Loglines and Your Query

Last night my DH pulled his eyes away from the Kentucky/West Virginia basketball game and said, “I’d like to go to that Hot Tub Time Machine movie.”

“What’s it about?”  I was curious what could draw his attention from March Madness.  I’d gotten used to the widowhood by now.

He shrugged.  “It’s a time- travel movie.   Looks funny.”  Thus ended his quota of words until the game ended.

Of course.  A time machine that’s a hot tub IS a funny concept.  And I bet Hot Tub Time Machine does better than alot of people expected it to do.  Why? Because people looking for brainless comedy don’t have to figure out what it’s about.  The title is also the hook.

Same deal with Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  Jeff Kinney’s book is a classic fish out of water story, with plenty of jokes that kids can relate to.  People know exactly what they are getting from the title.

Did you know what the movie Black Snake Moan is about before you saw the commercial?  Me either.  Before I read a single review, I had the vague notion it was a horror movie.  Not so for another 2006 snake  movie, Snakes on a Plane.  Snakes + plane = bad situation for the passengers.

What Hot Tub time Machine, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Snakes on a Plane have in common is that their storylines are distilled down to its essence in what screenplay writers call a logline pitch. Screenplay writer Jonathan Treisman describes the logline (or high concept story) thusly:

Stories that are labeled as “High Concept” can certainly be subjective, but we’re not necessarily talking about the crazy, Psycho Ninjas from Mars-type movies. My definition of “High Concept” simply refers to: Stories that all of us can relate to on some tangible and emotional level. 

 <snip>

My definition of a logline is this: It’s a one- or two-sentence description of the overall idea of the story. It’s the main goal of the story that you want to convey to your audience.

But you’re a novelist, you say.  Instead of pitching your story to Hollywood executives, you’re writing query letters to agents and editors, hoping to catch their eye. 

Being able to hone your 100,000 word manuscript into one or two sentences is key to hooking them to take a further look.

My favorite deconstrution of how to write a logline is by Christopher Lockheart.  His article I Wrote a 120 Page Script But Can’t Write a Logline certainly resonated with me.  His whole article is worth the time to read.  Basically he says that logline consists of three major elements:

the character
his goal
the antagonistic force

If Gene Hackman is considered the central character in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, the logline could go:

After a luxury liner is capsized by a tidal wave, a radical priest struggles to lead a group of survivors to escape through the bow before the ship sinks.

A proper logline for LIAR, LIAR could go:

When his son wishes he will only tell the truth, an attorney, and pathological liar, is magically compelled to be honest for one day and struggles to win the biggest case of his career – without telling a lie.

Lockhart also points to something I think aspiring novelists tend to overlook.  This is the part where art meets commerce:

Skilled story executives can read a logline like a doctor reads a CAT scan.  Based on one sentence, they can predict strengths and weaknesses in the screenplay.  Often executives hear the writer say, “I’m not good at loglines, but my script is great.”  A logline is merely a byproduct of the screenplay. If the screenplay has systemic flaws, these flaws will appear as symptoms within the logline.   For instance, if a logline presents a passive protagonist, it seems certain that the screenplay will be slow and uneventful due to an inactive hero.  If the logline fails to present a clear cut goal for the protagonist, the screenplay will often ramble with tedium.  One reason writers grapple with loglines is because their stories are not well constructed.  A writer who clearly understands his character, the goal, and the antagonist should be able to craft a logline with ease.

However, aspiring pros are often unclear of these basic dramatic elements; they do not include them in their narrative and, as a result, struggle with constructing the logline after the screenplay is finished.  To avoid this problem, a writer should craft his logline before he writes his screenplay.  A logline is a good place to start when brainstorming story ideas and it provides a simplistic map, insuring that the scribe has all the basic elements in place before he begins his screenwriting journey.

I agree.  If your story can’t be distilled into one or two sentences, you’re going to have problems selling it.

Are you able to hone your story into a logline for a query letter?  If not, ask yourself if your story has enough conflict and commercial appeal to get that all-important request for the full manuscript.

In March Madness news, I’m bummed about Cornell’s loss to Kentucky, though expected.  But what a rollercoaster ride it was!

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About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber.

Comments

  1. says

    This is so true.

    Also, the best pitches include irony, or a pair of unexpected opposites.

    For example, the basic plot of Pitch Black (one of my all-time favorites) can be summed up as: A group of people crash on a planet that has eternal light from its three suns. When a multi-eclipse creates total darkness and flocks of nocturnal beasts come out of hiding, their best chance at survival is to put their trust in a convicted murderer who can see in the dark.

    Opposites: light vs dark, killer vs savior. It effectively gets attention.

    Regarding my own work, I have found it more difficult to write a logline after a novel is complete than to write it before you start the first draft. It has a way of keeping you focused.
    .-= Lydia Sharp´s last blog ..The Power of Micro-Theme =-.

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  2. Sharon Bially says

    Kathleen – you are absolutely right. And the comment “a writer should craft his logline BEFORE he writes his screenplay” rings true for novelists, too. Of course, in an ideal world writers wouldn’t be constrained by the need to hook agents or an audience. Alas, the real world isn’t so, and you’ve given some extremely sound real-world advice. Thank you.

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  3. says

    Great post! I usually get too hung up in the specifics, making it difficult to distill the story into one or two sentences. I look forward to revisiting my logline with these things in mind.

    I worry about developing my logline early for fear of becoming a slave to it.
    .-= Jonathan´s last blog ..Ry Cooder, Tone, and Imagery =-.

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  4. says

    And this is one of the strong reasons I’m considering shelving my first novel. Love the story. Can’t write a decent log line for the life of me. Are there any logline examples for traditional fantasy?
    .-= Feywriter´s last blog ..Thursday’s Tale: Bridget =-.

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  5. says

    This tourney has been nuts, but I’m happy Cornell got so far! Way to defy expectations!

    Seriously, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE is like the best title ever. SNAKES ON A PLANE is another excellent example, and a close second. I had never thought about how much of a hook a title could be, but now you’ve really got me thinking. Fortunately my current WIP only has a working title that I don’t really like, so it won’t break my heart to ditch it for a better one, since that was the plan all along. :)
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..Recklessly optimistic =-.

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  6. says

    I have what I think is a good logline but still have not had any luck with my query. :(

    I’d love to be a fly on the wall and see what agents see when they read my query. Then maybe I would know exactly what to change;

    Great post!

    Maribeth
    .-= Maribetth´s last blog ..Linking It All Together =-.

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  7. says

    To be clear, I don’t think that having a great logline is the be all and end all, but having a marketable idea sure helps to break through and make that sale.

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  8. says

    I am like Jonathan in that I get too married to the details and forget about just distilling the story down to the bare bones – sharing what is really important. I think it is because I am too emotionally connected to my manuscript. I have written a (terrible) synopsis and attempted a logline. I plan to revisit both once my manuscript is complete and has spent a little time in the drawer. I hope that will give me more clarity.
    .-= Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist´s last blog ..My experience with The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing =-.

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  9. says

    I’m like Jonathan & Rebecca: I’m bogged down in specifics and my logline seemed to be five pages long. REcently, though, I think I came up with a logline that’s short and cuts to the heart of the conflict in my novel.

    As for an example of a fabulous logline in a title form, here’s one: The Girl with Glass Feet. THe novel is by Ali Shaw, and based on the title alone, I read it.
    Protagonist: the girl.
    The antagonist force: glass feet. (Hello? Wouldn’t that be a huge problem?)
    The goal: Based on the weirdness of having glass feet, I imagined that the girl’s goal is to find a cure that will make her feet normal again.
    .-= Laura Droege´s last blog ..Have you ever felt alone? =-.

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  10. says

    What a true point, Kathleen! I’ve heard that, too, that if your story can be distilled into a sentence or two, it’s too complex. And snagging an agent’s attention is just the warm-up for the still harder task of snagging a *reader’s* attention. Just as you said, people want to know the essence of the story before they buy a book or commit to reading it–a great log-line will help you at every step of the way.

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  11. says

    Great post, Kathleen. I just finished my query letter and had 20+ versions of my story pitch. For me, the first hurdle is distilling the story, the second is working that tight logline into the right tone/voice to really represent the book.

    It’s hard to do, but this post explains things really well.

    Thanks
    .-= Samantha Clark´s last blog ..Great children’s books blog carnival =-.

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  12. says

    Thanks, Kathleen. I don’t think any one thing is the be all and the end all, as you said. That would be too easy, right? I always know I’ve got another revision ahead of me when I can’t nail it in the log line.
    .-= Gael Lynch´s last blog ..Taking that Long Way Down =-.

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  13. Vic K says

    This is a great example of the Universe delivering what you need right when you need it; since I am working on my logline at present, this constitutes an excellent – and much needed – kick up the rear.

    Thanks!

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  14. says

    Great post, I think the logline is an integral part of developmental editing.

    Wouldn’t go so far as to say it must necessarily be written before the novel, though – the ‘drat-zero’ writer who finds out what the story is while they pour it onto the page as spaghetti would have no notion of what their logline was until they had a story. But process of creating a logline would be a huge help in shaping that first draft afterwards.

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  15. says

    @ Feywriter: Hollywood also uses comparatives between movies, so for example your “traditional fantasy” could be log-lined LOTR meets Legend/LadyHawke/Labyrinth/any other fantasy movie you can think of.
    I think it works for prose too: “like (LOTR/any other traditional fantasy you can think of) but (your take/personal twist here)”.
    That’s another way of coming up with loglines! ;-)
    Happy writing everybody
    .-= Barb´s last blog ..Fiction Press =-.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] the outline and synopsis translates into a great logline (elevator pitch).  This leads me to my cross post, which was what I wanted to do in the first place. […]

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