A Logline: You’ve just finished writing your script and a friend puts you in touch with a film producer looking for her next project. During your conversation with the producer, she asks you,
“What’s the logline?”
Your insides melt because even though you may know what a logline is, you never bothered to create one after writing the script — and even more importantly before writing it. Has this happened to you? Well, it happened to me in a similar manner when I began as a screenwriter.
In my previous article (Lessons Learned From Winning A Screenwriting Competition) I briefly mentioned the value of a logline. In this article, I’ll go into what they are, how to generate them, and how they can help your script before you even write it.
A logline is a one-sentence (sometimes two) description of what your script is about. The ideal logline contains within the sentence who the protagonist is (“are” if dealing with a duo or team); the major conflict that changes the protagonist’s state from ordinary to extraordinary; the antagonist or antagonistic force; what the protagonist must do to overcome and achieve his / her (or a team) goal; and the stakes involved to achieve that goal.
The following is an example of a logline for Mad Max: Fury Road:
When a burnt out loner of a post-apocalyptic wasteland escapes from a tyrannical warlord and his marauding clan, he must work together with a defecting member of the clan and the warlord’s wives to find sanctuary in a chase to the death.
In the sentence we establish who the protagonist is — burnt out loner (Max). What the conflict is and what he needs to do to overcome it — he must escape. Who the antagonist is — the tyrannical warlord and his marauding clan (Immortan Joe and the War Boys). The protagonist’s goal — find sanctuary. What are the stakes — a chase to the death.
That’s essentially the concept of the movie in one sentence. But if you look closely you’ll notice that within that logline is the suggestion of a character arc: a burnt-out loner… must work together with a defecting clan member (Imperator Furiosa) and the warlord’s wives (The Five Wives). Within one sentence, we establish the main plot of the story and the hero’s inner journey!
So why is a logline so important?
Firstly, it’s important from the standpoint of writing your own script. Creating a logline for your story before you write your script will keep you on track. It reminds you of the story you are setting out to write, and once it’s written acts as a litmus test to see if, in fact, that is the story you ended up telling rather than treading off-road down another unrelated story path.
The second reason why it’s important is that if you were to pitch your story to that film producer or movie exec in an elevator, within the breadth of a sentence, you clearly and concisely grab his or her attention with one masterstroke.
To construct a logline I typically start with the word “when” in a subordinate clause. “When” suggests the first turning point (major conflict) that takes you from Act 1 into Act 2. In the independent clause that follows you include an action verb (work, fight, run, etc) which describes what the protagonist needs to proactively do against some opposing force to achieve the goal of the main plot.
It even works if your script is a character-driven story like the film Black Swan:
When a dancer gets the coveted lead part in the ballet production of Swan Lake, she must fight to retain her sanity or lose herself forever.
How you can tell that this is a logline for a character-driven story is that the protagonist’s goal isn’t an outward achievement such as completing the opening night performance (which is in the story; however, not the main emphasis), but an internalized battle for her to determine what is real and what is just a mad hallucination.
If you have written a script without the aid of a logline, it’s never too late to come up with one. You just might find it will help if and when you do that rewrite.