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. 

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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!

About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She has written two novels under the pseudonym 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. Her current project, Slumber, under the pen name Tamara Blake, released July of 2013 and is a dark suspense fantasy novel for teens.