makes for a tightly written and concise logline. It’s also what most people expect. You can get away with two sentences if you must but try and keep it to one if you can. A lot of agents will specifically ask for a one sentence logline anyways so it’s good to have it done and in the bag from he start.
DO NOT WRITE A PARAGRAPH AND PRETEND IT’S A LOGLINE
The quickest way to get pegged as an amateur and become ignored is to write an over-bloated logline. I’ve seen too many of these that go on and on about how wonderful and awesome a story might be, but in the end they usually tell you nothing about the script. They go into too much detail, or describe characters too much, or talk about the script in big empty terms such as epic or heartwarming and in the end tell you nothing at all.
Putting it Together
With these five parts in mind we can begin to write a proper and effective logline. here are some logline examples of what we’ve put together so far.
A resilient female spacetrucker and her crew must fight to survive an unknown alien organism that has been brought aboard their ship.
To prove he’s “the best” a hotheaded fighter pilot struggles to graduate from the Navy’s premier fighter pilot school.
Naive and jaded New York detectives struggle to investigate a biblical serial killer before he strikes again.
Are these perfect? of course not. There is no one “perfect” logline out there that will be better than all the rest. Like a screenplay they need to be edited, tweaked, rewritten, and critiqued to become the best they can be. But it’s a start. All the pieces are there, now they need to be refined into one easy to read and convincing sentence designed to force the reader to want to find out more about your work.
A good idea is to write multiple versions of your logline then stand back and see which one works the best. Or combine the best parts of your different loglines into something superior.
Another tip I learned early on was to spend time browsing the movies on my cable TV or Netflix. When you hit info on either you’ll find a one sentence summary of the movie trying to get you to watch it. Lo and behold! It’s a logline! Read up on these convenient examples and see what ends up working and what doesn’t so you can include those lessons into your own loglines.
Find movies similar to yours and see how their loglines are written for ideas.
just remember that if you want your script to be read and taken seriously, an amazing logline is the key. Nobody ever bought a script off a logline alone.
But no script was ever sold without a great one.
What tips or advice do you have when it comes to writing out your own loglines? Can you create a better one for my examples above? Feel free to share and comment what you’ve learned in the section below!