Anatomy of a Logline

by Robert Gregory Browne

The screenwriters are taking over Murderati.  Alex’s last couple of posts have been about screenwriting, so I thought I’d add my two cents on the the subject with a blast from the past — an article I wrote for Screentalk Magazine several years ago.  But I think what follows works just as well for those of you writing novels. 

As always, take everything you read here with a grain of salt.  Process is an individual and very personal thing.  Everybody’s is different.

ANATOMY OF A LOGLINE

You’ve
written your script. You’ve labored over it for weeks and months and
polished every syllable until your masterpiece is ready to hit the
marketplace. Now comes one of the most frequently asked questions I get:

Who do
I send my script to?

My response is usually another question: are you sure you’re ready to send it?

So
many of us want to send out our scripts the moment they’re finished,
yet we don’t even think about what it takes just to find someone to
send it to.

"Find" is actually the wrong word. You’ll never be able to
"find" anyone in this business who actually wants to read a script.

What you have to do is attract readers. And to attract readers you have to call on all your skills as a salesman.

SELLING YOUR WARES

Salesman?
you cry. But I’m a writer not a salesman! Uh-huh. Glad you’ve enjoyed
your stint in fantasyland, my friend, but it’s time to take a step into
the real world. In fact, I could argue that you should be thinking like
a salesman with every single word you put down on paper, but that isn’t
what this article is about.

At
this point, you have a product that needs to be moved and there’s only
one way to move it: Advertising. Any good salesman knows all about the
benefits of advertising. From the biggest corporation with their
multi-million dollar commercials to the guy standing on the street
holding a sign for the local car dealer: Big Savings! Today Only!

Advertising
is what any good salesman uses to attract buyers. You go to a used car
dealer to see what’s available and what happens? The salesman comes
over and guides you toward the latest lemon while he tries to
smooth-talk you into buying it. And, boy does he make it attractive. It
has the latest this and the latest that and it’s only been driven by a
little old lady on weekends, and once you get it on the road, this baby
purrs. His sales pitch is his advertisement.

And
that’s exactly how you get people to read your screenplay. Your sales
pitch. You have to prepare your pitch both verbally and on paper and
you have to present it with confidence and polish. Otherwise nobody
will take you seriously, and nobody will want to read your script.

THE ALL-IMPORTANT SALES PITCH

You’ve
all probably heard of a Svengali Deck, otherwise known as TV Magic
Cards. For those of you who haven’t, a Svengali Deck is a special deck
of playing cards that allows the user to perform a dozen or more
amazing card tricks without having to develop any sleight of hand
skills.

In
the old days, magician/pitch-men used to stand on street corners or at
swap meet booths and demonstrate the wonders of this deck of cards by
showing you an eye-popping trick. This trick would be brief and
straight to the point — just enough to show off the virtues of the
deck and get you digging for the cash to buy one.

When
you prepare your all-important sales pitch to entice readers to your
script, you have to approach your pitch with the same economy and magic
the magician/pitch-men use. You have to get your story across in a few
simple words and those words must have eye-popping appeal. They must
have that wow quality that forces the reader to say, "I’ve gotta read
that script…" That’s where your logline comes in.

WHAT’S A LOGLINE?

There
are always a few out there who are relatively new to the game, so this
is for you: a logline is a one or two-sentence summary of your story.
Probably the best place to find a sample logline is to look in your TV
Guide or local equivalent, which are full of brief story summaries. But
let me give you an example.

Here’s a logline for The Fugitive:

After
he’s wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, a high-powered surgeon
escapes custody and hunts down the real killer, a one-armed man.

Maybe
not the liveliest logline in the world, but it tells you just about
everything you need to know about the movie. We know who the lead
character is, what his dilemma is, and most importantly, what he hopes
to accomplish.

What
we have above is essentially the spine of the story — the sentence the
entire movie hangs on. Sure, we could talk about the relentless U.S.
Marshal who is after the doctor; we could talk about the train crash
and the chase sequences and the experimental liver drug, but when it
comes to the logline, none of that really matters. We don’t have time
for it.

Like
that TV Magic card trick, your logline has to be simple and to the
point and it has to attract the reader to the possibility of a great
read. When I look at the above logline, I think, wow, that sounds like
it could be an exciting story. And, of course, we all know it is.

The
anatomy of a logline is this: the lead character has a problem and must
achieve a certain goal in order to solve that problem. Who, What, How.
Who is the lead character, what is his problem and how is he going to
solve it.

Let’s take a look at The Fugitive again:

Who: A high-powered surgeon.

What: Wrongly convicted of murdering his wife.

How: Escapes custody to hunt down the real killer.

Chances
are pretty good that you’re scratching your head right now and saying,
"But my story is much too complex for that." This may be true, but if
you can’t boil your story down to a simple Who, What and How, I’ve got
some sad news for you: you are in serious trouble.

Because
if you can’t boil your story down, no one else is going to be
interested in trying to figure it out. So what’s a poor screenwriter to
do? Try this on for size:

CREATE YOUR LOGLINE BEFORE THE FACT

That’s
right. The most important step you can take toward structuring a script
is to create your logline or spine before you start writing the script.
You have your idea, you have your characters, you have a general idea
of what you want to happen and how you want it to happen, but what do
you hang it on? Without a spine, your creation will be nothing more
than a mess of flesh and bones. There may be a lot of interesting stuff
there, but it has nothing to cling to.

So
before you start page one, scene one, the best thing you can do for
your story is figure out the Who, What and How. Write them down.
Fashion them into something that has movement and purpose. Then start
writing. And as you write, always remember your spine. And stick to it.

Then,
when the script is done and it comes time to work up a sales pitch, you
don’t have to search. You already know what it is. Your entire story is
based on that sales pitch. As it should be.

I
can hear you now. "Come on, man, I already told you. My story is too
complex for that." Is it really? Let’s take a look at a very complex
story: The Godfather. We all know The Godfather is full of vivid
characters and great subplots and big moments, but what really is the
essence of the story?

Here’s what I get:

When a powerful gangster is gunned down, his reluctant son must seek revenge and take over the family business.

The
movie plays on a rich canvas, but it is much less about Brando, the
Godfather, and more about Pacino — Michael Corleone — the up and
coming Godfather. It is the story of his ascent (or descent, depending
on your POV) to the leadership of the Family. Everything in the movie
leads up to the moment Vito Corleone is shot, then follows Michael as
he gets revenge, then eventually takes over as head of the
organization. Everything in the movie hangs on that simple logline or
spine.

Do you think Coppola discovered this spine only after he and Puzo wrote the screenplay? I seriously doubt it.

LOGLINE AS SALES PITCH

Let’s
get back to our original notion of what a logline is for. As I said, if
you know your logline before your start, then you shouldn’t have a
problem figuring out what it is after your script is done. But you’re
trying to sell something here. If you follow the usual marketing
strategies, you’ll be sending out query letters and making phone calls
and throwing your pitch at just about anyone who is willing to catch
it. And in order to get their attention; the logline you pitch had
better shine. It shouldn’t simply tell the story. There should be
something in that brief one or two-sentence pitch that really makes it
stand out.

Unfortunately,
that’s difficult to do if the elements aren’t there. In this day and
age, it isn’t enough to have a great story. These days, with all the
competition out there, you have to have a great story with an even
greater hook. You have to have what is commonly referred to as high
concept — an idea that jumps off the page.

A cop must find out a way to save a busload of people stranded on a bus that will explode if it drops below 55 MPH.

A
young wife discovers that the husband she’s been convicted of killing
is not really dead, and escapes custody to track him down.

These
are high concept ideas that immediately grab you. You can go back to
The Godfather pitch and even that has a pretty high concept idea. And
unless you start with a high concept idea, you’re going to have a
really tough time making your logline shine.

And if your idea isn’t high concept? What do you do?

First,
you wonder if your script really is ready to be read. If you think it
is, you have to find the hook hidden inside of it, find that simple
spine that tells us what the story’s about…

And turn it into gold.

7 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Logline

  1. Louise Ure

    Rob, I’m reading your post today as a novelist, not a screenwriter. And it’s incredibly helpful.

    I insist that I’m not an outliner. That putting that full story on the page in the truncated form of an outline stifles my creativity.

    But a logline, on the other hand, now that’s an outline I can live with. It’s not the Mapquest turn-by-turn instructions that a traditional outline would give me, but it’s a sign post that says “Your story, 500 miles straight ahead.”

    I can do that.

    Reply
  2. toni mcgee causey

    As always, Rob, extremely helpful and brilliant. (You’re kinda annoying like that, ya know.) πŸ˜‰

    Louise, I know what you mean about the outlining thing. Jeffery Deaver (obvioulsy successful) mentioned in his speech at ThrillerFest that he outlines for 8 months before he starts writing. Clearly, that works for him, but I’d have stabbed myself in the forehead with a fork by month 2. This sort of system Rob mentions is way more intutitive for me.

    Reply
  3. Rob Gregory Browne

    I’m lazy. I can’t stand outlining. I come up with the bare bones, then I let the writing surprise me.

    And I’m always surprised. That’s the pleasure of writing by the seat of your pants. In fact, I had one of those pleasant surprises this morning — a character blurted out something and I went WOAH!

    If I had spent eight months outlining, I’m afraid I’d be so sick of the story by then I wouldn’t want to bother writing the book.

    And since I lazy, I’d rather put all that effort toward the real thing, not the warm up.

    Reply
  4. JT Ellison

    Rob, sorry to be so late to this fabulous post!

    I’ve been watching Tivo’s of ON THE LOT, and the first day’s challenge was to pitch a script based on a high-concept logline. What I found fascinating was how many of the pitches were absolute trash, and how just a few stood out as outstanding, memorable, and saleable.

    I think to translate to books, this is a great way to distill the story into what I’ve always been told is the “elevator pitch.” There is certainly a talent to coming up with a logline. The true test is backing it up with an outstanding book.

    Thanks for this! Until I met you and Alex, I didn’t know what a logline was!!! Check’s in the mail for the horizon expanding…

    Reply
  5. pari

    Oh, Rob,This is invaluable. How could JT think any amount of money would cover what you’ve told us today?

    I want to re-read the post when I’ve got more time to digest it. Then, I plan to analyze my first three books to create loglines — and develop loglines BEFORE I finish my next two.

    thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou.

    Reply

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